Brent Walker jackpot

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The Independent Online
BRENT WALKER'S tale of woe seems a never-ending affair. Since virtually going bust three years ago amid allegations of massive fraud, the leisure group has been through so many refinancings and restructurings that it's hard to keep count.

Now a new crisis is looming. This one is caused by the need either to pay off or refinance pounds 370m of debt associated with the group's William Hill betting shops chain. The loan becomes repayable in March and there's no question of an extension; most bankers are fed up with the roller-coaster ride they've had since agreeing the facility in the boom years of the late 1980s, and they want out.

Brent Walker is desperate to keep William Hill, which forms a key part of its long-term business strategy; valiant attempts are being made by Standard Chartered and Lloyds to arrange a new banking syndicate to buy out the old. But time is running out. If Brent Walker hasn't found the money by Christmas, bankers will take matters into their own hands and enforce a sale.

It's possible that they'll do it sooner. Many of them complain bitterly about the present limbo. If William Hill is to be floated on the stock market (the favoured method of disposal) in time to pay them off by the March deadline, pre- marketing should already be well under way; needless to say, it's not.

There's one group of interested parties, however, which doesn't care too much about the outcome; either way it gains. Brent Walker's twitching corpse may not be of much use to anybody else, but it's enriched a whole army of lawyers, accountants and other professional advisers. The bill for advisers in the first year alone of Brent Walker's restructuring was pounds 53m. The latest shenanigans will be yet more rich pickings.

In a situation where shareholders have lost nearly all their money, fees like these always seem obese, but I guess you could argue that it's better than the alternative - full-scale receivership in which shareholders would get nothing at all. There are two firms, however, whose continuing and highly lucrative participation in Brent Walker's misery goes increasingly against the grain: KPMG Peat Marwick, the auditors, and Simmons & Simmons, the group's solicitors. When the balloon went up, both firms managed neatly to accomplish the switch from the old management regime to the new, and they are still in place.

With a criminal trial pending over the Brent Walker collapse, there's a limit to what I can tell you about their place in events. Suffice it to say that when the Independent started posing fundamental questions about Brent Walker's accounts in the late 1980s, KPMG and Simmons & Simmons were co- opted by the company into the process of soothing City nerves. Both firms put their names to public statements to the effect that they had investigated the situation and everything was fine on the ranch. As a consequence Brent Walker was able to complete a series of major and highly costly acquisitions before its final and ignominious end in a large puff of smoke. At the very least, KPMG and Simmons & Simmons owe Brent Walker's shareholders and bankers a handsome apology.