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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Christian Davis

Troubled multiple specialist Unwins - the largest off-trade group in the south-east with 388 shops - is looking at options to generate a cash injection', including a sale of the business. Based in Dartford, Kent, and employing more than 2,200 people, the group has had a disastrous few years, with wide-ranging redundancies at board and management level and several changes of direction. According to chairman Michael Lunn, the group is now trading profitably, although it incurred a loss of 779,000 in the year ending 28 February 2004, after extraordinary items on a turnover of 178 million. While the founding Wetz family are no longer involved with the running of the company (as of last year), all of its 84 shareholders are descendants of M A Wetz. In a statement the company said: In recent months shareholders in the Unwins Wine Group Ltd (Unwins) and its board have discussed how best to take the group forward. This consultation has concluded that a sale of Unwins may be attractive, although all options are to be considered. Shareholders have therefore instructed the board to review the options. The board has written to shareholders to call an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) for 2 June 2004. At the EGM, shareholders will be asked to support amendments to the company's articles of association which will simplify the review process.' Lunn told Harpers: Now that the company has come back from a position of loss to modest profit, we were looking at our options and decided that the company needs a fresh injection of cash to help develop its initiatives. We are looking at investing in Unwins partially or completely. In the next two to three months we will be listening to people and then in the summer the family will decide on what they want to do. If they sell, I think it will take six to eight months. If it is an injection of capital then the process will be shorter.' Lunn said that the EGM is to amend the articles of association that are not 'up-to-date and needed tidying up'. Because the company is only constituted with family shareholders, the articles do not allow the new board to bring in an outsider. The company comprises two divisions: the retail estate (many of the 388 shops are believed to be freehold) which is serviced by the in-house service division; and the wholesale division servicing the free trade mostly in the south-east. We have had widespread interest but it is too early to say what is likely,' said Lunn. With most of the estate too small to interest convenience store operators and grocers, and none of the parent groups of Threshers, Bargain Booze or Oddbins in a financial position where they could (or would want to) buy the whole estate outright, an investment bank would appear to be the most-likely option. A sell-off of the estate piecemeal (which is unlikely in the near future) would obviously attract numerous buyers. Bargain Booze franchisees, for example, have recently intimated that they are looking to expand in southern England. Asked about the staff, Lunn said they have been part of the process of consultation and they see this as a positive development. Getting external money can only be a good thing and it allows us to bring a number of things forward which could take more than three years through organic growth.'