Facia now favourite to buy shoe chains

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STEPHEN HINCHLIFFE, the controversial Sheffield entrepreneur behind the fast-expanding high-street retailer Facia, has emerged as the clear front-runner to buy the loss-making Saxone and Curtess shoe shops put up for sale last week by the Sears stores group.

The deal would be the biggest in Facia's short history. In little more than two years it has emerged from nowhere to become Britain's second largest private retailer after Littlewoods, with sales approaching pounds 300m and interests ranging from Sock Shop to Salisbury's, the luggage and accessories chain.

Several other potential buyers have approached Sears about the shoe shops but it is understood that talks with Mr Hinchliffe, which started before Christmas, are at a far more advanced stage.

The shops, which have 230 branches between them, with a combined turnover of pounds 140m, are thought to have a negligible value despite being well-known brand names. Sears is making a pounds 30m provision to cover the cost of their disposal or closure, and that of 170 Millet's outdoor leisure shops, but hopes to make cost savings of pounds 8m a year.

Last August, Mr Hinchliffe bought three of Sears's shoe retailers - Freeman Hardy & Willis, Trueform and Manfield - for an undisclosed sum said to be around pounds 3m.

He has since been linked to another Sears business, the Wallis womenswear chain, although sources close to the company insist it is not up for sale.

Industry sources are also playing down speculation that Mr Hinchliffe may try to expand his Facia empire further by adding to its Torq jewellery business some of the British jewellery stores put on the market last week by debt-laden Signet, the former Ratners group.

Mr Hinchliffe has had several previous dealings with Signet. He started his spending spree at Facia two years ago when he paid pounds 3.2m for Salisbury's. More recently, he recruited Signet's former finance director, Gary O'Brien, to become Facia's chief operating officer.

But observers doubt whether Mr Hinchliffe could raise the estimated pounds 250m or more that Signet expects from the sale of its 440 H Samuel shops and 170-strong Ernest Jones chain. "How Hinchliffe would get funds for a deal of this size I don't know," said one Signet source. "But he seems to be buying up everything else on the high street."

Even if funding could be arranged, Mr Hinchliffe would face stiff competition. Goldsmiths, the small, up-market jeweller, has already put together a bid, while Gerald Ratner, the former Ratners chairman, ousted after his notorious comment in 1991 that one of his products was "crap", has also expressed an interest in returning to his old haunt.