Regan debates whether to open hostilities

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The Independent Online
Andrew Regan's Lanica Trust was locked in meetings with its advisers yesterday as it pondered whether to launch a full-scale bid for parts of the Co-operative Wholesale Society or back off completely. A decision could come as early as today.

Following the publication of the CWS results on Monday, Lanica is under pressure to make a decision soon as it would need to open hostilities ahead of the general election.

A Labour government would almost certainly spell the end to Mr Regan's chances as it would take a tough stance on any Co-op break-up bid. There are 16 Co-op-sponsored Labour MPs and six of them have already laid down an Early Day Motion to oppose Lanica's approach. The motion described him as an asset-stripper backed by little-known companies in Monte Carlo and was signed by 47 Labour MPs.

Mr Regan is known to be prepared to back off rather than press ahead if his chances seem futile. His adviser costs have so far been relatively low but these would rise exponentially if his "bid" went live.

One possible avenue of attack would be to call a special meeting if Mr Regan can secure the backing of 10 of the CWS's 300 corporate members.

There was speculation yesterday that Lanica Trust believes it already owns part of the Co-operative Wholesale Society following a deal three years ago in which Mr Regan bought the Co-op's food manufacturing division.

Sources close to Lanica were said to believe that when Mr Regan's former business, Hobson, acquired the Co-op's FE Barber subsidiary in 1994, it came with membership rights of the CWS. Though Hobson was sold to Hillsdown Holdings in late 1995, speculation suggested that Mr Regan found a way of separating the CWS membership rights from the business.

This means that if the CWS rejected Mr Regan's approach but later sold parts of its operations to another bidder, Lanica Trust would benefit from any distribution of the proceeds.

However David Lyons, Mr Regan's right-hand man, who is a director of Lanica and a former director of Hobson, yesterday denied that Mr Regan had retained any residual rights.

The CWS said yesterday: "It isn't possible to be a corporate member of the CWS without us knowing about it. You have to be a regional society registered under the Friendly Societies Act." The spokesman said Mr Regan had only "bought some factories and that doesn't make him a member".

Hillsdown Holdings said it had no knowledge of the Co-op food manufacturing business ever having CWS membership rights. It said it was not aware of the issue appearing in any of the Hobson documentation.

It is possible that this speculation is part of the mis-information surrounding the Lanica "bid". The whole issue has been conducted in the midst of what Graham Melmoth, CWS chief executive, has described as "black propaganda".

Mr Melmoth has said that even if Lanica receives sufficient backing to call a special meeting it would be outvoted by an overwhelming majority.

The CWS annual meeting takes place in Manchester next month. Lanica will not have a motion supporting its approach on the agenda. However there are thought to be several motions backing the CWS's stance and the continuation of its co-operative tradition.

Lanica Trust was thought to be waiting for the publication of the CWS results on Monday before finalising its plans. These showed a drop in trading profits from the non-banking operations. The poorest performer was the food retailing operations where profits were hit by a poor performance in Scotland after Tesco's takeover of William Low increased competition.