Premier Foods boss should keep bidders hungry

 
Mark Kleinman
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Premier Foods' chief exec has left bidders hungry for more (Source: Getty)

Rival international bidders, restive shareholders and conflicting pension deficit assumptions: like all chefs, Gavin Darby is juggling an eclectic mix of ingredients.

His company, Premier Foods, home to Mr Kipling, Bisto and Sharwoods, looks tastier than it has for years. A fresh offer from McCormick of the US, worth 65p-a-share, has rightly prompted Darby and his colleagues to open Premier’s larder for examination.

Yet without a formal bid, continuing pressure on the company’s margins implies that its share price would soon deflate like many a souffle. Combined with the appearance of Japan’s Nissin – which has acquired what might otherwise look like a blocking stake – institutional investors previously puzzled by Premier Foods’ stance would have legitimate cause to show their anger.

But Darby should go further anyway. Having remarked at the weekend that there was plenty of time for a rival suitor to emerge, his board should actively encourage a bidding war.

Go-shop clauses are comparatively rare in UK takeover situations, but what better place for one than a company which generates its sales in major supermarkets, the most competitive shopping arena of all?

A FRENCH CHAIR AT HSBC?

Circulars distributed before annual shareholder meetings rarely portend great excitement: HSBC’s, with its long-awaited confirmation that chairman Douglas Flint intends to step down next year, provided a rare exception.

His exit has been on the cards for some time. Given HSBC’s troubles in Switzerland and Mexico, it will be regarded by some investors as overdue. After a long executive career with the bank, followed by six years as chairman, a fresh pair of eyes is sensible.

But will those eyes belong to Henri de Castries, departing head of AXA, the French insurer?

He is a logical candidate for the job, but those suggesting that he has already been anointed ignore the key point that it is likely to depend upon events across the English Channel. De Castries has long-harboured political ambitions, and with elections in France due next year, it’s far from inconceivable that he could be handed a ministerial post in a future administration.

It is hard to see which other existing directors might be suitable for the HSBC job. One name to rule out is Paul Walsh, the former Diageo chief executive, who joined the board alongside de Castries. In a post-crisis world, regulators have rightly decreed that bank chairs must have extensive experience of the financial services industry. Whoever’s appointed, identifying HSBC’s next chief executive will not be the immediate task that some envisage. My guess is that Stuart Gulliver will be going nowhere until at least 2019.

TORIES FAIL TO SHOW STEEL

Tax credit U-turns, disability benefit cuts and now the inept handling of Britain’s steel crisis: ministers seem intent on handing Labour a string of open goals.

The government’s most egregious failing during the steel sector’s malaise has been its arrogant assumption that vague pledges would be an adequate substitute for rigorous contingency planning. An unproductive summit last autumn and a promise to “raise” the issue of steel-dumping during talks with Beijing were a paltry response to warnings about the industry’s demise.

Worse still, Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for the constituency that’s home to Tata’s Port Talbot steelworks, says he warned Anna Soubry, the business minister, weeks ago that the Indian group was considering a sale of its entire UK operations.

In its annual review, the Shareholder Executive boasts of being a Whitehall “centre of excellence”. Given how remote the prospects are of identifying a buyer for Tata Steel’s UK business, now would be a good time to put its self-proclaimed brainpower to work.

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