Bidding war for WBL heating up

A takeover battle has recently been brewing over 107-year-old WBL Corp, leading to questions over what the rival parties see in the venerable but often-neglected conglomerate.

Once criticised by its own investors for having its fingers in too many pies, the conglomerate's diversified businesses - or rather the potential of unlocking value from them - may be one of the biggest draws for its bidders.

This certainly seems to be the case for United Engineers (UE) which offered $4 last month for each WBL share.

UE's proposed bid is higher than the earlier offer of an effective $3.36 from The Straits Trading Company (STC), which also has a stock option of new STC stock for each WBL share tendered. UE chief executive Jackson Yap has argued that the takeover would allow the developer to enhance value across WBL's diverse portfolio of businesses, such as property, technology and car distribution.

He noted that the automotive business could be a source of recurring income.

UE, a property, engineering and construction firm, also pointed out the more obvious benefits of it being able to expand its property business.

Similarly STC which has businesses in tin smelting and mining, property and hospitality would likely find the most synergy in WBL's property arm.

This battle is still far from an end-game, with UE needing to get its own shareholders' approval before it tables its offer officially.

But already the bidders seem to be optimistic over their ability to unlock value from chronically-ignored WBL - by getting WBL's neglected assets on the cheap before deciding what to do with them.

Future options could well include splitting up the businesses to fetch higher prices individually or by improving the units piece by piece.

Maybank Kim Eng Research notes that WBL is not covered by any broker in the market given its illiquidity and tight float. Even amid the bidding contest, Maybank Kim Eng and CIMB Research have analysed WBL only in the context of existing UE coverage.

Still the analysts see potential in WBL, valuing it above $5 and much higher than both offers.

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