Associated British Ports (ABP) looks set for a bidding war after a second firm expressed an interest in the UK's biggest ports operator.
Port assets are in heavy demand
ABP confirmed a consortium involving Australia's Macquarie Bank and UK firm 3i was considering a bid.
The news came hours after ABP agreed to a £2.5bn ($4.6bn) takeover offer from a consortium led by Goldman Sachs.
The deal is the latest in a string of takeovers of British port owners in anticipation of rising global trade.
ABP owns 21 ports across the UK including Ipswich, Plymouth, Hull, Swansea, Ayr and Southampton, handling about a quarter of the UK's seaborne traffic.
Speculation of a counterbid gained strength when stockbroker Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein bought a large chunk of ABP shares on Wednesday.
PORTS BEING SOLD
Ayr, Barrow, Barry, Cardiff, Fleetwood, Garston, Goole, Grimsby, Hull, Immingham, Ipswich, King's Lynn, Lowestoft, Newport, Plymouth, Port Talbot, Silloth, Southampton, Swansea, Teignmouth, Troon
"At this stage, there is one bidder on the table but there are a lot of rumours in the market," said Gerald Khoo, an analyst at Oriel Securities.
The spectacular growth of the Chinese and Indian economies has fuelled interest in infrastructure and cargo handling assets.
P&O was bought in a controversial deal by Dubai Ports World for $6.8bn earlier this year, while Mersey Docks and PD Ports have also been taken over during the past year.
If approved by shareholders, many of the UK's leading ports - including Tilbury and Southampton - will pass into foreign ownership.
The deal comes only days after BAA, the owner of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, agreed to be bought by the Spanish company Grupo Ferrovial.
ABP employs 3,000 staff worldwide, the bulk of which are UK-based.
The company operates container services at Southampton and Tilbury on a joint venture basis while its US business, Amports, handles vehicle imports and exports.
ABP began life as the British Transport Docks Board in 1962. It was privatised in 1982 and floated on the stock market a year later.
It expanded into the US in 1998.
ABP rejected a 730 pence per share bid from the consortium in March, branding the offer "wholly inadequate".
However, when the consortium returned with an improved offer last month, ABP agreed to open its books to the group.
Other members of the consortium include Canadian investment firm Borealis Infrastructure Management Inc. ("Borealis") and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, which invests the island's substantial foreign reserves.
"ABP is a unique strategic asset," said ABP chairman Chris Clark.
"The consortium's offer reflects that and recognises the strong operational and financial performance of the business."
Shares in the company rose strongly on the news of the deal, to close 49.5 pence, or 6.37%, higher at 826.5p.