Cordiant considers buyout bid in Oz

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[SYDNEY] With one of its biggest clients in review, Cordiant's entire Australian operation, including the country's largest ad agency George Patterson Bates, is considering a $60 million buyout bid. The deal could be the beginning of a piecemeal break-up of the Bates network and other Cordiant holdings.

One of the next pieces to go could be Cordiant's stake in its second agency network, Hamburg, Germany-based Scholz & Friends, with offices in 13 European countries.

The $60 million offer from local venture-capital firm Pacific Equity Partners comes to light as it emerges that Cordiant Communications Group's $19 million Hyundai car account is in review in Australia.

Once Cordiant's best hope for a global client, Hyundai fired Bates USA last year, awarded some brands to non-Bates agencies in Korea, and is now reviewing the business in Australia.

Among other clients, New South Wales Tourism is also in review, National Australia Bank is talking to rival networks and speculation is rife that Optus Communications, Australia's No. 2 telecommunications group, is reviewing.

Add the possible GPB sale to the likely disposal of Cordiant's 25% stake in ZenithOptimedia at the end of this year and it seems a piecemeal disposal is in the cards.

big business

Although the Australian operation's gross income dropped by 27% in 2001, it accounted for $78.8 million of Cordiant's total 2001 gross income of $1.17 billion, according to Advertising Age figures.

The potential buyer, PEP, has links to David Hearn, Cordiant's chief executive, who backed its unsuccessful bid for his former company, Australian food group Goodman Fielder, 18 months ago. PEP is expected to try to buy 70% of Cordiant's Australian unit, leaving Cordiant with 20% and local managers with 10%.

PEP has never bought an ad group before, but its strategy is to re-organize the companies it acquires and re-sell them at a profit; PEP's last deal was the purchase of local beverage player Frucor, later sold to Danone. In Australia, Cordiant had a record $7 million loss in 2001, but local managers said pre-tax earnings for 2002 should be between $7 million and $9 million.

Mr. Hearn said he does not comment on market speculation. Michael Bungey, who Mr. Hearn succeeded Jan. 1, 2003, was in Australia last week but did not return calls. PEP executives would not comment.

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