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Receivers at Firstford as takeover talks fail

FIRSTFORD, the automobile dealership with eight franch-ises in the west of Scotland, has gone into receivership after failing to negotiate a takeover by an unnamed company believed to be the Lancaster Group of Colchester.

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Receivers from Grant Thornton, who were called in yesterday, confirmed Firstford had been in discussions with a company that was still interested in possibly buying the business. However, they emphasised that other expressions of interest had also been received, adding that the unnamed suitor was not a preferred bidder. ''I can't confirm the name you have mentioned, but I can say (Firstford) has been in discussions with an interested party,'' joint receiver Matt Henderson said. Industry sources pointed to the Lancaster Group, the Essex- based dealership ultimately owned by Jardine Matheson, the diversified holding com-pany quoted on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Some traders speculated the deal must have fallen through because Firstford's asking price was too high, thus triggering the receivership. Firstford, which employs 300 people and has an annual turnover of £ 100m, will cont-inue trading as normal until a buyer is found. Henderson said customers due to pick up cars this weekend would find their automobiles ready as expected. Firstford was formed two years ago by the merger of two well-known names in the west of Scotland automobile trade, Wylies and Eleander. The two businesses were owned respectively by the Carlaw and Fraser families, with the Carlaws now owning 74% of Firstford, and the Frasers controlling the remaining 26%. The business might draw attention from Reg Vardy, the London-listed car dealership. Sir Peter Vardy, son of the company's founder, re-assumed the chief executive's role earlier this week and announced plans to add at least eight Scottish dealerships to the network within the next two years. Scottish giant Arnold Clark, headed by its eponymous founder, would also seem a natural buyer. However, neither company's chief executive was available yesterday to comment. Although Henderson said the receivers were confident of securing about half a dozen serious expressions of interest, one trade source questioned the attraction of Firstford: ''The reality is they've been clearly headed into receivership for the last two years.'' The source said the business, headed jointly by Jackson Carlaw and Duncan Fraser, was all but doomed to fail because of its operating and management structures. Firstford was set up as a Central Marketing Area (CMA), an amalgamation of franchises designed to avoid intra-dealer competition. The CMA concept was pushed heavily in the UK by the Ian McAllister, the former chairman of Ford Brit-ain and now chair of Railtrack successor Network Rail. Ford has now all but abandoned CMAs in the US, while a number in the UK have gone bust. The most recent casualties include the Hamer CMA in Birmingham and the Quartic CMA south of Birmingham. Grant Thornton's Henderson refused to confirm whether Ford Credit Europe had called in the receivers. As the provider of finance for dealer stocking as well as customer sales, Ford Credit is likely to be among those owed the most money by Firstford.

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