Sacked chief in pounds 1bn bid for Littlewoods

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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

A former chief executive of Littlewoods has fired the first shot in a power-struggle for the football pools, mail order and stores group with a pounds 1.1bn takeover bid.

Barry Dale, sacked last March by the Moores family, which owns every share in the company, is now trying to buy their empire, one of Britain's best-known business names.

Leonard Van Geest, Littlewoods' chairman, yesterday confirmed that an approach had been made.

"We have had interest shown," said Mr Van Geest. "It is up to the family to decide if they wish to sell or not."

Sources close to Mr Dale said he would be putting up some of his own money and was being backed by a consortium of City banks. If successful, he is thought to be contemplating bringing the Liverpool-based business - one of Britain's largest still in private hands - to the stock market after three or four years.

Mr Dale is undeterred by a downturn in Littlewood's prospects in the last 12 months. The pools side is believed to have lost at least 15 per cent of its sales since the arrival of the National Lottery. The mail order division has been losing its market share and the 128-strong chain of stores is suffering. Profits last year fell by pounds 1m to pounds 116m.

One of three non-family directors to leave Littlewoods in the past 12 months - the others were Prodip Guha, his deputy, and Sir Desmond Pitcher, the former chairman and chief executive - Mr Dale is understood to have ruled out including them or any family members in his management team.

He is said to blame the company's recent problems, marked dramatically by the departure of the three and by the hiring of private investigators to snoop on senior executives, on the family ownership structure.

To succeed, he will have to persuade the family, which in the last few years has acquired a reputation for fighting among themselves, to sell. Traditionally, the Moores have always resisted attempts to take the group public.

Since the death in 1993 of Sir John Moores, Littlewoods' founder, that might change. The three Moores who sit on the company board - John, Lady Grantchester and her son, James Suenson-Taylor - only speak for a small proportion of the shares. The rest are held by family members thought to be frustrated at the lack of performance.

Family confidence in the business was dealt a severe blow with the decision last year of John's brother, Peter, to sell his entire holding and bow out completely. Another descendant of Sir John has reportedly quit the business to live overseas.

Under the articles drawn up by Sir John, who was anxious to ensure the company remained in the family, a 75-per-cent vote is required before a shareholder can sell to an outsider.

Such are the problems grip-ping the company and the lack of morale among shareholders and staff, that Mr Dale is understood to be confident of securing that high majority.

Currently suing the company for wrongful dismissal, Mr Dale, 57, worked for many years for ICI and was on the board of London Regional Transport before joining Littlewoods in 1988. The decision to dismiss him was taken at a secret meeting of senior family shareholders in London.

Led by Lady Grantchester, they felt it was time for the family to re- exert its control over their legacy.

Lady Grantchester, whose husband Lord Grantchester, died last week, is likely to be the stiffest opponent to change.

Mr Van Geest said he was unable to predict which way the family would decide. He would not say when they would meet to discuss Mr Dale's bid.

"It will be dealt with in due course in the proper manner," he said.

The chairman denied there was any irony in the sacked Mr Dale turning round and attempting to buy out those who fired him.

"It is not that unusual - past managing directors and chairmen often try to buy their former companies," he added.

Mr Dale, on holiday in the north of England, refused to comment.

Family troubles, page 2

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