Dart Group Corp. once again is fueling Wall Street speculation as investors eagerly wait for its chairman, Herbert H. Haft, to accomplish his publicly stated desire of acquiring another retail company.
In recent weeks, speculation has been centering on two major retailing firms: Safeway Stores Inc. and Associated Dry Goods Corp., the parent company of Lord & Taylor, Caldor Inc. and Loehmann's Inc.
Sources close to Safeway said they believe that Dart and associated companies owned by the Haft family recently purchased about 5 percent of the grocery-store chain.
Safeway officials declined to comment on any rumors, but did acknowledge that there has been increased trading in the company's stock over the past two weeks. If the stock in these trades was accumulated by a single person or company, it would amount to more than 5 percent of the outstanding stock.
However, with the price of Safeway stock sharply down yesterday -- closing down $2.37 1/2 at $42.37 1/2 -- Wall Street analysts were betting that whoever had bought the shares already had sold them -- perhaps due to another rumor circulating yesterday: that Safeway, trying to avoid an unfriendly takeover by the Hafts, was considering acquiring Thrifty Corp., a major California drugstore chain that is the eighth-largest in the country in terms of sales.
That rumor, however, was subsequently knocked down when Thrifty announced late yesterday that Pacific Lighting Corp., a West Coast natural-gas distributor, had agreed to buy the drugstore chain for about $875 million.
Meanwhile, with stock of Associated Dry Goods trading at about 15 times the number of shares exchanged on an average day, some financial analysts speculated that the Manhattan retailing conglomerate was also a Haft target.
Nearly 2 million shares were traded yesterday, making Associated the third-most-heavily-traded stock on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock closed at $49.62 1/2, up $1.75 from Tuesday. On an average day, about 100,000 to 150,000 shares of ADG stock are exchanged, said Phil Bradtmiller, ADG's vice president for investor relations. Yesterday's trading involved about 4 percent of the company's outstanding stock.
"We have been unable to confirm who the buyers are," said Bradtmiller, who noted that the company has been the subject of various takeover rumors for the past two years. "Naturally, we'll check out the rumors," Bradtmiller added.
Haft could not be reached for comment on any of the speculation.
But in the past, Haft has made it repeatedly clear -- in word and deed -- that he wants to buy a retailing company. Ever since Dart sold its own 73-unit drugstore chain two years ago for $160 million, it has been looking to acquire another retailer to add to its holdings, which currently include 34 percent of Crown Books Corp. and 66 percent of Trak Auto Corp.
In addition to the cash it received for the drugstore chain, the company recently raised $250 million in debentures, saying it wanted to use that money to fund a takeover. Shortly after the fund-raising, Haft, in a rare public speech, said, "We really want to replace our drugstore business with a large business."
Haft has made a number of unsuccessful attempts. A year ago, he bid for The May Co. (the parent firm of The Hecht Co.) and then for Jack Eckerd Corp., the nation's second-largest drugstore chain. In both instances, although he was thwarted in his bids, he received substantial profits when he sold the stock in the companies.
Then, in November, Dart made a last-minute $5.2 billion bid for Beatrtrice Cos. Inc. But Beatrice instead accepted the offer of its initial suitor, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.
In April, Haft made a bid to join the $1.16 billion buyout of Revco D. S. Inc., which is based in Ohio and is the nation's third-largest drugstore chain, only to be rebuffed again.
Thrifty's announcement yesterday had other implications for Dart. Thrifty owns a 34 percent stake in Crown, and its chairman, Leonard H. Strauss, is cochairman of the discount-book-store chain. Thrifty and Dart also own equal parts of Trak Auto West Inc., a subsidiary of Trak Auto Corp.
Under the merger, Thrifty will be a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Lighting and will continue to hold the shares of Crown and Trak Auto West.