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Thresher buys 200 stores as Unwins collapses

Published:  23 July, 2008

Threshers has snapped up 200 outlets from Unwins, and as Harpers went to press, the administrator of the failed off-licence group was evaluating final offers for the remaining 150 shops in the chain and its freehold head-office premises in Kent.

Unwins collapsed into administration in the week before Christmas amid recriminations and threats of legal action. Philip Cook, the chairman of DM Private Equity, the group that bought the ailing chain from the Wetz family in March 2005 for 32 million including debt, alleges that it has emerged that Unwins had a net negative value of 3.7 million at the time of purchase rather than a net asset value of 9.5 million. He says he intends to make a claim against Unwins' former shareholders, directors and the company's auditors, Grant Thornton, because there was a 13.2-million black hole in the off-licence chain's finances. He alleges they misled DM about the value of the business. No formal claim has yet been filed.

Meanwhile, the failure of Unwins means that former family shareholders are unlikely to receive up to 10 million from the sale to DM Private Equity. They have received less than a third of the total sale price, having been paid an initial 5 million back in March. At least a further 10 million was linked to a complex formula that would have seen them receive 90% of the group's net asset value. The prospect of such payments disappeared the moment HBOS, Unwins' bank, sent in the administrators on the Monday before Christmas.

Within hours, the administrator had declared Unwins a no-hoper', closed the shops and made all but 20 of the group's 2,000 employees redundant.

Unwins had a secured debt of 5 million to HBOS, while trade suppliers, including Diageo, are owed up to about 30 million. In the weeks preceding Christmas there had been growing trade rumours of wholesalers refusing to supply Unwins before outstanding debts were reduced, and of outlets with only very limited amounts of stock on display. The company's own directors were in the process of seeking protective administration when HBOS pre-empted such an action.

Threshers, Britain's largest off-licence group, which is owned by Terra Firma Capital Partners, another private-equity group, moved quickly to buy the 200 stores, most of which are leasehold properties.

The purchase price is believed to be less than 10 million.

Roger Whiteside, Threshers' chief executive, said the 200 extra shops would reinforce Threshers' market position in the southeast of England'. Trade sources said it had been able to cherry-pick' the outlets it wanted.

The Threshers team immediately set

about restocking former Unwins outlets to reopen them as soon as possible. About 100 were trading for New Year's Eve, and Mr Whiteside praised the fantastic response' from Unwins' managers.

Threshers says it hopes to employ about 1,200 extra people following the purchase but cannot yet say how many will be former Unwins staff.

Unwins was founded in 1843, and in 1921 it was taken over by the Wetz family, who merged it with the wine importer Phillips Newman. Threshers is expected to rebrand the 200 outlets under its existing Wine Rack, Victoria Wine, Bottoms Up and Haddows banners.