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Family keeps out Aussies

By Nick Stride

Friday 30th May 2003

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The family of the late Sir Robert Owens, founder of New Zealand transport icon Owens Group, has pitched in to help forestall a takeover by Australia's Toll Holdings.

Fellow trucking company Mainfreight bought a 10.1% blocking stake from two of Sir Robert's daughters, Robin Owens and Denise Donald.

Market analysts believe Toll, which two weeks ago took a 10% stake in Tranz Rail and is expected to make a full takeover offer, is interested in building a commanding position in the fragmented transport sector whether or not it gets Tranz Rail. Toll has done due diligence on Tranz Rail's trucking subsidiary Tranz Link.

Mainfreight managing director Don Braid played down his company's move, saying it bought the stake "because the opportunity arose" and was "good value" at 96c. He said he had no reason to believe anyone was interested in buying Owens.

Analysts said the circumstances of Mainfreight's buying left no doubt it was securing a blocking stake. It bought all the 6.83% stake held by Denise Donald and two others for $3.7 million and just enough of Robin Owens' 7.55% stake ­ 3.25% ­ to take it clear of 10%, enough to stop any other company from securing Owens' cashflows.

Mainfreight's blocking stake will come in handy if Toll pursues its transport sector aims. The Australian company has a market capitalisation of about $2.3 billion and conservative debt levels, so it could buy Owens Group, which has a current market value of $53 million, without blinking.

Mainfreight's market capitalisation is $102 million. With interest-bearing debt of $56 million and a net debt-to-equity ratio of 109.2% it has little latitude to take on large amounts of additional debt.

Owens on Wednesday sold its Hirepool equipment-hire business to a consortium of J B Were Private Equity Fund No 1 and business couple Sharon Hunter and Tenby Powell.

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