MILAN — Moulin International Holdings launched an unsolicited, $450 million bid for Cole National Group Inc., initiating a contest for the U.S. firm with Italian industry giant Luxottica, which has a $401 million bid on the table.

Moulin could not be reached for comment. A Cole shareholders meeting was scheduled for Tuesday to vote on the Luxottica bid, but that meeting is now postponed.

Following the Moulin bid, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services revised its CreditWatch ratings on Cole, which includes the “BB minus” corporate credit rating, to “developing” from “positive.” The firm said it would keep an eye on the deal as it develops.

Luxottica said in a release that it has not “deemed it necessary” to respond to the Moulin bid for Cole and that it will review the matters in “due course.”

Luxottica also said Cole’s board recommendation to shareholders for the Luxottica offer remains “in effect and has not been modified or changed.”

A Luxottica spokeswoman said the company is waiting to “see how the situation develops” and what Cole’s board decides.

In January, Luxottica launched a takeover bid for Cole at a price of $22.50 a share, which translates into a price of about $401 million. At the time, Luxottica chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio said the acquisition would bolster the group’s presence in North America.

Buying Cole would have provided Luxottica an additional 2,197 units across North America, including the Pearle Vision chain. Cole also operates one of the largest managed vision care benefit programs, as well as Things Remembered, a 728-location, mall-based personalized gift business.

The acquisition also would help Luxottica compensate for the highly publicized and unexpected termination of a 14-year licensing partnership with Giorgio Armani in late 2002. Armani inked a deal with Luxottica rival Safilo.

Last year, Luxottica signed licensing pacts with Versace and Prada to help compensate for the void left by Armani’s departure. It also bought Australian optical retailer OPSM Group, which has a significant presence in Asia.

Armani was one of Luxottica’s biggest licenses, accounting for 7.2 percent of sales. Luxottica posted 2003 sales of $3.19 billion, a drop of 11.2 percent on the year.— Amanda Kaiser

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