Sema shake-up points to France Telecom sale

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The Independent Online
France Telecom took a further step toward its expected Fr40bn (pounds 4bn) autumn partial privatisation yesterday, after it agreed a restructuring of its shareholding in Sema, the fast-growing information technology group.

The restructuring, which also involves Sema issuing shares to buy France Telecom's remaining 24.5 per cent stake in Sema Outsourcing, leaves France Telecom with a clean 23 per cent interest in Sema.

The move lifts a key restriction on Sema expanding into the huge US information technology market and will boost earnings. It was welcomed by the market which lifted prices in the Anglo-French group's shares 55p to pounds 13.42.

The complex restructuring, has been negotiated over the past four months by Pierre Bonelli, Sema's chief executive. It takes effect from September, lifting a restriction whereby Sema was regarded under American law as a subsidiary of a bank and so restrained from expanding into non-financial markets in the US.

Mr Bonelli has long been keen to take Sema, a global operator in information technology outsourcing, into the fast-growing US telecoms billing and mobile phone software market.

Mr Bonelli said: "From September we will no longer be considered a subsidiary of a bank in the US. The US telecoms market is huge and new. It is less than 1 per cent of our turnover now, but I would be unhappy if it wasn't over 10 per cent by 2001."

Andrew Ripper of Merrill Lynch welcomed the move: "Pierre Bonelli said in March that he wanted to solve this block. It is always nice to see a company delivering on its plans." Mr Ripper has increased his earnings forecast by 2.5 per cent to 42p a share for the year to December 1998.

Under the old arrangement, France Telecom and the company's bankers, Paribas, control Financiere Sema - the holding company of Sema with a 41 per cent stake. Under the present structure, Paribas own 50.1 per cent of Financiere Sema and controls the voting rights. Under the US Banking Act, Sema was therefore regarded as a subsidiary of Paribas.

The new structure, which also includes Sema buying France Telecom's 25 per cent stake in its outsourcing arm and full control of TS FM, will give France Telecom 22.8 and Paribas 20 per cent of Sema.