Outlook: At last, someone who wants to take the Biscuit

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The Independent Online
WHO WOULD have thought it - an auction for poor old United Biscuits? It's hard to recall now, but in its heyday UB was a stalwart of the London stock market and its chairman, Sir Hector Laing, one of the great and the good of British business, a leading captain of industry and a one time businessman of the year. All that was a long time ago now, and once fully subjected to the harsh winds of global competition, UB never really stood much of a chance.

Crushed between the own label appetite of the big supermarket groups on the one hand, and the US goliaths of Pepsico and Nabisco on the other, it's been downhill for UB for most of the last decade. These long-term structural weaknesses have been compounded by some truly dreadful strategic errors along the way, chief of which was the attempt to go "global" with the acquisition of Keebler, a smallish US snacks business.

It was many years before UB was prepared to admit the folly of its grandiose ambitions to become one of the world's leading global food companies, and instead set its sights on some more realistic and achievable targets. Even then it has proved hard to stop the rot, and for most of this year the shares have bombed, underperforming even the deeply unfashionable foods sector. Repeated calls for the chief executive's head went unanswered, until, remarkably, EMI decided to whisk him off to more glamourous climes.

Even the most tired old dogs eventually find their admirers. UB now finds itself in the unlikely position of having not just one, but two of them, promising a reasonably happy ending and a not altogether disreputable price. This is not the first time such a tussle has happened for the once hopelessly unloved.

Hillsdown, too, after a prolonged and radical restructuring, eventually found itself the unexpected subject of a tug of war. Obviously someone can still see value in these "old economy" brands, even if the stock market cannot. Whatever else the Internet does to us, it is not going to stop people eating the occasional Hob Nob, so perhaps it is time to begin looking with fresh interest at these underperforming

stocks and sectors.

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