By Pamela Barbaglia
LONDON (Reuters) - The Economist Group could become the latest British media business to undergo a change of ownership this year as its co-owner Pearson focuses on education, bankers and industry sources said.
The company, whose weekly magazine was first published in 1843, is partly held by Pearson via the Financial Times, which is now in the process of being sold to Japan's Nikkei.
But Pearson has retained control of its 50 percent stake in The Economist Group despite pledges to exit the news industry and fully focus on education.
The remaining 50 percent of the Economist Group is controlled by a series of wealthy families and The Economist's staff and former staff.
The Cadbury family in Britain is among the individual owners of the media group and controls A shares, which have greater voting rights than Pearson, which holds B shares.
Other individual owners include the Rothschild, Schroder and Agnelli families, who also own A shares.
Any change of control would require an overall consensus among the A shareholders, Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi told Reuters on Friday.
The families are unlikely to back any plans by Pearson to sell its 50 percent stake to third parties as they see The Economist as a core asset, several industry bankers said.
In fact the A shareholders may try to buy out Pearson in order to strengthen their grip on the business, they said.
To finance the deal, which could be worth more than 300 million pounds ($465.15 million), some individual shareholders may need to raise cash, the bankers said.
Pearson and The Economist declined to comment.
The Cadbury, Rothschild, Schroder and Agnelli families were not immediately available for comment.
Aspesi estimated a 50 percent stake in The Economist Group to be worth between 300 and 400 million pounds, based on a multiple of 15 times its net income of 46 million pounds.
The Economist Group is more profitable than the Financial Times and reported 67 million pounds in annual (adjusted) operating profit in June. That is almost three times more than the Financial Times, which made 24 million pounds in adjusted operating profit in 2014.
Revenues of the two media firms also came close, with The Economist generating 328 million pounds against a slightly higher figure reported by the Financial Times, which had 334 million pounds of sales last year.
It is unlikely that any offer to buy out Pearson would reflect the same rich multiple that Nikkei agreed to pay Pearson for the Financial Times on Thursday.
The Japanese media group will spend 844 million pounds ($1.31 billion) to buy one of the world's premier business newspapers, valuing it at 35 times its operating profit.
Aspesi pointed to Nikkei's competition with German media group Axel Springer to win control of the trophy asset as a critical factor which pushed up the final price.
Beside The Economist itself, the group operates several subsidiaries including The Economist Intelligence Unit, Economist Events and Economist Corporate Network.
Pearson Chief Executive John Fallon said on Thursday that The Economist is "not a company in which Pearson has management control," just like Penguin Random House, a joint venture between Pearson and Bertelsmann.
"We participate through the board and as shareholders, but we are not directly leading the day-to-day management of the company," he added.
"In terms of the businesses that we actively manage and lead on a daily basis, everything in that category will now be 100 percent related to education," Fallon stressed.
(Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Alex Smith and Catherine Evans)