Granada sells Welcome Break for hefty pounds 476m

Granada made further progress on its disposal programme yesterday when it agreed to sell the Welcome Break motorway service stations to Investcorp, the Bahrain-based investment group, for a top-of-the-range price of pounds 476m.

The deal ends Granada's virtual monopoly of British motorway service station sites that has existed since last year's pounds 3.9bn takeover of the Forte hotels group.

Granada is also selling the Westbury hotels in London and New York to Chelsfield, the property group, for pounds 90m. Chelsfield plans to extend and refurbish the two hotels and incorporate them into the Wentworth Club, which owns the Surrey golf club. It is possible the Wentworth Club will then be floated on the stock market.

The price tag of the Welcome Break deal surprised the City, which had expected a pounds 400m-pounds 450m deal in spite of a raft of bidders thought to include Asda, Tesco, National Express and venture capital group CinVen. Richard Warner, a member of the Investcorp management committee, denied the group had paid too much: "It may appear a full price but we view the company as a strategic platform to develop other motorway service station businesses."

After the sale of Thorn Lighting Group, Investcorp has no UK businesses but said yesterday it was on the hunt for more UK deals. "We have ambitions to acquire companies in the UK, Europe and internationally," Mr Warner said.

Investcorp has owned several well-known businesses in Europe, including Gucci and Mondi, the German fashion company. It plans to invest pounds 50m in the 21 Welcome Break sites and seek further sites. A service station on the M40 near Oxford is planned and Investcorp estimates there is room for a further 15-20 service stations if planning permission can be obtained.

Michael Guthrie, the entrepreneur who sold his Pavilion motorway business to Granada in 1995, has been appointed chairman and acting chief executive of the Welcome Break chain. Welcome Break recorded operating profits of pounds 32m on turnover on pounds 335m last year.

Elliott Bernerd, Chelsfield's chairman, said his group's pounds 90m purchase of the two Westbury hotels would herald increased investment in the hotels' retailing interests. Chelsfield plans to increase the retail revenues of the London hotel, on the corner of Bond Street and Conduit Street, from pounds 200,000 to pounds 2m. Retail revenues at the Westbury on New York's Madison Avenue could increase from $800,000 to $4m, Mr Bernard said.

The two hotels produced pre-tax profits of pounds 5m on turnover of pounds 22.8m last year.

The Welcome Break and Westbury deals take Granada's total disposals since the Forte deal to pounds 1.2bn. Still to be sold are 11 more Exclusive hotels and the stake in the Savoy Group.

Charles Allen, Granada's chief executive, said: "Welcome Break and the Westbury hotels have been sold for excellent prices."