Outlook: Wassall should put up or shut up

ALAN JONES, the chief cable layer at BICC, is no stranger to hostile bid battles. When he was in charge at Westland he sucked GKN into a long and bloody skirmish. Eventually GKN came up with a price sufficient to allow the West Country helicopter maker to raise the white flag.

However, the stand-off with Wassall, for all the sound and fury generated yesterday, remains firmly in the category of a phoney war. Chris Miller, who runs this wannabe venture capital trust, has been creeping up on BICC for the past six months, and his tanks are now firmly on Mr Jones's lawn.

He has built a 10 per cent stake and he has made two indicative approaches. His sighting shot was at 90p. He then wrote to the BICC board again (at 6.00pm the night before Good Friday, incidentally) indicating that he was prepared to raise his offer to 110p. But he has not formally tabled a bid and has no intention of doing so unless he has a recommendation from the BICC board in his back pocket. The expense of going hostile is the ultimate deterrent.

In the absence of such a recommendation (and why should this turkey vote for Christmas?), Mr Miller is asking BICC's other shareholders to turn the thumbscrews and force Mr Jones back to the negotiating table.

Mr Jones has other ideas; he has decided to adopt the scorched-earth approach. Since Wassall first appeared on the share register last November, he has sold off virtually all BICC's cable interests, netting pounds 388m of cash in the process and wiping out the group's debts. If the sale announced yesterday of the energy cables business to a US buyer goes through, then there will only be Balfour Beatty to get hold of.

Shareholders in BICC may have had plenty to complain of in the past, but their spirits have been lifted of late. Since Wassall began circling and BICC began selling, the share price has risen by close on 90 per cent. Mr Jones says that is because the market backs his strategy. Mr Miller says it reflects the bid premium in BICC. However, until a formal bid is tabled, there is no way of testing who is right. It is time for Wassall to put up or shut up.

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