Branson may have to take less for stake

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Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, may be forced to accept a lower price for his majority stake in Virgin Mobile in order to sweeten the deal for minority shareholders after the mobile operator’s board rejected an offer from NTL valuing it at £817m.

Pressure on Sir Richard intensified on Friday night after NTL was forced to issue a statement by the Takeover Panel.

The company insisted its offer represented “better value for all Virgin Mobile shareholders than Virgin Mobile’s stand-alone alternatives.”

The cable operator, however, made clear it was keeping its options open.

The panel stepped in a day after comments by Sir Richard, in which the billionaire said both sides were close to agreeing a deal and that the difference between the NTL offer and the price the board was seeking was “only £25m”.

But NTL is digging in its heels, and sources on Friday night indicated that rather than increasing its offer, Sir Richard may have to accept a lower price for his share of Virgin Mobile in order to make more money available to minority shareholders.

Sir Richard has verbally backed the move in principle and said he would accept shares in NTL in exchange for most of his 72 per cent stake in the mobile operator.

The cable group has made an indicative bid of 323p a share for Virgin Mobile but the minority shareholders, which include Fidelity and Morley, are thought to be looking for an offer of 350p-360p a share.

When NTL announced its potential offer for Virgin Mobile, it made clear that it had the right to make an offer at a price lower than 323p a share, a tactic normally designed to signal a bidder is prepared to alter the deal structure.

A dual price structured deal is rare but not unprecedented. When NatWest bought Gartmore, the fund managers, in 1996, Banque Indosuez, owner of a 75 per cent stake, received 225p, while minorities received 250p.

NTL and Virgin Mobile refused to comment. Virgin Mobile shares closed unchanged at 355p, valuing the company at £917m.

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