Tarmac paves the way to fight off hostile bidder

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TARMAC, the recession-hit construction and quarrying company, has hired Lazard Brothers, the merchant bank, to bolster its defences against a a possible hostile bid.

Lazard has long had an advisory relationship with Tarmac and its chief executive, Neville Simms, but recently its role has been greatly enhanced. The bank is working with Samuel Montagu and parliamentary lobbyists to draw up a list of potential predators and contingency plans to fend them off.

A highly secret defence committee, called Project Adam (tarmac road surfacing was originally known as 'tar macadam' after its inventor, John McAdam) was set up last year amid persistent bid speculation. Tarmac is thought to have been approached by either Hanson or Minorco, or both.

Tarmac recently extended the list of possible predators to include French contracting and materials firms Lefarge, Bouygues and Dumez.

It is considered highly unlikely in the City, however, that there will be any hostile bid for Tarmac before April 27 - the date Tarmac is expected to reveal the full horror of the downturn in its markets by reporting pre-tax losses of up to pounds 350m for last year.

Scott Fulton, at Yamaichi, said: 'If I were a bidder, I would wait until Tarmac had taken the hit on its profit-and-loss account, and until those losses had been absorbed and understood by the market.'

Tarmac's worry is that as Mr Simms' restructuring begins to show signs of succeeding, Britain's biggest housebuilder may once again be under the takeover spotlight.

Sean Bruen, a company spokesman, refused to be drawn on Lazards' involvement, saying the bank had worked for Tarmac on a number of projects. The only one he would confirm was the controversial sale last October of the Government's Property Services Agency.

Since Mr Simms replaced Sir Eric Pountain last year, he has instituted a programme of sell- offs to cut debts of about pounds 800m. He wants to raise about pounds 250m through disposals and return Tarmac to its core businesses of quarrying, construction and housebuilding. But he is about pounds 100m short of his target, and the biggest proposed sale - of the waste division Econowaste - has still not happened. Tarmac may have to accept less than the hoped-for pounds 80m. If further disposals prove difficult, the City has not ruled out a rights issue.

Two weeks ago, John Lovering, a former Sears finance director, was appointed chief operating officer. Under Mr Simms, the size of the board has been reduced from 14 to nine directors.

Mike Betts, building analyst at Goldman Sachs, said Mr Simms is slowly repairing Tarmac's image in the City. 'His strategy is right, but depending on the speed of recovery he may have to do more things.'

He does not see any bidder on the immediate horizon, believing that the much-touted predators, Hanson, Minorco and BTR, would be interested in parts of the business but not the whole.

That leaves the big European players - especially the French - who could be looking for a tactical move into the UK.

(Photograph omitted)