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Series of mergers will alter business terrain

Scottish companies are expected to be involved in a flurry of mergers and acquisitions as firms that emerged from the downturn in good shape flex their muscles.

EXPANSION: Ian Steele of Deloitte said companies are looking abroad for opportunities. Picture: Colin Templeton
EXPANSION: Ian Steele of Deloitte said companies are looking abroad for opportunities. Picture: Colin Templeton

But some investors believe uncertainty about the implications of the independence referendum in 2014 will weigh on activity amid challenging economic conditions.

Prominent advisers predict while M&A activity will remain muted in Scotland this year, some corporations and investors will make big moves.

David Leslie, head of corporate finance in Scotland at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said the "Big Four" accountant has won several mandates from clients looking to buy businesses in recent weeks.

"People are saying we have got funds and we want to make acquisitions in the UK and internationally," said Mr Leslie.

He noted strong interest in sectors such as oil and gas, power and engineering. These have benefited from globalisation and are insulated to a degree from the slowdown in consumer spending.

While the UK economic outlook is uncertain, Mr Leslie noted Scotland is well-represented with firms that have strong balance sheets which they are ready to draw on to build positions in favoured markets. This could involve Scottish companies buying at home and overseas. Foreign and UK predators are hunting for deals in Scotland.

Ian Steele, who leads the corporate finance advisory business in Scotland & Northern Ireland at Deloitte, said while activity in the central belt market is muted, the company is advising on a number of deals.

"Companies with cash are looking to the markets where they see growth – the Middle East, the Far East, that's where companies are looking to expand," he said.

With many private equity companies keen to develop their portfolios some London houses are eyeing opportunities in Scotland.

"Activity that is happening is driven by companies that are exposed to high growth economies such as Asia," said Neil Patey at Ernst & Young.

"This means either strong domestic firms looking to acquire in these markets or inbound from India, America or Asia looking to acquire Scottish assets seen as relatively good value where the pound is at."

Mr Patey predicted the pace of deal activity in Aberdeen might accelerate with foreign national oil companies, majors and independents hunting for oil and gas assets.

Brian Aitken at Nevis Capital said the investment business is keen to back more firms in areas like power.

But he claimed: "The independence debate is bad news for deals in Scotland. There are so many uncertainties around it that are stalling deals in Scotland."

Mr Aitken asked: "Are we going to be part of the EU? What will the terms of trade be? What tax regime? What monetary policy?"

Torquil Macnaughton at Penta Capital said: "The more uncertainty around major issues, the more cautious investors will be."

Still, Glasgow-based Penta sees good opportunities to invest in the UK in sectors such as IT services, in which growth is being driven by technological change.

While discretionary consumer spending is under pressure, the leisure market around London is thriving.

Regarding the independence referendum, Shaun Middleton, managing partner at Dunedin, said: "Uncertainty over such a long period is not good. It's impacting lots of businesses in Scotland and others that potentially want to invest here."

But he noted: "We are not going to not make an investment just because a business is based in Scotland. There may be implications that affect the result in a marginal way."

The Edinburgh-based private equity firm backed a £34.5 million management buyout of Scotland's Premier Hytemp steel business last month.

Mr Middleton predicted: "There are always opportunities that come out of these kind of environments."

Banks are starting to require companies they have taken under their wings to sell subsidiaries.

But experts in debt markets like Bruce Walker at KPMG have noted efforts by companies to refinance borrowings taken out in some cases before the financial crisis are putting pressure on limited supplies of bank funding.

"2013 will be a busy year for many corporate borrowers as they seek to refinance," said Mr Walker.

Stephen Campbell, of Panoramic Growth Equity, predicted a surge in MBO activity but cautioned: "Banks are still very unpredictable, everything is taking longer to get done."

The bank-funded Business Growth Fund, however, is recruiting four people to cope with an expected increased workload after doing three deals in Scotland in 2012.

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