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Hilco and OpCapita battle it out to take Comet off Kesa's hands

The retail restructuring specialist Hilco and the private equity firm OpCapita are through to the second round of bids for Comet, the ailing UK chain that parent Kesa Electricals is trying to sell.

Contrary to reports over the weekend, Hilco is still in the running toacquire Comet, which has 249 shops and made a loss of £8.9m in the year to 30 April. Beyond OpCapita and Hilco, it is unclear whether any other bidders have been taken through to the second round of bids, which are due before the end of August. It is understood that GA Europe, the retail restructuring firm, and Weight Partners, the investment company, are out of the running.

Ideally, Kesa wants to get a sale-and-purchase agreement in place for Comet – and for the acquirer to complete their due diligence – before its annual meeting on 15 September. But sources close to the company denied a firm timetable.

Kesa – which also owns the Darty chain on the Continent – would then put the sale of Comet to shareholders later in September and sew up the deal before the middle of October. Knight Vinke, the activist shareholder, which has a 19.3 per cent stake in Kesa, is keen for the group to offload Comet.

Kesa is considering only going-concern bids for Comet and has ruled out proposals that wanted to put the UK chain through an insolvency procedure, such as administration. However, the potential sale of Comet is complicated, partly as City analysts forecast it will make another loss this year. A key barrier is that Comet has a pension deficit of £40.7m and it is unclear whether a potential buyer would have to take on all, or part, of this liability.

There has been speculation that Kesa is prepared to pay the acquirer a dowry of up to £100m to cover the pension deficit and trading losses. But sources said that the process had not yet reached the stage where any possible dowry was being discussed.

Hilco has been involved with many of this country's most high-profile distressed retail situations over the past decade. In June, it sold parts of Habitat UK to Home Retail Group, the owner of Argos and Homebase, for £24.5m. But the rest of Habitat's UK business was put into administration.

The restructuring firm Gordon Brothers is working with OpCapita on an evaluation of Comet's inventory in order to help the private equity firm put in place a working-capital facility. Comet posted sales of £1.54bn last year and has about a 10 per cent share of the UK electricals market. All parties mentioned declined to comment.