View from City Road: Mishandled from start to finish

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The Independent Online
At Wimbledon for the tennis yesterday, Sir David Scholey, chairman of SG Warburg Group, might have reflected on an old military truism as he watched Boris Becker being beaten in straight sets by Goran Ivanisevic; battles are not won, they are only lost. It would be hard to find a more fitting epitaph for Enterprise's botched pounds 1.6bn bid for Lasmo, which ended in abject failure yesterday as Becker was playing his last desperate shots on the Centre Court.

Many theories were doing the rounds last night to explain the extent of the rebuff. There were even suggestions that Warburg used up so much goodwill arm-twisting its institutional friends during the Eurotunnel rights issue, that there was simply none left by the time it came to its other client, Enterprise. True or not, there is no doubt that Warburg must take most of the blame for what happened in the final, desperate few days of the bid, and for the pounds 30m loss Enterprise now nurses on its Lasmo stake.

Graham Hearne, Enterprise's chairman and chief executive, was led to believe he could still win if he raided the market for 10 per cent and PDFM, with 17 per cent of the stock, came on side. So Warburg raided the market. In the process, however, it picked up half PDFM's stock, thus leaving itself, even on its own calculations, nearly 9 per cent short of the necessary level of support. As Warburg was humbly admitting last night, it totally misread the market and failed hopelessly to get the Enterprise message across.

Enterprise's tenth anniversary thrash last night in St James's Square must have been a sombre affair. In the search for scapegoats, however, Warburg cannot be held solely responsible. A project that had plenty to commend it was mishandled from start to finish. Arguably, Enterprise in any case bid too late; a rising oil price was already floating Lasmo off the rocks.

The City wanted cash but Enterprise was not prepared - and could not afford - to pay it. Until, of course, it decided to buy out PDFM. That controversial deal not only smacked of desperation but it also alienated everyone else. If Enterprise had put cash on the table in the first place the outcome might have been very different.

Instead, Enterprise offered second- rate paper that institutions sniffed at. And if ever there was a sign of an uncertain grip on the helm, it was the proliferation of advisers in the Enterprise camp, with two public relations firms, two British merchant banks plus Lehman in the US, and a number of other hangers-on. There were simply too many cooks.

Graham Hearne will not be left untouched by the fallout, either. Some of the criticism of his leaping ambition will stick, if only with pressure for him to separate the roles of chairman and chief executive. In the meantime, he has a credibility gap to fill in the City, like anybody who has tried and failed.

The bottom line is that it should have been hard for Enterprise to mess it up, against a target such as Lasmo. Until a few months ago, when the top management was changed, the company was widely regarded as one of the worst-run in Britain. Lasmo fought a good fight, but has nowhere to go. Watch the share price. There's bad news in the pipeline and it may not be long before shareholders regret their decision.