Vestey Group looks at flotation

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VESTEY GROUP, the new vehicle for what has hitherto been one of the country's most secretive private business empires, is considering the option of a public flotation to solve its refinancing problems.

Sir John Collins, the group's new chief executive, is bringing in SG Warburg to review possibilities for refinancing the company. These include a flotation.

Sir John, formerly chairman and chief executive of Shell UK, said that he and Robert Cooper, his new finance director, were taking stock of all the group's assets.

Sir John hopes very shortly to restore better banking arrangements for the Vestey's business interests, which have suffered from the debt problems that nearly sunk one of the group's two main subsidiaries, Union International.

These difficulties led to the appointment of Terry Robinson, the former Lonrho director, as chief executive of Union in 1991. Since taking over, he has turned the loss-making subsidiary into profit, sharply reducing its debt.

Sir John, sitting alongside Mr Robinson at the group's headquarters near Smithfield, hinted that he intended to run the Vestey empire in an open manner, a style not normally associated with the group. 'My discipline has always been to keep shareholders very well informed, and I have learnt that discipline in a very successful company.'

For the moment, the main shareholders are Lord Samuel Vestey and his cousin, Edmund, both of whom are regarded as exceptionally reticent about their business affairs, a modus operandi that followed uncomfortable press attention in the 1970s about the way the Vestey family handled its tax affairs.

Apart from Union International, comprising the family's overseas food interests, property and the Dewhurst butchers' chain, the other main subsidiary of the newly-created Vestey Group is Frederick Leyland, which holds the Vesteys' shipping and insurance interests.

'There has not been a single leader of the orchestra for some time,' said Sir John.

Terry Robinson has appointed NM Rothschild, the merchant bank, to consider a number of options for Union International, which hopes to end its banking standstill at the end of the year.

Debts have come down from around pounds 300m to pounds 100m under Mr Robinson's guidance, and the company reported a pre-tax profit last year of pounds 30.9m compared with a pounds 20.5m loss the previous year.

Mr Robinson, with the help of Rothschild, is considering the flotation of Union's meat businesses in Australia. 'The market for our products in the Far East is growing exponentially,' he said.

All three of the executives hopes that Union's standstill arrangement with its bankers can be ended soon. 'The costs of being in a standstill arrangement are considerable - in terms of the fees that are charged and the way in which it reduces financing options,' said Mr Cooper.

Once Union International has ended the standstill with the banks, the group will come under Sir John's authority and Mr Robinson - who could walk away with pounds 10m if he meets all his targets - will leave.

(Photograph omitted)