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Laura Ashley goes public to finance new factory; Fashion empire expands

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Mrs Laura Ashley and her family will soon be joining the ranks of stock market multi-millionaires. Within the next six months the company, synonymous with frilly frocks and flowery wallpapers, will be selling its shares to the public in a deal which will value the company at about pounds 200 million.

The Ashley family owns almost all of the shares at present, and intends remaining in control of the company, although it will be selling at least 25 per cent of Laura Ashley PLC.

Laura Ashley is an unusual company in that it not only manufactured but also sells most of its goods. What began 30 years ago as a home-based fabric printing operation now produces and sells more than pounds 100 million worth of clothes and soft furnishings a year.

In the year to the end of January the company made profits of pounds 14 million on sales of pounds 112 million, of which pounds 104 million was in Laura Ashley shops round the world, Seventy-three of those shops are in Britain, but it is in the United States where growth is fastest.

The company has 55 shops in the US and plans soon to open another 25. The American market has apparently taken to the Laura Ashley look with all the enthusiasm previously given to Burberry.

In spite of its ‘folksy’ family image, Laura Ashley is a slick and professional company with a carefully assembled collection of managers to back up the family. Mrs Ashley oversees the company’s design policies and her husband, Bernard, is the entrepreneur who has built up the company.

Laura Ashley’s first big factory was built in Wales and the second in The Netherlands, where the authorities were keen to encourage new employers by offering generous incentives. Last year the company announced that it wanted to build an pounds 8 million factory, but that its wish to build in Wales might be overcome by the attraction of grants being offered in The Netherlands.

After intervention from the Government, Wales was able to offer subsidies of more than pounds 2 million and keep the new factory. Due to open next year, it is partly to fund that plant that the company has decided to go public.

Stockbrokers and bankers are now putting a price on shares in Laura Ashley which employs 3,400 people and could make profits of pounds 20 million this year.

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