Forte seeks Lillywhites sale lifeline

FORTE, the besieged hotel and restaurant group, yesterday said it has sold its Lillywhites sporting goods division to a Portuguese retailer for pounds 28.5m in a move that will bolster its hopes of remaining independent.

Although the written approach from Jeromino Martins arrived before Granada's pounds 3.3bn hostile takeover offer, the disposal will help Sir Rocco Forte fight off the unwelcome bid.

"Lillywhites, having undergone a period of rebuilding, is now at a stage when its full value can be realised," said Keith Hamill, Forte's finance director.

The sale brings the value of Forte's disposal programme in the last two years to pounds 900m as it struggles to rationalise its holdings in its core hotel and restaurant businesses. Among other businesses, it has sold off Harvester and Gardner Merchant. Forte is expected to use the Lillywhites proceeds to further reduce gearing.

The sprawling, unfocused nature of the Forte group was one of the main criticisms levelled by Granada chairman Gerry Robinson when he announced his bid two weeks ago.

The sporting goods chain has net assets of pounds 12m and a reported a turnover of pounds 16.6m in the last year. Forte bought it in 1963 and invested heavily to refurbish it in 1992. The retailer carries 70,000 different lines covering 35 sports.

Forte, which bills Lillywhites' Piccadilly Circus flagship store as "The World's Finest Sport Store", recently opened a new outlet at the Lakeside Shopping Centre at Thurrock.

Jeromino Martins, a fast-growing listed company, is expected to operate Lillywhites as a separate business and to expand it domestically and internationally. The deal is expected to be closed this week.

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