Dermot Desmond, the Irish billionaire and an investor in Ladbrokes, has urged shareholders in the troubled bookmaker to oppose its £2bn merger with rival Coral less than a week before they are due to vote on the deal.
Mr Desmond, who is thought to own at least 1pc of the bookie, has written an open letter to other shareholders in which he described the deal as “the death of Ladbrokes as an independent company”. He said that investors should vote against the merger at Tuesday’s general meeting and should call on Ladbrokes to hire an independent investment bank to help it “review all strategic options” open to it in “a very active M&A market”.
The tie-up, which the two companies agreed in July, will create Britain’s biggest bookie by betting shops with the combined business potentially owning about 4,000 sites. As well as giving Ladbrokes, which has fallen behind its competitors in recent years, much-needed scale, it also gives the bookie access to privately-owned Coral’s well-regarded online business.
However, because the combined company would own so many shops the deal faces intense scrutiny from the competition regulator, which is likely to demand disposals. Investors have been unimpressed by the deal, with Ladbrokes’s shares initially jumping in June when it emerged the two bookies were in talks, but then slumping by 22pc. The stock was unchanged at 109.3p today.
“The real winners in this transaction are the Coral shareholders,” said Mr Desmond, who sold the Betdaq exchange to Ladbrokes for €30m in 2013. “Make no mistake – this is a zero premium acquisition of Ladbrokes by Coral.”
He said that the company could be forced by the Competition and Markets Authority to sell as many as 1,000 sites and that “the lost profits from any such disposed shops may outweigh the unspecified synergies which the proposed transaction is hoped to yield”.
A Ladbrokes shareholder said the bookie had been aware of Mr Desmond’s views but was confident the merger would receive enough shareholder support.
"We have had significant dealings with Mr Desmond as both a shareholder and a commercial partner over recent times,” he said.
“We note his views and are not surprised by them as he has been in extensive dialogue with the management team and not been afraid to talk of undertaking such action. As a shareholder he has a right to express his view and to vote accordingly at the EGM next week.
“We remain confident that shareholders see the attraction of the proposed deal and continue to work towards a successful conclusion to the deal."
The British gambling industry has been gripped by a wave of deal-making, with Paddy Power merging with Betfair and online gambling group GVC buying rival Bwin.Party. William Hill has been left on the sidelines.
Nick Batram, an analyst at Peel Hunt, said Mr Desmond’s intervention could encourage a bidder for Ladbrokes.
“It is contradictory in places and doesn’t really put forward much of an alternative plan, other than putting the group up for sale,” the analyst said of the letter. “However, it could just act as a catalyst to encourage others to join the fray, and a competitive situation should be good news for shareholders.”