PRESS DIGEST - British business - April 5

Sun Apr 4, 2010 10:56pm EDT

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The Times

GARDEN CHAIN TESTS TRADING LAWS WITH EASTER SUNDAY OPENINGS

Garden Centre Group opened 73 of its stores on Easter Sunday despite its customers not being allowed to buy anything due to trading laws. Bosses hope that having browsed the products on offer customers will return on Monday to make purchases. The move was seen as a test of the 16-year-old trading laws that liberalised Sunday shopping hours but under which anyone selling plants or equipment can be fined. Easter is traditionally seen as the start of the gardening year. The sale of plants and equipment generates an estimated 100 million pounds.

STRIKE VOTE THREATENS TO LEAVE AA CUSTOMERS STRANDED

The result of a strike ballot launched in March by The Independent Democratic Union could see AA patrolmen and women go on strike over management's plans to cap employee pensions. Of the AA's 7,000 staff, 5,500 are IDU members. The IDU says the proposed changes are designed to cut the company's pension liabilities and make it more attractive to outside investors. The AA's parent company Acromas is majority-owned by private equity groups Permira, CVC and Charterhouse.

The Daily Telegraph

MINING GROUPS FEAR BACKLASH IN SOUTH AFRICA

A number of London-listed mining companies, including Anglo American (AAL.L), Xstrata XTA.L, BHP Billiton (BLT.L) and Rio Tinto (RIO.L), are anticipating a wave of ethnic violence in South Africa following the murder of white supremacist and far-right politician Eugene Terreblanche. The murder was committed on the same day that Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress Youth League, called for the country's foreign-owned mines to be nationalised and returned to black ownership. Anglo American in particular has the most at stake with majority control of South Africa's Anglo Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore. Analysts are suggesting disruption caused by widespread violence could have a significant impact on mine output and could even result in rises in some commodity prices.

FIFTH OF TOP RENT RETAILERS IN TROUBLE

Retail and leisure consultancy Trevor Wood Associates' annual audit of UK retail and leisure parks has revealed that 20 percent of retailers paying rent in excess of 100 pounds per square foot are either in administration or tied into company voluntary arrangements. The findings come despite evidence that the retail sector increased floor space requirements by 0.4 percent last year, with the likes of carpet chain Carpetright (CATVU.L) and car and bicycle parts retailer Halfords (HFD.L) increasing their square footage. "By looking at the share of total retail park floor space over the past eight years," says Trevor Wood, "we can see the declining importance of the leading retail park tenants and the emergence of a growing number of new entrants to the retail warehouse market."

PRUDENTIAL CHIEF TO RECEIVE ONE MILLION POUND BONUS

As part of his remuneration package, Tidjane Thiam, the chief executive of Prudential (PRU.L) since October 2009, will be awarded an annual bonus of more than one million pounds as the financial services company embarks on further talks with regulators and investors to try and secure backing for its 35.5 billion dollar takeover of AIA, the Asian division of U.S. insurance corporation AIG. Thiam's payment, the details of which will be laid out in Prudential's annual report published later this week, will do little to head off criticisms levelled at both the chief executive and the takeover deal. Some shareholders have suggested that Thiam lacks the experience to handle such a massive deal -- part-funded by a record 21 billion dollar rights issue. However, Prudential's shares have recovered from 478.5 pence two days after the takeover was initially announced to 568.5 pence, suggesting the company is succeeding in swaying opinion in its favour.

ASTRAZENECA SNAPS UP PFIZER SCIENTIST

AstraZeneca (AZN.L), the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company, has poached Menelas Pangalos, a leading neuroscientist with U.S. rival Pfizer, to take on the role of executive vice president of innovative medicines from the beginning of May. With the impending expiration of patents on two of its top-earning drugs, AstraZeneca is keen to bolster its portfolio of new products and has detailed a number of initiatives, including acquiring drugs from other companies and focusing on a smaller range of diseases, in order to achieve this goal.

M&S TO PLAY DOWN CASH CALL AFTER SALES RISE

Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) is set to deliver a trading update on Thursday that is likely to show an increase in fourth-quarter sales of 1.7 percent. The retailer is expected to use these improved figures to play down City speculation about a 750 million pound rights issue. Although outgoing executive chairman Sir Stuart Rose has said there is "no need" for a cash call, it is likely that he will be questioned on the probability of his successor Marc Bolland seeking cash from investors. Contrary to Rose's commdnts, analyst Greg Lawless believes Bolland, who joins M&S in May, could use a 750 million pound rights issue to hasten changes and to get rid of his predecessor, whose intention is to remain as a non-executive chairman until early 2011.

VT AND BABCOCK WORK ON MERGER DETAILS

The chief executives of engineering group Babcock (BAB.L) and defence and services company VT Group VTG.L will meet this week to discuss plans for combining the two companies after Babcock acquired VT in a takeover last month. Although hundreds of jobs are likely to go, Paul Lester, VT's chief executive, remains confident that the opportunity to win new outsourcing contracts after the election will be "huge", regardless of which party is voted in. Following the takeover, Lester has expressed satisfaction with the increase in Babcock's shares, which has seen the value of the cash-for-shares offer climb to 791 pence from the 735 pence price announced the day before the March 23 deal was confirmed.

GOODWIN'S MEN GET RETIREMENT JOBS

Gordon Pell and Miller McLean, two senior Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) executives who served under Sir Fred Goodwin during the bank's recent dramatic boom and bust period, have taken on lucrative part-time retirement jobs within the state-owned bank. Pell, RBS's deputy chief executive until his retirement last week, has been appointed deputy chairman of the Queen's bank Coutts, while McLean, RBS's company secretary and chief legal counsel, is set to become the chairman of Adam & Co, a private bank owned by RBS. The pair will receive annual salaries of between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds, although Pell, who enjoys a 580,000 annual pension, has pledged his salary to charity.

The Independent

EMI MULLS OPTIONS FOR 120 MILLION POUND INJECTION

It is understood that EMI is working with advisers on a bonus scheme to try to get investors to inject an additional 120 million pounds into the company by June 14 in order to prevent it from being taken over by its bank, Citigroup. If the proposal is unsuccessful, EMI, which was acquired by Terra Firma for 4.2 billion pounds in 2007, may consider selling shares to external investors for the first time.

TESCO AIMS FOR 10 PERCENT OF FINANCIAL SERVICE MARKET

Tesco (TSCO.L), which already sells a wide range of financial products, is planning to capture around 10 percent of the financial services market in the UK. The retailer plans to launch current accounts and mortgages over the next year. The move could make it a similar size to Abbey, owned by Santander (SAN.MC),

The Guardian

BP IN DRIVE FOR SHALE GAS

BP (BP.L) is lobbying on Capitol Hill for individual states to take decisions on drilling techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing which is used in the extraction of gas from shale deposits, rather than them being a matter for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The oil major is also opposed to the public disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracturing process, saying that the information is commercially sensitive. Environmental groups fear that the chemicals are highly toxic and are worried about them polluting reservoirs. Oil companies have found significant shale deposits in New York state and Pennsylvania, but requests to drill them have met opposition from green groups.

Prepared for Reuters by Durrants

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