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Bidders for Whitbread line up

Former business partners Hugh Osmond, chief executive of Punch Taverns, and Luke Johnson, owner of Belgo restaurants, are heading the teams racing to buy Whitbread's pubs.

Hugh Osmond, chief executive of pub operator Punch Taverns, is to lead a bid for Whitbread’s 3,000-strong pub estate, the Financial Times reports. The majority of an offer would be made in cash but shareholders may also be offered a warrant that would give them an option over Punch equity of the enlarged group.

Whitbread and Punch insiders have claimed that £30m of savings could be made by merging Mr Osmond’s existing managed pubs with Whitbread’s, according to the newspaper.

Meanwhile, rival bidder Luke Johnson, owner of the Belgo chain of restaurants and co-founder of the PizzaExpress restaurant chain, will now be backed by Lehman Brothers and Morgan Grenfell Private Equity in his bid for the Whitbread pubs, according to the Guardian.

Mr Johnson had initially had the backing of Schroder Ventures to bid for the estate, but the private equity firm is understood to have withdrawn its support some 10 days ago.

Nomura's Principal Finance Group, which owns 6,000 pubs after acquiring the Bass pub estate last week, is also a contender for the group and private equity firm Candover is also still in the running.

Whitbread hopes to gain between £1.4bn and 1.6bn for the estate, which consists of 1,710 leased pubs, and 1,288 managed pubs including the Hogshead and Casa bar chains.

It is expected that the successful bidder will be named by the end of March.