Bury-born property tycoon John Whittaker is leading a £2.9 billion bid to take over intu, owners of 20 major shopping centres in prime locations in the UK and Spain, including the Trafford Centre and Manchester Arndale.
His Peel Group – which built the Trafford Centre and ran it until selling it to intu in 2011 for £1.6 billion – is the major player in the bidding consortium along with Canadian asset manager Brookfield and Saudi Arabia’s Olayan Group.
Their offer of 215p per share, increased from an earlier offer of 205p, saw intu’s stock rise by 21 per cent.
Mr Whittaker, 76, is currently deputy chairman of intu and Peel owns 27 per cent of intu’s shares as a result of the deal struck when the Trafford Centre was sold. intu’s empire includes Lakeside in Essex, the Metrocentre in Gateshead and Merry Hill in the West Midlands.
The timing of the takeover bid is intriguing. Earlier this year, intu was the subject of a much bigger, £3.4 billion attempted takeover by Hammerson, which owns Bicester Village and London’s Brent Cross. The proposed deal fell through, reportedly due to shareholder opposition.
One of the most astute and successful businessmen in the UK, with a fortune estimated at £2.25 billion by the 2018 Sunday Times Rich List, Mr Whittaker began building his property empire in the 1970s by snapping up mill companies whose buildings and land were worth more than the shares, and redeveloping the sites.
Always prepared to play a long game, Mr Whittaker fought a bitter, 10-year hostile takeover battle for the ownership of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, not for the historic Victorian waterway which was by then in steep decline, but for the surrounding land – in particular, 300 acres around the obscure canalside village of Dumplington.
He had the vision to see that shopping would become a major leisure pastime provided shopping centres were attractive enough – and the creation of ‘The’ Trafford Centre was his main objective in the battle for the ship canal company. From the start restaurants and a cinema were part of the plans.
But Peel’s 1986 takeover victory triggered another battle – this time a legal challenge led by Manchester city council opposing the project for fear of the commercial damage that the centre could inflict on traditional town centres in Greater Manchester.
Planning permission, granted in 1993, was overturned in the Court of Appeal the following year, but re-instated in the House of Lords in 1995. Construction work began in 1996 and the Trafford Centre opened two years later. It is celebrating its 20th birthday this year.
In the years that followed, Peel realised Mr Whittaker’s long standing ambition to create MediaCityUK in the Port of Manchester’s disused docklands, now home to the BBC and ITV studios and major independent film and TV production facilities. Peel sold 50 per cent of MediaCityUK to Legal and General in 2015 in a £500 million deal.
The Peel Group, which also operates wind farms, ports and airports including Liverpool John Lennon, was taken private by Mr Whittaker in 2004.