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Ohmeda sale to net BOC pounds 1bn

BOC, the world's second largest industrial gases group, is tipped to strengthen its position in the continental European gas market with a big acquisition, following the planned sale of its health business, Ohmeda, announced yesterday. Analysts said Ohmeda, which makes surgical anaesthetic gases, could fetch up to pounds 1bn.

Sources close to the company say BOC's shopping list includes Messerheim- Griesheim, a private German group and the second largest industrial gases group in Europe and Sweden's AGA, Europe's number four.

Danny Rosenkranz, BOC's chief executive, said BOC planned to invest in organic growth, but did not rule out acquisitions: "We don't have any plans to buy anyone just yet, but we are a major player and we intend to stay one."

Mr Rosenkranz said BOC was not yet in talks with a buyer for Ohmeda, which is one of the top US players in inhaled gases and anaesthetic monitors with sales of pounds 506m last year. However, sources suggest the group has targeted Abbott Laboratories, the US healthcare group, Zeneca and Smiths Industries from the UK, and the American chemicals group, Mallinckrodt as possible buyers. Other possible buyers include Baxter and Astra.

Abbott, the leading contender, would not comment on its plans yesterday, but as the US's second-leading surgical anaesthetic gas group, it would face anti-trust issues if it bought Ohmeda. Ohmeda, which represents around a tenth of BOC's sales, has suffered badly from generic competition on its oldest gas, Forane.

Possible acquisition targets for BOC could include Messer, Germany's leading industrial gases business. The group posted sales of DM2.47bn (pounds 823m) and DM330m profits in the year to January. Messer may also now contemplate a bid following the death, in May, of Dr Hans Messer, whose father founded the company, and who was known to oppose a sale.

The group's principal shareholder Hoechst, with a two-thirds stake, is known to be keen to shed Messer to focus on life sciences. And though Messer is planning a flotation in Germany, tax problems may make the move unattractive.

A Messer spokeswoman refused to comment on whether BOC had made an approach. However, she confirmed that a listing was unlikely this year.

Sources close to BOC said that AGA was also a potential target as it had a presence in Germany, Latin America and the US. However, it is capitalised at pounds 2bn and so is a bigger mouthful.

Though BOC might find itself bidding against gas groups like Linde of Germany and France's Air Liquide, the world's biggest industrial gas player, it could prove the keenest buyer. According to one analyst: "BOC will have cash and with no real interests in Europe it won't have a monopoly problem."