PM’s takeover test may do more Arm than good

Mark Kleinman
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Theresa May hailed the deal as a vote of confidence in Britain (Source: Getty)

We're less than a month into Theresa May’s administration but there’s already a worrying air of economic policy schizophrenia drifting through Whitehall.

The new Prime Minister has the most daunting in-tray of any incoming Premier for decades, but she needs to flesh out her vision for corporate Britain fast; what she has offered so far is a ham-fisted blueprint which threatens to undermine international investor confidence in the UK.

Take the government’s Janus-headed response to Softbank’s £24.3bn swoop on the Cambridge-based chip designer Arm Holdings.

No sooner had the deal been announced than May’s chancellor Philip Hammond hailed the takeover as evidence that Britain was “open for business”.

At the same time, her spokeswoman was suggesting that all foreign bids for British companies may become the subject of a public interest test.

Read more: Arm Holdings unveils rising profit and revenues ahead of Softbank takeover

The remark sent bankers, lawyers and others into paroxysms of panic. Did she mean all deals, including those led by overseas-incorporated private equity firms and family offices?

Would there be a valuation threshold or sector criteria?

My sources say that executives at the Takeover Panel were left scratching their heads over the lack of clarity.

May surely has to allow the recently enhanced regime, which now involves legally binding undertakings for bidders, to be tested.

In Arm Holdings’ case, that will involve an independent scrutineer of Japanese firm Softbank’s pledges to double the number of UK jobs within five years.

Insiders suggest that accounting giant Grant Thornton is among the firms in the frame to hold Japanese feet to the fire.

There’s a world of difference, though, between proper public scrutiny of an important technology company, and perfectly legitimate deals in non-strategic industries.

May will need to acknowledge that quickly otherwise her government’s claim that it is open for business will not pass muster.

Not So Speedy Hiring

The name Speedy Hire might suit customer service levels at its 200 depots, but when it comes to boardroom recruitment, it’s a howling misnomer.

That’s the view of Toscafund, the FTSE-250 company’s biggest investor, which has had enough of the procrastination of chairman Jan Astrand.

Toscafund’s founder Martin Hughes has requisitioned an extraordinary shareholder meeting to seek Astrand’s removal and the installation of David Shearer, a proven turnaround expert, in his place.

Read more: Speedy Hire raises hackles of Rottweiler

Why the fit of pique? Well, Hughes, who typically says little in public about his investments, argues that Astrand has moved from being an enthusiastic advocate for consolidation to a staunch opponent.

It’s hard not to agree with him. Too many irrational mergers take place as a consequence of over-reaching executives, and too many rational ones are stymied because of the self-serving behaviour of board members.

At Speedy Hire, there’s sound logic to a merger with HSS, with tens of millions of pounds of available cost synergies.

Astrand earns £219,000 as Speedy Hire’s executive chairman.

Could it be that his opposition to a deal stems from the fact that the combined company would probably down tools on him?

Hands-On Approach

We’re coming to the end of football’s summer transfer season, but Guy Hands is certainly picking up where the Premier League is leaving off.

Fresh from recruiting the former Lloyds Banking Group executive Andrew Geczy as the chief executive of Terra Firma, his private equity firm, sources say Hands has also signed the respected Iain Kennedy from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Kennedy, a former Duke Street Capital stalwart, will join Terra Firma as its head of private equity – another key role at a firm which harbours ambitions of raising external capital for deals.

Read more: Terra Firma's Guy Hands drops EMI lawsuit against Citigroup

Hands’ reputation was dealt a big blow back in June this year when he dropped his legal action against Citi over the ill-fated purchase of EMI.

But with Justin King, the former Sainsbury’s boss, also occupying a senior berth at the firm, you can’t accuse Hands of being short of big names as he seeks to reinvent his business.

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