International broking giants Aon and Marsh have denied reports that they are locked in merger talks with Lambert Fenchurch, one of the UK's few remaining independent brokers.

Speculation surrounding Lambert Fenchurch's future reached fever pitch this week, after it revealed it was in exploratory discussions with a possible new partner.

A statement issued by the company said: "The board confirms that it is in preliminary discussions which may or may not lead to an offer being made for the company."

The announcement immediately boosted the company's share value to £81 million. Earlier this year however, pre-tax profits at the group fell seven per cent to £18.3 million for the year ending March 1999.

David Margrett, Lambert Fenchurch chief executive, stressed there was no certainty that an offer would be made for the company.

He added that Stock Exchange rules restrict the publicly quoted company from issuing any further details on the progress of the talks.

Lambert Fenchurch is itself the result of a merger between Lowndes Lambert and Fenchurch in 1997. Various reports in the media have linked the group with a broad spread of others occupying the top end of the broking market including, the UK's largest broking house Jardine Lloyd Thompson.

The broking group has achieved significant business gains in recent months. Its pre-tax profits grew by 15% to £58m in 1998.

But sources close to the leading UK aviation and all risks broker refused to be drawn on whether it was a likely merger partner.

Other broking houses which might consider bidding for Lambert Fenchurch include, Heath, Willis and international groups Aon and Marsh.

Peter Tritton, spokesman for Aon, the world's biggest insurance broker said: "We do not comment on our acquisitions strategy, nor do we confirm market speculation."

However, the broking house's sister company Aon Risk Services, has made several acquisitions in the UK this year.

Marsh, the UK market's second largest broker, also declined to say whether it wants to merge with Lambert Fenchurch.

And Peter Stevens, spokesman for Willis, said: "Our priority area for acquisitions is not the UK."

Heath's chief executive John Mackenzie Green was unavailable for comment.