A U.S. activist investor wants to push Britain’s biggest theme park owner off the stock market, saying it would be worth more in private hands.
Shareholders in Legoland and Alton Towers operator Merlin Entertainments Plc have had a rocky ride since the Danish family that owns the Lego toy brand listed the company in 2013. Terrorist attacks and Brexit have clouded prospects for a business that relies on steady growth in visitor numbers to turn a profit on heavy investments.
ValueAct Capital, which lobbied for change at Britain’s Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, said in an open letter to Merlin’s board on Thursday that it needs to spend more on new hotels and Legoland parks and that’s hard to do as a public company when capital returns are falling. It pointed to recent analyst downgrades that sent the shares tumbling.
The activist said the owner of tourist attractions including the London Eye and Madame Tussauds could fetch a price in the mid-4 pounds a share in a public-to-private sale.
Merlin shares rose as much as 6.7 percent in London on Thursday, giving the company a market value of about 3.6 billion pounds ($4.5 billion).
Merlin stock’s closing price of 332.5 pence on Wednesday is not far from the 315 pence it sold for in the initial public offering, even though earnings per share have grown 36 percent since then, according to San Francisco-based ValueAct.
“Put simply, Merlin has struggled as a public company,” ValueAct President Garrison Mason Morfit wrote in the letter to Merlin Chairman John Sunderland. “Private ownership is simply better placed than current public shareholders to underwrite the investments Merlin must make.”
Merlin’s board shot back, saying in a statement it had held talks with ValueAct and still believed its own strategy would bring shareholders significant value.
More public companies are being taken private thanks in large part to the swelling cash reserves of private equity bidders. Last year, the number of public-to-private deals hit its highest in more than a decade, according to Bain & Co.’s annual private equity report. Parques Reunidos, a Madrid-based entertainment operator, last month attracted a bid from a group of investors.
Europe holds particular interest to activists trying to change how companies are run because family stakes, cross shareholdings, and government involvement are common among European corporations, which can breed inefficiencies that activist funds seek to exploit.
ValueAct won a board seat at British engineering icon Rolls-Royce in 2016 and bought into Merlin in 2017, the year its shares plunged as terror attacks in London and Manchester deterred tourism. It now owns 9.3 percent of Merlin’s stock while Danish billionaire Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen’s holding company Kirkbi Invest A/S owns 30 percent. Its press department declined to comment.
ValueAct’s Morfit wrote that Merlin has lowered long-term incentive plans for management, which could be harming the ability to retain talented staff.
“Years of continued share price underperformance can be demoralizing and destabilizing for employees,” he added.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.