Smart and Cook managing director Paul Meehan has denied that the group has received inquiries for the stakeholding of its late chairman, Geoff Cook.

Meehan said Cook's company holdings, a 60% stake in the group, had been passed on to his family, in accordance with his will.

He said he had not been contacted by any interested parties, and that the rumours were simply "schadenfreude".

Due to arrangements signed at the time of the company's refinancing with venture capitalists 3i, none of the major shareholders could sell their stake without first offering it to the other interested parties, and without the approval of the other shareholders. Venture capitalists 3i said it was "not interested in shareholder change in the near future".

But market sources continued to tip Willis as buyer due to its aims for regional expansion. A spokesman for Willis said it would "neither confirm or deny whether we will buy anything".

' Smart and Cook has acquired Lincolnshire-based Reg Hall Insurance, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne-based Alan White Services.