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Castel attacks Thresher Group over Unwins shop purchase

Published:  23 July, 2008

Castel, the owner of off-licence chain Oddbins, is considering legal action in the wake of the collapse into administration
of Unwins in the week before Christmas.
The French company alleges that the rapid purchase of
200 Unwins outlets for 4.5m by Threshers was anti-competitive because the deal contained a provision that
the administrator, KPMG, would not sell any of the remaining Unwins outlets to a rival high-street chain, including Oddbins.
Jacques Duley, the managing director of Oddbins, has said that he had wanted to buy between 30 and 40 Unwins shops but had been told by KPMG that there was a specific clause in the Thresher sale agreement barring any such deal.

Duley said the clause was very surprising' and anti-competitive' and said that Castel had complained about it to the Office of Fair Trading. The OFT has yet to decide whether to take any action or to rule whether any restraint of trade rules has been broken.

Duley said that Castel was considering its legal position, although it would prefer not to resort to the courts to settle the matter. Thresher, which is owned by Terra Firma Capital Partners, the venture-capital house, has declined to comment on the clause, as has the administrator.

KPMG insisted, however, that it had done the best deal possible for all Unwins' creditors, saying that the sale to Thresher was the most commercially viable deal available'. It has been pointed out that the administrator needed to act quickly to prevent job losses and to staunch the losses being suffered by Unwins. Thresher concluded the purchase of the 200 shops, which it is converting into its own Threshers, The Local and

Wine Rack brands, just four days after Unwins failed, with debts of 42.5m, saving up to 1,200 of the 1,800 jobs within the group.

Meanwhile, a creditors' meeting was held on 24 February. According to reports, Myles Halley of administrator KPMG said he was investigating a number of deals in which assets were

sold for less than their true value, as well as the reasons behind the spin-off of Phillips Newman into a separate corporate structure. Halley is also to look at the sale and lease-back deal that DM carried out shortly after buying Unwins.

There are only diminishing hopes that trade creditors such as Diageo and InBev will at best receive more than a small proportion of the debts owed to them by Unwins. The company had assets of just 6.3m, leaving a debit of 35.9m, which was reduced to 31.4m by the proceeds of the sale to Thresher.

As a secured creditor, HM Revenue & Customs is owed 16.1m, and it is thought that the company's agreements with HBOS mean that the bank, too, stands ahead of suppliers in the queue for payment.

The value of Unwins' remaining 150 stores is said to be negligible, especially since the market for high-street properties is weak. Five are being sold for 500,000 for residential use, and the rest are being sold individually.