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HR Owen shares attracting interest down under

HR Owen, the prestigious London car retail group run by Nick Lancaster, is in play with big blocks of shares being scooped up by a wealthy car dealer running a string of retailers in Australia.

The buyer is Neville Crichton of Ateco Automotive which imports luxury and sports cars into New Zealand and Australia. The shares have been acquired through his holding company, Balverona. Stock Exchange records show that he has built a stake of more than 27% making him the largest single shareholder.

He has paid as much as £1.50 a share compared with the prevailing market price of 145p, and an asset value at under 60p according to the published balance sheet of last June. He is a keen ocean racing yachtsman and has been quoted by financial newswires as saying that he is “not making a bid at this point” but rates HR Owen as “the Harrods of the car business in the UK.”

The seller is believed to be Jack Petchy, the British octogenarian tactical investor who is a property expert and has been involved with both Watford and Aston Villa football clubs.

Meanwhile, HR Owen non-executive director, Brendan Moynahan, has been buying shares through an American family trust, Shelton, giving it 16% of the company. Before these transactions, the big three shareholders were the Lancaster family with 22%, Petchy and the Shelton Corporation in that order. The board is understood to have more than 50% between them.

Another antipodean motor dealer is on the board, Colin Giltrap, one of the richest and most publicity-shy businessmen in New Zealand. He is a motor racing fanatic and made his money out of opening car retailers in the country. Just to add glamour to the shareholder list, drummers – Phil Collins and Nick Mason, are both investors.

This is the third time in two years that HR Owen, which also trades under the historic Jack Barclay name, has been on bid alert. On the second occasion, Nick Lancaster was himself the bidder with a proposed management buyout and had to remove himself to his home in France while talks progressed.

HR Owen is recovering from an expansion into volume car brands in London and a year of record losses of £11.3 million in 2005. It now concentrates on Bentley, Rolls, Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini , Maserati and Alfa only.

A spokesman for HR Owen said: “We are aware of the share movements and view those changes with interest.”

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