WHISPER it at Hanson headquarters: history may be on the verge of repeating itself. ICI, the one that got away, may yet return to haunt Lord Hanson.
When the takeover king bought his stake in the sleepy old chemicals giant last year, he seemed destined to strike. But the ICI dinosaur lumbered into action and hired Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, to prepare a defence. What might have been a walkover became a bare-knuckle scrap in the dirt.
Suddenly gumshoes were sparing no stone in looking at Hanson. The result, and Goldman was careful not to claim any credit, was a flood of stories that mainly drew attention to the lavish lifestyles of Lords Hanson and White.
When the publicly quoted company's 'investment' of more than pounds 7m in racing bloodstock was disclosed, Lord Hanson hit the roof. The leak of a furious note to Sir Tim Bell, his media relations adviser, set the seal on an ill-fated campaign.
Now Goldman, the ghost at the feast, is believed to have offered to defend Ranks Hovis McDougall against Hanson's pounds 780m takeover bid. Goldman, which regularly uses the IGI corporate investigation agency, may be prepared to do for the Mr Kipling cakes, Bisto gravy and Mothers Pride bread maker what it did for ICI.
So what, say Hanson's followers. But there is a hint of unease. If Ranks is prepared to spend a small fortune on Goldman - the Wall Street bank's services do not come cheap - there can be little chance of a peaceful outcome. And there remains the dollars 64,000 question: what else did Goldman uncover? After all, Hanson never did bid for ICI, and the mud that was thrown was only in a mock battle leading up to the main event.
For the time being, both sides are content with ritual posturing. Ranks says it will not fit with Hanson - or to use the jargon beloved of City folk, the proposed purchase lacks 'synergy'. The unions, upon hearing the identity of the suitor, were near hysteria.
The Hanson PR men spent a few happy hours after the bid was announced last Monday dreaming up puns on Ranks' brand slogans ('exceedingly good bid' - a reference to Mr Kipling who makes exceedingly good cakes). Now they have wheeled out the tried and tested answers: Hanson is a nice man. He is not an asset-stripper.
As for the logic of the bid, a Hanson director said: 'We are not sure we understand the problem. Here at Hanson we never argue about synergy. The only fit we are interested in is that of management - of what Ranks can gain from being associated with us.' Hmmm.
The truth, that Ranks has been hit by recession and looks vulnerable and that all Hanson need do is raise its offer slightly, is scarcely mentioned.
In the words of one Hanson spokesman: 'Goldman will have to catch him eating babies for Ranks to win.'
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