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IPG, Taylor Nelson Close to NFO Deal

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Interpublic Group is inching closer to a deal to sell market- research firm NFO WorldGroup, sources said last week. Also at the holding company, the search for a chief operating officer is down to a handful of candidates.

Taylor Nelson Sofres remains the leading bidder for NFO, at a price of $440 million to $490 million, said sources, but it still needs to secure financing.

IPG is seeking mostly cash for NFO, which it bought for $624 million in stock and cash in 2000. It may keep a stake in the company, if only for NFO's strategic value. One source estimated IPG could retain 10-20 percent of the unit, possibly in the form of Taylor Nelson stock. An IPG rep declined comment.

In the COO hunt, the holding company is said to be focusing on three candidates. The brief is thick: IPG needs an executive with financial acumen and strong operational skills who can work closely with agency chiefs and board members alike. The search began in November, but the process started anew in late February when David Bell replaced John Dooner as CEO.

IPG is grappling with the Security and Exchange Commission's investigation of a $181.3 million accounting imbalance uncovered last year. The company also is continuing to unload most of its Octagon Motor Sports holdings, which have become a drain on earnings.

Several once-skeptical agency executives said Bell is earning their respect by taking his myriad tasks in stride. Said one: "I feel a lot better about how Bell is handling this."

Meanwhile, analysts and shareholders are bracing for another quarter of disappointing results. In fourth quarter 2002, net income plummeted 79 percent, and revenue slid 4 percent. IPG is set to report first-quarter numbers May 8.