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Dale joins Barrett bid queue

Barry Dale, former chief executive of the Littlewoods retail and football pools empire, has emerged as one of the bidders for the Holland & Barrett chain of health food shops.

The 400-strong chain was recently put up for sale by Gehe, the German pharmaceutical which acquired the stores following its victory over UniChem in the pounds 684m, year-long bid battle for Lloyds Chemists.

Mr Dale's bid is being backed by Dawnay Day, the merchant bank that backed his pounds 1bn bid for Littlewoods. That approach was turned down by the company's family shareholders in late 1995. It is understood that if Mr Dale's approach proves successful he would continue Holland & Barrett's store-opening programme and develop the mail order operation.

However, he faces stiff competition for the group, Britain's best-known chain of health food stores. At least three other bids been tabled, mostly by venture capital groups. The values of the bids range from pounds 100m-pounds 145m.

Apax Partners is bidding with a management team led by a former Superdrug director. CinVen has teamed up with 3i and an external management team. Another offer has come in from Electra Fleming while a bid from Schroder Ventures has failed to progress to the second stage. The shortlist of bidders will be drawn up within two to three weeks with a deal scheduled for completion next month.

Venture capital sources said there were no commercial bidders. There has been speculation that General Nutritional Centre, a US group building a presence here, might be interested. There has also been speculation that Allen Lloyd, the former Lloyds Chemists founder, might table an offer.

Holland & Barrett was acquired by Lloyds Chemists in 1991 when it had 191 stores and annual sales of pounds 48m. In the last financial year, to 30 June 1996, it recorded operating profits of pounds 7.8m on sales of pounds 90.6m. Gehe, which took control of Lloyds in January, is one of the largest chain of pharmacies in the UK.