RETAILING billionaire Philip Green yesterday slammed a weekend report that he was quitting the contest to win control of the Safeway supermarket group as "rubbish and mischief-making".
The owner of the BHS and Arcadia clothing chains is the only potential bidder who has avoided a regulatory reference - with Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt due to give her judgment on the other would-be bidders shortly, perhaps this week.
These are the four supermarket groups Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Wal-Mart-owned Asda, and William Morrison.
Green had been quoted in a Sunday paper as having said last Thursday at a party for the opening of a new store by Burton and Dorothy Perkins, both Arcadia-owned: "I wouldn’t put any of my money into [Safeway] ... and I wouldn’t put anyone else’s in either, not if I liked them."
But Green told The Scotsman yesterday: "I have complained strongly to the paper. This is children’s stuff, it’s rubbish, mischief-making.
"Anybody who knows me would know I’m not going to discuss this a week or so before the report [from Hewitt] comes out. I haven’t been talking for the past five months on the issue. Why now?
"I am going to wait until the report comes out, which I have been doing for the past five months. That is what logic dictates."
Green indicated that his options remained open on whether to proceed with a bid for Safeway, Britain’s fourth biggest supermarket group, adding he wanted to "see what the Trade and Industry Secretary decides".
A spokesman for Safeway said of Green’s alleged withdrawal from the takeover battle that "one must always take comments made at a party with a pinch of salt".
Another spokesman for the supermarket chain later told The Scotsman: "We have had no contact with Philip Green. We would not expect any potential bidder to make a decision until the report is published."
Safeway said that the only contact with Green was at a meeting arranged for 22 May. However, the entrepreneur withdrew from the meeting saying he was feeling unwell and had not contacted Safeway since, said the spokesman.
Green was seen as having avoided the regulatory inquiry because, although one of Britain’s biggest retailers, he has no supermarket interests.
Three years ago, he announced he was considering making an offer for the then-struggling Marks & Spencer, before eventually deciding against making a bid.
Most City analysts believe it is likely that Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda - Britain’s three biggest supermarkets - will be blocked by Hewitt from bidding for Safeway because of their already big market shares.
It is thought Bradford-based William Morrison, which triggered the scramble for Safeway with an agreed offer last January, stands a reasonable chance of being cleared to bid.
However, many analysts believe that if Morrison is the only supermarket group allowed to bid for Safeway, it may face not only potential competition from the wealthy BHS-owner but also private equity groups.
Allders department store group was recently bought by a private equity consortium, and Debenhams is being fought over by two groups of private equity houses.
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