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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
Goldfish e-bank hopes dampened
Goldfish web page
Goldfish: Will e-bank hopes be left high and dry?
Utility firm Centrica has lost the first round of a 'divorce' battle over assets of the Goldfish credit card business, pouring cold water on plans to take the brand into internet banking.

The High Court has sided with credit specialist HFC Bank, whose five year contract to run Goldfish services for Centrica expires in September, in a fight for control of details of the card's one million customers.

Centrica had hoped to use the client details as a springboard for developing Goldfish into a telephone and internet bank, in a joint project with High Street bank Lloyds TSB.

"When customer relationship management is the buzzphrase, knowing more about the interests of Goldfish customers, and what products they might be interested in, is obviously attractive to us," a Centrica spokeswoman told BBC News Online.

But the firm, which said it was "disappointed" by Friday's ruling, will now need to win an appeal to gain control of the customer details.

Centrica will seek leave on Monday to appeal against the ruling, the company spokeswoman said.

Lloyds' reaction

While Centrica, best known as the owner of British Gas, said it was committed to taking the Goldfish brand into e-banking, Friday's news has raised concerns at partner Lloyds TSB.

Lloyds said it had no current plans to quit the project, but the bank said it was "looking at all different options", which it declined to detail.

The Goldfish internet bank would be based on infrastructure set up for Evolvebank.com, which Lloyds has hoped to take Europe-wide, but which is as yet operational only in Spain.

Evolvebank.com has attracted 15,000 customer inquiries since opening in Spain in November, a Lloyds spokeswoman said.

HFC plans

Centrica, which also owns the AA roadside assistance service, launched Goldfish in 1996, hiring HFC Bank, as a credit specialist, to manage customer accounts.

Centrica restated on Friday its ownership of the Goldfish brand, which was not in question at the High Court.

HFC, which owns the Marbles brand, has voiced plans to launch its own credit card once its contract with Centrica expires.

Energy deal

Friday's ruling came the same day as Centrica earned commendation from UK energy minister Brian Wilson for sealing an agreement which will take the firm into the Belgian energy market, which is in the process of being deregulated.

Roy Gardner, chief executive, Centrica
Roy Gardner: Benelux ambitions
"This deal is a strong first sign of progress in energy market reform - in which consumers across Europe will be the winners," Mr Wilson said.

The deal, which has seen Centrica buy a 50% stake in nascent energy-supply business Luminus for 52m, also gives the firm a base from which to launch into Dutch and Luxembourg markets, chief executive Roy Gardner said.

"We aim to be a significant player in Benelux, which is attractive due to its favourable regulatory climate relative to the rest of Continental Europe," he said.

In the City, Centrica shares closed 2.75p lower at 227.25p on Friday.

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See also:

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