Merlin on hunt for City agency

Merlin Entertainments seeks financial specialist as private equity owner looks to float firms.

Merlin Entertainments: owner of Thorpe Park and London Eye
Merlin Entertainments: owner of Thorpe Park and London Eye

Merlin Entertainments, the biggest visitor attraction operator in Europe, is seeking a corporate and financial specialist agency as its private equity owner Blackstone pledges to list or sell a host of companies.

Blackstone Group, the world's largest buyout firm, is reportedly planning to list up to eight of its portfolio companies and sell at least five others in light of improved market conditions.

Merlin - 50 per cent owned by Blackstone and 20 per cent by Dubai International Capital (DIC) - has long been identified as a candidate for an IPO. But the company formed in March 2007 by the merger of Merlin and DIC's Tussauds Group seemed to have put any flotation plans on hold as the markets tanked.

It is understood that Merlin held pitches for a retained corporate account last week and that future capital markets activity was a crucial part of the brief.

The company met with a number of financial transaction PR specialists, with a shortlist of three understood to include College Hill, FD and Tulchan Communications.

Merlin, valued at around £2bn and owner of attractions such as the London Eye, Thorpe Park and Alton Towers, is also thought to be seeking an investor relations specialist to work in-house.

Sally Ann Wilkinson, founder of The Firm, which looks after Merlin's corporate affairs, declined to confirm the details of the pitch. She said: 'We are constantly looking at agencies for all sorts of reasons.'

Other Blackstone brands thought to be readying to float include United Biscuits and restaurant owner Tragus.

More private equity activity was seen this week by the announcement China Private Equity is set to list on London's AIM market. First day dealing is expected on 19 October and the firm has hired Biddicks, led by director Shane Dolan, to advise on the transaction.

This activity is another illustration private equity firms in general are waking from their slumber to drive IPO and M&A markets through the first half of next year.

Tim Hames, head of comms and public affairs at the British Venture Capital Association said: 'The past three quarters have been pretty dire, but there is now a sense that the private equity industry has survived the worst. There are a number of big players who have substantial amounts of uncommitted capital and at some point will have to make a move with it.'

HOW I SEE IT - Jason Nisse, Director, Fishburn Hedges

There is a lot of pent up pressure in the private equity industry. Essentially there has been at least 18 months in which these firms have found it extremely difficult to refinance, sell or float businesses. Private equity companies typically have a three- to five-year timescale on their investments and so now have a catalogue of these investments that they will want to release.

The debt market remains very thin, making refinancing difficult. Given the recovery of the equity markets and pent up demand from investors, the IPO market would seem to give private equity firms a natural exit at the moment.

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