Threat of rival suitor puts new life into funeral bid war: Great Southern in talks with mystery third party about challenge to SCI offer

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THE BATTLE for control of Great Southern took a dramatic twist yesterday after the funeral company said it was in negotiations with a third party that might lead to the trumping of this week's final bid from the Texan burial group SCI.

Pompes Funebres Generales, the French funeral company that already owns 30 per cent of Great Southern's rival Plantsbrook, is being widely tipped to launch its own bid this week.

The shares, which jumped 50p on Tuesday to match SCI's 680p offer, closed another 28p higher at 708p yesterday.

The latest development in the increasingly acrimonious tussle for Great Southern will leave a bitter taste with institutions that yesterday sold a further 3 per cent to SCI to add to the almost 20 per cent bought in the market on Tuesday. With convertible preference shares, SCI now controls just under 30 per cent of Great Southern's fully diluted equity.

Great Southern would not comment on the identity of the bidder but it said that any offer would probably be higher than SCI's pounds 99.1m bid, itself increased from pounds 87.4m on Tuesday.

Having declared its bid final, SCI cannot now increase its own offer unless there is a rival bid. If a new offer emerges, the bid timetable, due to close on 20 August, will be restarted.

Bill Heiligbrodt, chairman of SCI, said: 'If there is any real substance behind the statement then clearly the Field family have decided that they have to sell.

'But as we own 30 per cent of the stock what sort of credence can be placed on the offeror?'

Great Southern is controlled by JD Field, a company jointly owned by five trusts whose beneficiaries include Barry Field, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight. JD Field owns 56 per cent of Great Southern's shares and has so far refused to negotiate with SCI.

The level of acceptances of SCI's revised offer were seen to be an indication of the fullness of its bid, which valued Great Southern at 24 times historic earnings and was pitched at three times last year's turnover.

At 680p, the offer represented a 43 per cent premium to the mid-market price on the day before the bid was launched in June.

The largest burial business in the US, SCI owns 843 funeral parlours in 40 states, Canada and Australia.

Last year it made profits of dollars 101m (pounds 69m) compared with Great Southern's profits of pounds 4.1m.

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