Belfast Telegraph

More US takeovers on cards with Northern Ireland companies lined up

By Margaret Canning

Uncle Sam will be knocking on the doors of Northern Ireland companies again this year as conditions favouring takeovers by US firms continue, it's been claimed.

A prediction of double the number of takeovers of Northern Ireland firms by their transatlantic cousins came as financial details emerged about two of 2014's biggest deals.

According to the Sunday Times, Liberty Mutual in Boston paid €73m (£49.7m) for Newtownards-based insurance broker Hughes Insurance - representing a major windfall for company founder Leslie Hughes and other company owners.

And the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that filings by Brunswick Corporation in Chicago also reveal that it coughed up $29.6m (£20m) for its Northern Ireland acquisition, Whale Pumps in Bangor.

The Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that Patrick Hurst, the man credited with driving much of the growth at the pump systems firm, has been replaced at the top by Patrick Roberts.

However, Mr Hurst, a former finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme, is still providing advice to the firm.

John George Willis, head of the corporate department at law firm Tughans - advisers for Brunswick in their acquisition of Whale Pumps - predicted double the number of big US-Northern Ireland deals in 2015.

Food, engineering and software firms were all likely targets.

He said: "I would say that Uncle Sam will be knocking on the doors of Northern Ireland firms this year. That's for two main reasons - big US firms have cash on their balance sheets to spend as, at least up until now, there has been no interest rate increase by the Federal Reserve.

"As well as that, the dollar is stronger than ever so there will be big potential for acquisitions in Europe for US firms. A negative factor will be the impending general election - though mainly for any English acquirers - as well as what's going on in Stormont.

"However, these are headwinds and the overall trend is there - and will continue."

Tughans also acted in the acquisition of manufacturing firm Telestack in Omagh by Astec for $36m (£24.2m).

Richard Gray, a partner in law firm Carson McDowell, said 2014 had seen continued Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) transaction recovery after some difficult years.

He cited the purchase of Bushmills by Jose Cuervo, as well as the recent Whale Pumps and Telestack deals, as signs of major overseas interest.

He said: "There are also strong signs of increased confidence and appetite amongst leading local businesses such as Eakin Healthcare and Lowe Refrigeration as they look for new acquisition opportunities, whether domestic or international."

And he added that despite the fear that the row in Stormont over welfare reform could put business confidence at risk, the trend should continue across a range of sectors.

"In some cases it is down to consolidation as the economy continues to lift out of recession. In others it may reflect ongoing challenges in market conditions and prices.

"It may be that business owners, having battled through the recession and put exit plans on hold, are now seeing asset prices recover. Certainly the long awaited increase in liquidity amongst debt funders will certainly help strengthen the rise in activity levels."

Carson McDowell was involved in a number of major M&A deals in 2014 and was named corporate law firm of the year at this month's Insider Dealmakers awards.

The firm recently acted in the acquisition of Belfast-based manufacturer Inter Weld by Swiss group Sulzer.

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