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Northern Ireland firms eyed up for takeover by European and US companies

By John Mulgrew

Published 19/07/2016

Big attraction: John-George Willis
Big attraction: John-George Willis

A growing number of Northern Ireland businesses are likely to be the targets of takeovers by European and US companies in the coming months as the pound continues to weaken, it is claimed.

An "increase in acquisitions" by companies outside the UK can be expected, attracted by a slump in the value of sterling in the wake of Brexit, according to John-George Willis, head of the corporate department at Belfast law firm Tughans.

"What we will see in the short to medium term is a heightened level of interest, where companies are running their eye over targets," he said.

"I anticipate that we will see firms in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, acquired by European and US companies... given the drop in sterling."

His comments come as ARM Holdings, the UK's most successful technology company, was snapped up in a £24bn deal by Japan's SoftBank.

"It is cheaper for companies based in the eurozone and the US (to buy companies in the UK) - the forecasts are sterling will continue to drop," Mr Willis said.

"You can expect US and eurozone companies will be running their eyes over Northern Ireland."

In the period since the EU referendum on June 23 - less than a month ago - the value of sterling against the US dollar has plummeted from $1.48 to $1.32.

And against the euro, the pound dropped from €1.31 on June 23 to just under €1.20 yesterday.

Mr Willis said takeover deals for Northern Ireland businesses could be largely positive.

"The upside is that you have investment going into businesses here," he said.

"Very rarely are businesses taken over here at a substantial price, where there is employment restructuring. Employee numbers will increase, and they will be stronger as part of a larger organisation."

However, he said the "downside" is that it "further cements the case that we are part of a branch economy".

"Someone could take a decision in Dusseldorf or Chicago to restructure operations worldwide."

Meanwhile, ARM Holdings's new owner SoftBank pledged to embark on a major recruitment drive and hold onto the existing management team following its swoop for the Cambridge-based firm, which supplies technology for Apple's iPhone.

Some recent European takeovers of Northern Ireland firms include Belfast medical software firm PathXL, which was bought over by Dutch technology giant Philips last month.

Mr Willis' comments come amid reports that the sale of energy giant Gaelectric's cross-border wind farm portfolio has come under pressure amid Brexit uncertainty.

According to the Sunday Business Post, sources close to potential bidders of the portfolio - whose wind farms are said to be worth more than £200m - said issues around the volatility of the pound was impacting price.

But Mr Willis questioned whether anyone in the US or eurozone would be put off by Brexit.

"I'd question why a potential buyer based in a euro territory or dollar territory would get cold feet at such a purchase in relation to the Northern Ireland assets, given the drop in the level of sterling."

He also said the uncertainty among businesses here post-Brexit was "temporary".

Belfast Telegraph

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