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French bankers lead race to buy Kwik-Fit from Ford

French bank BNP Paribas has emerged as a leading candidate to buy Kwik-Fit from Ford. The bank's PAI subsidiary is understood to have made a £600m offer for Kwik-Fit, which was put up for sale by Ford in December 2001.

PAI already has a stake in Belron, the multinational owner of Autoglass. Together, Kwik-Fit and Autoglass could provide PAI with a formidable combination of brands in a European aftermarket liberated by block exemption law changes.

BNP may yet be outbid, however. Three other private equity groups - Apax, CVC and Permira - are still in the race to buy Kwik-Fit.

Ford bought the fast-fit chain in 1999 for £1bn as part of a diversification into retailing championed by then chief executive Jac Nasser. Now Nasser has gone, Ford is rapidly reversing its retail policy - even though it stands to lose £400m on Kwik-Fit.

However, some commentators have hinted that Ford may keep a small stake in the company. Kwik-Fit founder Sir Tom Farmer says he has no intention of bidding for the business which he founded in Edinburgh in 1971, although he left open the prospect of working with the company's new owner. He has also hinted he may start up a new automotive retail venture if there is no role for him at Kwik-Fit.

The business - with 2400 outlets across Europe - would combine well with the Autoglass operation, which specialises in mobile repairs. Both brands have buoyant fleet businesses. Changes to European retail laws could see brands like Kwik-Fit taking on service and repair contracts for newer cars still under warranty. The new owner of Kwik-Fit is expected to downsize the chain after acquisition. Insiders say bidding will be over soon.

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