3i CEO says considering bids for UK govt assets

Investing in joint ventures with governments in all European countries is an interesting area for us,” Chief Executive Michael Queen told Reuters on the sidelines of a private equity conference in Berlin.

“We are looking at a range of things,” he said, when asked if the firm was interested in bidding for some of the assets mooted for sale by the British government.

The British channel rail link, the Dartford toll road crossing the Thames, Dover port, the government’s student-loan book and its stake in uranium processor Urenco are some of the assets Britain could sell.

Queen declined to say which assets the firm is looking at. However, the London-listed private equity group, which also has a listed infrastructure arm, 3i Infrastructure, favors a joint venture approach with government sellers of assets.

Such an approach could allow the authorities to benefit from future growth in the assets, and maximize returns when the partners finally sell or float the business, he said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 16-billion-pound ($25 billion) privatization plan is mostly property based. But many of the other assets are seen as appealing to financial investors looking for steady, long-term cashflows in sectors that have high barriers to entry.

Private equity firms and infrastructure funds alike are preparing for what could be Britain’s biggest post-Thatcher wave of privatizations. The opposition Conservatives may also choose to press on with them, should they prevail in this year’s general election.

Queen highlighted previous deals such as Keolis, a French light-rail company, which it co-owned with French state-owned rail operator SNCF, as an example of successful joint venture.

SNCF took back full control of the business after 3i had helped restructure and improve the business, Queen said.

(By Simon Meads. Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis in Amsterdam; editing by Douwe Miedema and Sharon Lindores)

($1=0.6393 Pound)