'Sids' hold key to Manweb bid

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The Independent Online

Industrial Correspondent

Tomorrow is the final day in the battle for control of Chester-based Manweb by Scottish Power, and the balance of power could well lie with the thousands of private investors who control about 25 per cent of the regional firm.

This is the first hostile bid for a major UK utility to reach such a crucial stage and the first in which there is real power in the hands of "Sid".

To woo them, Scottish Power has taken prime-time television advertising, including slots during Coronation Street, Blind Date, the Gladiators and The Bill.

An army of 200 people at the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh has been primed to count an anticipated last-minute surge of acceptances on tomorrow's close of the pounds 9.90 offer by the Scottish group.

While the hope is that all small shareholders will succumb to the pounds 1.1bn deal, privately it is admitted that a last- minute stampede could prove a logistical nightmare.

Scottish Power has become increasingly concerned to win over Manweb's 110,000 private investors, who control 25 per cent of the company's equity. The average holding is about 300 shares, which at the cash offer price are worth almost pounds 3,000.

So far, about 15,000 individuals are thought to have taken up the offer. But Manweb is confident that the bulk of its small investors, many of whom also live in its Merseyside and North Wales territory, will stay on board.

John Roberts, Manweb's chief executive, said: ''Many of these are valued customers and have a strong sense of loyalty to both the company and the region. We believe they will back us."

The Scottish camp argues - as do most predators in the electricity industry - that the regional issue is overstated.

Scottish Power tightened its grip on the distribution and supply company yesterday, buying more than 5m shares and taking its stake to 26.2 per cent.

Manweb's shares fell by 1p to 991p and Scottish Power's rose by 2p to 350.5p.

The bid moved towards its close as takeover fever continued to grip the City, with speculation that Yorkshire Electricity, worth about pounds 1.7bn, will be the next to fall. Rumours earlier in the week had centred on London, which would have a price tag nearer to pounds 2bn.