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Ecclestone sells - but who is the buyer?

WE hear that Bernie Ecclestone has completed the sale of part of his Formula One Holdings empire - but not to Morgan╩Grenfell╩Private╩Equity as had been expected. Morgan Grenfell paid $325m for a 12.5% share in the company in November and agreed an option to buy another 37.5% for a further $975m. That deal was to have been completed by December 31, 1999 but we understand that the option was then extended until the end of January.

In the middle of January there were suggestions that all was not well with the deal when Robert Tchenguiz issued a writ at the High Court in London claiming that MGPE had made assurances to back a bid for FOH by his company, the Rotch╩Property╩Group. Whatever the case, MGPE's chief executive Graham Hutton has confirmed that the company did not take up the option. "We are happy with our 12.5 percent investment in Formula 1," he said. "It is performing well." Hutton said that MGPE expects to hold on to its stake until FOH is floated within the next three years.

Stories from Germany then suggested that Ecclestone had sold 75% of the company to a media group called EM TV. This is part of a Dutch company called Wavery Productions BV which is a big player in the European licensing, merchandising, television rights sales and syndication industries, controlling lucrative brand names such as Popeye, the Pink Panther, Elvis╩Presley, James Bond, Betty Boop and Woody Woodpecker. This deal was denied by all concerned, although Ecclestone confirmed that he met the boss of EM TV recently in Kitzbuhel, in Austria, for a brief discussion.

We hear that while all this has been going on Ecclestone has agreed a deal to sell the shares to an American investment bank called the Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group, which specializes in underwriting the public sale of technology-related companies. FBR is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange although it is still run by founders Emanuel Friedman, Eric Billings and Russell Ramsey. In the last year the company has been involved in IPOs with NetCreations, Key Energy Corp, Cysive, Proxicom, Broadvision and Sapient.

The sale has yet to be confirmed but it seems that there is considerable interest in FOH in the US financial community at the moment which, despite not knowing much about the sport, recognizes an impressive balance sheet.

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