Exclusive-Worldline taps advisers for defence strategy amid share slump -sources

Worldline logo at the company headquarters in the financial and business district of La Defense

By Amy-Jo Crowley and Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro

LONDON (Reuters) -Worldline has lined up bankers to advise on a defence strategy in a bid to reassure shareholders and avoid a hostile takeover in the wake of a share price slump, two people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The Paris-based payments group is reviewing options with Morgan Stanley and Rothschild & Co, including bringing in an anchor investor to help support the stock, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the last week the advisers started sounding out potential investors, such as French financial institutions, pension and sovereign wealth funds, about taking a minority stake in the group, the people said.

A friendly takeover by a bidder acceptable to the French government could also be explored should Worldline's actions fail to restore confidence among investors, one of the people said. A takeover at this point was unlikely, however, that person added.

Worldline declined to comment. Its shares rose as much as 4.2% on the Reuters report and were last up 2.9% on the day at 13.5 euros.

The efforts come after Worldline cut its financial targets in October amid scrutiny by German regulators over money-laundering controls, leading its share price to more than halve.

Activist investor BlueBell last month urged the company in a letter to shake up its board as a way to "restore trust", Bloomberg reported.

French lender Credit Agricole, a partner of the payments firm, was looking at potentially buying shares in the company, Reuters reported previously. The lender declined to comment at the time. Rival BNP Paribas disclosed a 3% stake Worldline in November, shortly after the stock collapsed.

Worldline is also focusing on corporate governance matters, including changes in management and finding a replacement for Chairman Bernard Bourigeaud, who died in December, one of the sources - the same as for the takeover comments - said.

Asset sales are also a possibility after it secures a cornerstone investor, that person said.

Reuters reported in December that disposals would most likely could come from Worldline's Mobility division, home to digital payment solutions for ticketing services.

(Reporting by Amy-Jo Crowley and Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro in London; Additional reporting by Mathieu Rosemain in Paris; editing by Anousha Sakoui and Mark Potter)