Norwich Union seeks escape from oil sector

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The Independent Online
NORWICH UNION is planning to divest itself of substantial share stakes in up to 11 independent oil exploration and production companies in a move that could herald a radical shake-up for the sector, including mergers and takeovers.

A number of City firms are believed to have been asked to help disentangle the Norfolk- based insurer from the industry.

Norwich Union built up a substantial presence among the oil independents in the mid to late 1980s - an investment strategy put in place by a since- retired fund manager called Alastair McClennan.

Holdings include 11.8 per cent of Clyde Petroleum, 7.36 per cent of Enterprise Oil, 29.1 per cent of Goal Petroleum and 6.81 per cent of Premier Consolidated Oilfields.

Earlier this year Norwich instructed its fund managers to draw up a plan for extracting the company from the sector, which has on the whole proved an extremely poor investment.

There is some scepticism in the City that Norwich will in the end be able to do anything other than place the shares with other institutional investors. Earlier attempts to use the share stakes as a lever to bring about rationalisation in the sector have foundered.

Norwich Union last year tried to use its shareholdings to force a merger between Clyde and Goal, but the two sides were unable to agree terms for management integration and hierarchy.

Peter Spring, of the stockbrokers Henderson Crosthwaite, agreed it would make sense for the sector to be rationalised but believes 'the financial gain is not really worth the corporate effort'. He described some of the smaller independents as 'little more than tax accidents sustained only by the egos of those at the top'.

David Basham of Kleinwort Benson said many of the companies had been 'going nowhere for an awfully long time' but he was doubtful that any of the oil majors would be interested in taking them over.

That has not deterred growing stock market speculation of a takeover bid for Lasmo, the second-largest oil independent after Enterprise. Lasmo's share price rose 7.5p on Friday to 153.5p as rumours swept the market that British Gas, keen to expand its oil exploration and production interests, might strike soon.

There is also speculation that John Walmsley, who announced recently that he is resigning as Enterprise's finance director, might be recruited into a senior management position at Lasmo. Associates of Mr Walmsley said he had yet to receive an approach.

Lasmo's shares have performed abysmally since the company merged with Ultramar two years ago and there is continued City pressure for management change.

(Photograph omitted)