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Williams looks for a buy-back

Williams Plc is likely to ask shareholders for authority to buy back up to 10 per cent of the company's outstanding shares in an effort to boost shareholder returns when it reports first half earnings Wednesday, according to analysts.

Williams' chairman Sir Nigel Rudd has made it clear to institutional shareholders that the Chubb acquisition is the last major acquisitive move in its journey from old-style diversified industrial company to one focused on the global fire-protection and security business.

That opens the possibility of a buy-back intended to reward investors holding a stock that, even with a jump of more than 40 pence during the last month, is only a couple of pence higher than a year ago. Williams closed Friday at 366.5p.

"There is no better way of spending your money, than buying back your own shares," said Zafar Khan, an analyst at SGST Securities.

A 10 percent buy-back would cost the company about pounds 280m at the current share price. Khan thinks Rudd will make disposals rather than boost debt which stood at some pounds 900m after the Chubb purchase.

Williams has, in the past, made no secret of the fact that it is less wedded to building materials and home improvement products than its security business, and some analysts expect them to be put up for sale with a price tag in the region of pounds 1.1bn.

In December the company sold part of the building products business for pounds 360m to a management buyout, retaining a 26 per cent in the newly created Newmond Ltd.

"Any update on the potential home improvements products disposal program will be well received," wrote David Allchurch, an analyst at NatWest Markets, in a research note last week.

The City is split over whether Williams is seeking a one-off sale that could wipe out its debt in one fell swoop, or a piece-meal approach.

Mr Khan says they may be sold to one buyer, such as ICI, now the world's largest paint producer. David Greenall, an analyst at BZW, expects a less dramatic approach, reckoning Rudd is under no pressure from shareholders to secure a quick sale. He expects that "over a longer period Williams will reduce its exposure to the home improvement markets".

Having slipped out of the FT-SE 100 index as it was completing its acquisition of Chubb, Williams is set to return. Last week it finally shook off its unfashionable conglomerate associations by moving from the Financial Times diversified industrials index to the security and alarm services sub sector.