Luxottica has agreed to sell Cole National's 21 percent stake in Pearle Europe to HAL Investments, allowing it to raise its stake in Europe's leading optical retail network from nearly 79 percent to about 99 percent. The management owns the balance. HAL, which had already raised its shareholding from 68 percent early last year, acquiring mostly the shares held by company managers, is paying Luxottica $144 million in cash, close to the valuation that had been made for Cole's stake in Pearle Europe before HAL and Moulin International made their unsuccessful bid for the US retailer.

As reported, Moulin, which was mainly interested in Cole's mass market business, has since struck a deal to acquire control of Eye Care Centers of America. HAL previously owned 19.8 percent of Cole. As HAL generally aims for leaders in the various countries where it operates, it is now left without any big national chain to grab in the USA, but it may be interested in a chain that has a certain leadership on a regional basis. Anyhow, Jeffrey Cole, former chairman of Cole National and one of its former key shareholders, remains on the board of Pearle Europe.

Cole had obtained its 21 percent stake in Pearle Europe in 1996, when it took over Pearle Vision from Grand Metropolitan of the UK. Pearle Europe now operates directly or indirectly nearly 1,500 optical stores throughout Europe, except in the UK and a few other markets. Luxottica had already indicated that it was not interested in retailing in Europe, where it already enjoys a very high market share at the wholesale level. It now says that holding an interest in an optical retail chain in the still highly fragmented European market is not strategic for the group.

On the other hand, Luxottica has gone ahead with its tender offer to buy the remaining equity of OPSM Group, the big Australian-based optical retail chain. The offer, which is supported by OPSM's independent directors, is scheduled to expire on Feb. 7. Luxottica already owns 82.56 percent of OPSM.

Meanwhile, GrandVision, which is now a member of the Pearle Europe family, has decided to drop earlier plans to open next June a new prescription laboratory in France, close to a site closed by Hoya last September. The new lab would have serviced the whole European market, employing about 140 people at the start.