Four bids have been submitted to the 3,000-strong Whitbread estate up for sale, according to the Financial Times.

They are from Nomura, Punch Taverns, Candover and a consortium that Luke Johnson's Belgo Group previously led.

Morgan Grenfell Private Equity and Lehman Brothers dumped Johnson after it emerged that, as a shareholder of Punch Taverns, he had signed a "non-compete clause" with the chain in 1999 that precluded him from bidding for a tenanted pub estate for three years.

Whitbread is expected to enter exclusive talks with a preferred bidder by the end of March.

Some bidders are irritated at the suggestion that Whitbread has given incentives to a small group of senior managers to stay on until the £1.7bn auction process is finished. The bidders are worried the management will quit once the pubs are sold.

Financial Times 10/03/01 page 14