THE over-50s insurance group Saga has fired the starting gun on a stock market flotation which will be the biggest public offer of shares since the Royal Mail.

The private equity-owned company, which has more than two million customers, is expected to be valued at around £3 billion including debt.

Members of the public will be able to apply for a minimum of £1000 of shares in the company, although customers and staff will be given priority and will also be entitled to one free share for every 20 they acquire.

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Saga has already canvassed its customers and found that around 700,000 would be interested in buying shares.

The move will be the biggest shares sell-off since the controversial sale of Royal Mail last October, when more than 700,000 people applied for shares in a flotation that initially valued the delivery firm at £3.3bn.

The flotation will also represent a big pay day for an estimated 6000 current and former employees of Saga and its sister business the AA.

They own about 13% of the business, alongside private equity firms including Charterhouse.

Executive chairman Andrew Goodsell said: "Our customers are at the heart of our brand and I am delighted that they will have an opportunity to become shareholders in the company and to be part of the next stage of our journey."

Saga, which started as an out-of-season holiday provider in 1950, now offers services ranging from cruises and holidays, home and motor insurance, savings and share dealing through to the UK's best-selling Saga Magazine.

Proceeds of around £550 million will be used to reduce debt.