Jobs saved as Oddbins stores are bought

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The Independent Online

A multi-millionaire businessman has bought nearly half of wine merchant Oddbins' remaining stores for an undisclosed sum, it emerged today.

Whittals Wine Merchants, a subsidiary of Raj Chatha's EFB Group, has saved 37 Oddbins stores after the ailing retailer went into administration last month.

The move will secure more than 200 in-store jobs and leaves 52 stores in the hands of administrators Deloitte.

Oddbins, which recently shut 39 stores, had hoped to push through a rescue deal but the HMRC, which was owed £8 million by the chain, refused to vote for the scheme.

Mr Chatha, who has previously featured in the Sunday Times Rich List, is said to be worth around £50 million.

He set up European Food Brokers (EFB) wholesaling business in Halifax in 1991 and subsequently expanded into cash and carry. It is now a leading independent drinks distributor.

Mr Chatha, who bought 12 branches of the Unwins chain and 109 stores from Wine Cellar Stores for his Whittalls chain, said the acquisition would help Whittalls push into London and Scotland.

He said: "This represents a new dawn for these Oddbins stores, and with the well-reported financial shackles removed, it will allow for a consistent supply of stock and investment at store level for the benefit of all, most importantly its loyal staff and consumer base."

Mr Chatha said the focus for the coming weeks would be to replenish the 37 stores.

Oddbins was the latest victim of a declining independent wine trade in the UK, which also saw Threshers' owner, First Quench Retailing, collapse in 2009.

Simon Baile, whose father ran the firm in the 1970s, took control of the business in 2008.

Under Mr Baile's leadership, the company overhauled its wine range, sourcing bottles from smaller producers with the aim of giving it a point of difference against the supermarkets. This helped increase footfall at its stores and raised the average bottle price.

It also invented a new smaller store concept called Oddies at the end of last year to try to capitalise on the convenience market.

But despite these initiatives, the company struggled to compete, hindered by the tough economic climate in the UK.

Lee Manning, administrator and partner at Deloitte, added: "We are currently engaged in a range of discussions regarding the sale of the remaining 48 open stores and are confident of an imminent deal."