Whole new ball game at Merlin

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The Independent Online
Merlin Publishing International, the company largely responsible for the children's craze of collecting football stickers, is to be taken over by the US group responsible for Bazooka bubblegum and baseball cards.

The Topps Company, which is quoted on Nasdaq and has annual sales of about $265m, is paying about $50m (pounds 32m) in cash for Merlin, which last month topped an annual listing in the Independent on Sunday of Britain's fastest-growing privately owned companies.

Under the deal, due to be completed next month subject to clearance by the Office of Fair Trading, Topps will acquire the whole of the company that has origins in the Maxwell empire via its acquisition of the Italian publishing group Panini in the 1980s. This means Patricia Kluge, the former belly dancer and ex-wife of the billionaire US publisher John Kluge, will sell her 40 per cent stake, and Gieves Group, owner of the tailor Gieves and Hawkes, will surrender its 7 per cent interest.

Details of the pricing are not being made public, but representatives said both had made substantial profits.

Milton Keynes-based Merlin was founded about five and a half years ago when two senior executives from Panini decided to break away from the Maxwell organisation. They joined Peter Warsop, now managing director, and a colleague from WH Smith who had worked on distributing Panini products for several years and set about building a British company with plans to move on to the world stage.

The company's chief business is publishing albums and stickers to place in them. Children aged between two and 14 buy the albums and collect the stickers, swapping doubles with friends for any they are missing.

Boosted by the success of its agreement with the Premier League, it sells millions of packets of stickers a year and accounts for 80 per cent of the British market. Meanwhile, it is making serious inroads in markets throughout Europe and the United States.

In the financial year just completed, sales were pounds 35m and profits were also almost double the previous year's, at pounds 3.8m. This year, both are about 90 per cent ahead of the same period last time.

Mr Warsop, who said the company had been considering its future for some time, sees the deal as securing its future prospects. "We enjoy our business and wanted to continue to work with it. They offered us the chance to do that," he said.

Arthur T Shorin, chairman and chief executive of Topps, said his company had been attracted by Merlin's "burgeoning franchise, talented management and strong distribution".

Topps, founded in 1938, created Bazooka brand bubblegum in 1947 and marketed its first baseball cards four years later. With manufacturing plants in the Republic of Ireland and the United States, it also makes comic books and sweets.

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