TV mast firm tunes in to pounds 600m success

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The Independent Online
A company set up three years ago to buy government assets with an outlay of less than pounds 80m is now worth more than pounds 600m.

The group of businessmen who run National Transcommunications Limited, or NTL, are on course to become multi- millionaires when the company is floated on the stock market soon.

Based in Winchester, they worked for the Independent Broadcasting Authority until 1991 when the Home Office decided to sell ITV and Channel 4's network of 500 transmitter masts. With City backing from Mercury Asset management, the group's bid of pounds 70m was successful.

Last month NTL, led by a former IBA engineer, John Forrest, added another string to its bow with the pounds 6.6m purchase of the Home Office's mobile communications system for the ambulance, police and fire services, known as DTELs. It could soon add another system if, as seems likely, next month's White Paper on the future of the BBC recommends the privatisation of its mast network. A BBC spokesman said the corporation had just over 500 masts. He refused to say how much, given NTL's growth, they are worth - or what they would be sold for.

Yesterday, City experts valued NTL at more than pounds 600m. Chris McFadden, telecommunications analyst at Merrill Lynch, pointed out that British Telecom had paid pounds 1.2bn for a 20 per cent stake in MCI, one of the leading long-distance telephone companies in the US. Mr McFadden said NTL had obtained from the Government not just television masts but also the ability, using the masts, to set up its own trunk network much more cheaply than the main players, BT and Mercury.

Under Stock Exchange rules, NTL cannot be floated until it has completed three years in business - a date which passed last month. In 1992, the company had operating profits of pounds 13m and the five executive directors were each paid more than pounds 95,000, with Mr Forrest picking up almost pounds 140,000. Mr Forrest, who, along with his senior colleagues and some staff owns 15 per cent of the company, refused to be drawn yesterday on the flotation plans.

Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, whose constituency will suffer job losses when NTL completes its planned closure of the DTELS headquarters, plans to take up the company's rise in the Commons. 'They've made a lot of money from doing nothing,' he said. 'There were no safeguards built into the sales to protect taxpayers' interests. They've given licence to a group of businessmen to go mackerel fishing for money.'

Firm 'from nowhere', page 3