Bingo is out as Michael Grade's shake-up of First Leisure begins

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The Independent Online
First Leisure, the bars to bowling group, indicated yesterday that the number was up for its 22 Riva bingo clubs. Andrew Yates reports on plans by Michael Grade, the former TV mogul, to revitalise the troubled leisure empire.

First Leisure is close to selling the Riva chain in what will be Mr Grade's first major deal since arriving at the group last summer.

Analysts believe it is just the first part of a wholesale shake-up of First Leisure, which will involve selling off a number of underperforming businesses. The group's marinas and caravan parks are tipped as the next businesses to go.

Mr Grade, who left his role as chief executive of Channel 4 to become chairman of First Leisure, said: "The future of the bingo business is actively under review.

"For the past seven months I have looked at the entrails of the business and have identified three great businesses - night clubs and bars, health and fitness, and family entertainment centres - which will be the foundation for future growth."

Riva bingo has been a terrible performer in recent years. It lost pounds 2.2m in the year to October and has been forced to write down the value of the business, which wiped pounds 28.5m off pre-tax profits causing earnings to slump to pounds 13.2m (pounds 43.7m).

Along with the rest of the industry, the business has been hammered by the National Lottery. However, Mr Grade laid most of the blame for Riva's problems with its previous management.

"Bingo is still a great business and we got it wrong. If we had the right product we could have been successful. There are no excuses," he said. First Leisure made the mistake of not offering high enough prizes and scrimping on marketing spend, he added.

The most likely buyer is the division's management team, led by Paul Anson, former regional development director of Rank's bingo business. Rank, which runs Mecca bingo, is also believed to have tabled an offer.

It also emerged yesterday that two top executives who left First Leisure in the wake of Mr Grade's arrival have received a payoff of pounds 2.2m. John Conlan, the group's former chief executive, is thought to be getting pounds 1.5m and Nick Tamblyn, who used to run the bingo and health and fitness business, pounds 700,000.

First Leisure plans to spend pounds 60m this year opening six health clubs, eight new night clubs and a number of new entertainment centres which will create 1,000 new jobs.

The group warned last year that its Blackpool Illuminations had last autumn proved a turn-off for holidaymakers, who chose to spend their building society windfalls jetting off to more exotic climes. However, visitor numbers picked in the last few weeks of October and First Leisure still plans to keep the business.

So far Mr Grade's reforms have disappointed the market. Since he arrived last June the shares have fallen 15 per cent. They slipped another 9.5p to 275p yesterday on concerns that the bingo sale had yet to be completed.