That's one of the latest unconfirmed rumors surrounding the US chain which, as reported, set up a strategic committee last October to evaluate possible alternatives to the takeover proposal made by another company, said to be Luxottica. In a recent newspaper interview, Leonardo Del Vecchio, Luxottica's chairman, refused to comment on the group's possible interest in acquiring the Cole National in the USA, except to say that it would never pay more than double the turnover or 6.5 times earnings for any retail chain

Besides Cole, another big US retailer, Eye Care Centers of America, could be a takeover target. The price to pay would be north of $300 million, but its debt is apparently much lower than Cole's. The bid for Cole National values the US company at $320.9 million, not including assumption of its large debt of about $280 million.

HAL already is the largest shareholder in Cole, with a stake of about 20 percent. As we have previously reported (EWI of Oct. 17, 2003), HAL has raised its stake in Pearle Europe to about 79 percent by taking over shares held by the management, including some previous shareholders of Apollo Optik. The balance of 21 percent is still owned by Cole. HAL has also become the largest single shareholder in GrandVision, with a stake of 32.9 percent, and top managers of the two companies have already held a meeting.

Larry Pollock, president and CEO of Cole National, and other company executives deliberately refused to discuss the strategic alternatives being considered during a conference call where they commented on the company's financial results for the 3rd quarter ended last Nov. 1. The group recorded an operating profit of $1,090,000 in the quarter, as compared to a loss of $456,000 in the year-ago period, but fees related to the evaluation of these alternatives and other legal and accounting fees depressed by some $1.5 million the result of the quarter, which ended up with a net loss of $1,085,000, down from $1,927,000.

Total revenues increased in the quarter by 7.6 percent to $296.5 million. In the vision segment, where the favorable trend continued into November, the group managed to raise its US market share with a growth of 5.4 percent on a same-store basis, led by a 6.7 percent increase at Cole Licensed Brands, which comprises its optical shops and counters at Sears, BJ's and Target stores.

Sales at the licensed departments in 265 Target stores rose by 22.4 percent on a comparable basis in the quarter, but it's not sure whether the licensing deal will continue beyond its scheduled expiration on Jan. 31. Negotiations have been taking place about modified terms, considering that the Target franchise brought a loss of $6.9 million in the first 9 months of the current financial year.

The group's Pearle Vision chain had comparable sales increases of 3.9 percent in its coporate stores and 2.6 percent in its US franchises. The prototype of a new Pearle Vision store format is being tested at a location at Legacy Village, near the group's headquarters in Ohio.