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Britain's top nightclubs gripped by buyout fever

MORE than 100 of the country's top nightclubs and bars are set to change hands in a combination of deals worth pounds 350m.

Paul Kinsey, deputy director of operations at First Leisure, is poised to clinch a pounds 200m management buyout of the company's nightspots, which include Equinox in London's Leicester Square and the Dome in Birmingham.

Mr Kinsey is thought to have secured the backing of Candover, the venture capitalist, in his bid to secure the division.

His emergence as the favoured buyer comes after Northern Leisure, the Preston-based nightclub operator, announced it was in exclusive talks with Rank and is expected to agree a pounds 150m price for the leisure group's 40 nightclubs and 10 themed bars.

The two deals, which will involve more than 100 nightclubs and bars changing hands, should be complete within the next few weeks.

The First Leisure deal involves 38 nightclubs, 13 Brannigans music bars, four Heroes bars and five other outlets.

The sale is part of chairman Michael Grade's attempts to break up the company founded in 1982 when his uncle, Lord Delfont, then 72, organised a management buy-out of Trusthouse Forte's leisure business.

On Monday, Mr Grade announced the pounds 110m sale of First Leisure's family entertainment business, which comprises 28 bowling alleys, a caravan park and an indoor ski-slope. The buyer was Duke Street Capital, the venture capitalist, and Allied Leisure, whose management will run the new business.

Mr Grade's plan, to refocus First Leisure as an operator of fitness clubs, is almost complete. Mr Grade is expected then to step down from the company in favour of Graham Coles, First Leisure's finance director.

Mr Grade's legacy as the man who broke up First Leisure has brought him into conflict with Lord Delfont's widow, who accused him of "asset stripping" her late husband's company. Mr Grade's swansong has also been marred by a row with Cannons, the fitness club operator which aborted merger talks with First Leisure this year. First Leisure is suing Cannons for pounds 1.7m.

Mr Grade, the former chief executive of Channel 4, has been linked with the top job in Pearson's television, vacated by Greg Dyke's appointment as the new director-general of the BBC.

Mike Smith, the Rank chief executive, is thought to be engaged in the break-up of an even more famous name of the leisure world. He joined from Ladbroke earlier this year to replace Andrew Teare, who failed to revitalise Rank's famous names - including Butlins, Odeon cinemas and Mecca bingo - during his three years at the helm. Rank's under-performing share price has made the company a perennial take-over target for a series of venture capital groups.

However, shareholders are believed to have given Mr Smith the opportunity to pursue his own restructuring plans. Universal Studios Florida - the theme park it part-owns - and its Haven holiday parks section are likely to be the first under the hammer. Duke Street may be interested in Rank's amusement machines business.

Both Rank and First Leisure have seen their share prices undermined by the City's recent preference for focused businesses. First Leisure's have slumped from last year's peak of 4361/2p to 2401/2p. From a 1996 high of 545p, Rank shares closed on Friday at 252p.