Rhodia tops US bid for Albright

ALBRIGHT & WILSON, the fine chemicals group, was yesterday thrust into a transatlantic takeover war after Rhodia of France launched a pounds 455m cash offer, topping a pounds 408m bid from the US company Albemarle.

Rhodia's offer of 145p per share received the conditional backing of Phillips & Drew, A&W's largest shareholder. The fund manager pledged to sell its 23 per cent stake to the French speciality chemicals group - majority owned by Rhone-Poulenc - provided no other party bids more than 160p a share. The offer is being made through an Austrian investment vehicle to avoid interfering with Rhone-Poulenc's merger with Hoechst, the German life sciences company.

Rhodia asked the board of A&W to back its offer and withdraw the recommendation for Albemarle's 130p-a-share bid. A&W refused to comment but it is likely to back Rhodia at a board meeting tomorrow.

Analysts said the move could trigger a counteroffer from Albemarle or flush out other bidders. "This is not a knockout blow," said Martin Evans, head of research at Sutherlands.

A&W shares soared 10.5p to 148p, indicating the market's expectation of a higher bid. Industry sources said Albemarle, which bought 18 per cent of A&W at 130p, could table a higher bid to force Rhodia to pay more. The US company said it was reviewing its options.

Pierre Prot, Rhodia's chief financial officer, said a link with Albright would boost the combined group's geographical coverage and buying power.