True North floats acquisition reserve

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True North Communications is stocking up to hit the acquisition trail.

The Chicago-based holding company--parent of Foote, Cone & Belding and Bozell Worldwide--filed papers with the Securities & Exchange Commission last week registering 4 million shares of stock, worth approximately $116 million.

True North CEO Bruce Mason said the filing is a "shelf registration" to create reserves for acquisitions.

"It's just to have it there ... but there's nothing imminent and we have nothing in mind," he said.

He did add, however, that True North is having "informal conversations" with several parties.


Having finished the process of putting together True North and Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt following their Dec. 30 merger, the company can turn its attention to beefing up its presence in some European markets and picking up "low-hanging fruit in the U.S.," said Mr. Mason.

True North has been building its overseas operations since the breakup of its joint venture with Paris-based Publicis Communication last summer, and also is seeking U.S. acquisitions for its Associated Communications unit.

At the company's annual meeting in May, Mr. Mason had said Bates Worldwide is "a good possibility," but he later denied, as did Bates executives, that any such talks were taking place.

True North, which owns a 4% stake in Shandwick, London, also was mentioned as a potential buyer for that public relations company, which financial analysts have valued at approximately $160 million.

Most potential suitors have found the price too steep.

The SEC filing anticipates a price of $29.03 per share for the latest offering; the stock closed at $30.63 on the day of the filing. True North's stock has risen as high as $34 per share during the last 52 weeks, through the BJK&E deal and a court battle with Publicis, which sought to stop the acquisition.


True North is expected to raise more money by yearend, when it sells off its 26% interest in Publicis. An option in their separation agreement forces Publicis to buy True North's stake back at an agreed-upon price of more than $200 million if True North chooses to exercise the option.

"We definitely intend to get out of that investment" and redeploy the cash soon afterward in other acquisitions that will bring a better return, Mr. Mason said last week.

Copyright July 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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