- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hilton Hotels Corp. said yesterday it will buy the hotel assets of Britain’s Hilton Group PLC for $5.7 billion cash, creating the world’s biggest hotel company by revenue.

The deal reunites two brands that split in the 1960s, allowing Hilton to instantly overtake rivals such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Marriott International Inc. It also makes Hilton, which had been limited in scope to the United States and Canada, a global player, which will allow the company to expand some of its well-known domestic brands, such as Hampton Inn, to India, China and other markets.

The deal sent shares of Hilton up nearly 8 percent to $24 at the end of regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange, close to a 52-week high of $25.81. Shares of Hilton Group rose 4.25 percent to the equivalent of $6.37 on the London Stock Exchange.

Under terms of the deal, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Hilton Hotel will only acquire the British company’s lodging operations. Hilton Group will change its name to Ladbrokes PLC and focus on its online and in-store betting operation, which has hundreds of locations in Europe.

The deal is subject to regulatory and shareholder approval on both sides of the Atlantic. Both companies said it was likely to be completed by the first quarter of 2006.

When done, Hilton Hotels will operate nearly 2,800 hotels and 475,000 rooms in 80 countries. Its brand names will include Hilton, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Scandic and Hilton Grand Vacations Club.

“This transaction represents the final and logical step in a process that began in 1997 with the signing of our strategic alliance and is a unique opportunity to once again position HHC as a global lodging industry leader for the first time in more than 40 years,” said Stephen F. Bollenbach, Hilton Hotel’s co-chairman and chief executive.

Hilton said it will continue its strategy of selling off hotels and entering into more lucrative management and franchising deals. This year, Hilton sold about 20 hotels for more than $1 billion.

That was welcome news to investors, who had sold Hilton’s stock when news of the negotiations first broke in October because they felt the company might need to slow its asset-sale plan and stock buybacks to finance a deal.

Yesterday, Hilton said it would halt stock buybacks temporarily while it sold enough assets to reduce its debt. Hilton will finance its purchase with about $1.2 billion in cash on hand and will borrow the rest.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer in my view,” said Jeffrey Randall, a financial analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc.

“It creates a more diverse revenue base and a more diverse growth platform.”

Hilton trades at a lower valuation than its rivals because it has lacked a global presence.

Yesterday, executives and analysts said the stock should benefit from the deal, which gives it the chance to grow in Asia and Europe.

After the deal closes, Hilton will have about 20 percent of its rooms outside the United States, about the same ratio as Bethesda-based Marriott, Mr. Randall said.

The company said it expects to save about $30 million per year from consolidating technology, billing and other functions. Layoffs will be minimal, executives said.

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