Outlook: Hillsdown

THE HUGELY complex break-up of Hillsdown Holdings signals the end of yet another of those old-fashioned and greatly unloved conglomerates.

Hanson long ago broke itself of the habit, and BTR has been shedding businesses like there's no tomorrow. Dalgety has dismembered itself, and even accident-prone Albert Fisher is beginning to get the hint.

Only a few die-hards like Wassall and Tomkins soldier on. Even Greg Hutchings' guns to buns conglomerate is re-grouping itself into four divisions to give the impression of focus.

Hillsdown was always the rag bag to end all rag bags. Built up in the 1980s by Sir Harry Solomon and David Thompson, it operated what it openly described as the "Lily Pad management technique". This saw Hillsdown cast as the frog sat on a huge lily pad. Its approach to acquisitions, it said, was "to stick out its huge tongue and swallow what ever flies by."

Even at the time, this raised eyebrows, but undeterred, Hillsdown was by the mid-1980s using its paper to do a deal a week. The idea was to buy businesses - any business - in a mature fragmented market and then wring out cost-savings.

Hillsdown amassed property, a department store in Tunbridge Wells, meat processing, housebuilding and string of food businesses ranging from Typhoo Tea to Chivers Hartley jams. It all amounted to a right old mess, with little logic to much of it.

Now, with its three way demerger and disposal programme, the management is actually in danger of creating some value to the business. The frog may not quite be about to turn into a prince of the stock market, but at least it is no longer sitting in a stagnant pond with its tongue hanging out.

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