SODEXHO of France has seized one of the plums of the British catering

industry with the agreed purchase of Gardner Merchant for #730m

including #180m of debt. It will form the world's largest catering


Gardner, under chief executive Garry Hawkes and finance director Iain

Carslaw, was the subject of a management buyout from Forte in December

1992 -- the hotels group still retains a 24.8% stake -- and was backed

by CinVen and a consortium of banks including the Royal Bank of


It polished itself up in the summer months of last year for flotation

with a possible value of about #750m. However, changing market

conditions and approaches from trade purchasers led to the idea being

placed on ice.

Interested parties included Granada whose chief executive Gerry

Robinson had been hired from Gardner's arch competitor Compass and so

had an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Gardner businesses.

Granada already has a catering arm Sutcliffe but that is comparatively

insignificant when compared with Gardner's annualised turnover of around


Sodexho is one of the world's largest catering groups and looked at

Gardner as a takeover possibility in 1992. It intends running the

British company as a separate entity.

Gardner employs 55,000 people worldwide in 20 countries with around

30,000 in the UK.

In the half year to July, it achieved sales of #556m and pre-interest

profits of #26.9m.

Its Scottish operations include regional offices in Aberdeen,

Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paisley. Gardner's Kelvin subsidiary supplies

the North Sea oil industry and the armed services in the Falklands. The

leisure division includes brand names such as Town and County and Ring

and Brymer.