Oddbins in exclusive talks to acquire Unwins

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The French owner of Oddbins is poised to acquire Unwins, the family-owned off-licence chain that hoisted the "for sale" sign in May.

Castel Freres, which also owns the French wine chain Nicolas, moved into pole position yesterday to acquire Unwins, according to industry sources. A deal is expected to be announced shortly.

Unwins, founded 161 years ago, put itself up for sale after a strategic review concluded that it needed outside investment to improve its trading prospects.

Intense competition from supermarkets has put the entire "offie" sector under immense pressure during the past few years. Thresher, which is owned by the private equity group Terra Firma, is slowly transforming itself into a chain of alcohol-orientated convenience stores in an attempt to carve a new niche on the high street.

Unwins, which is based in Kent and trades from 388 sites across the South, appointed its first non-family member on to the board in 2002. Michael Lunn came in as chairman and has spearheaded something of a recovery in the business, which endured its worst year of trading in 2001, clocking up losses of more than £2m.

Reports have suggested the company could be worth up to £100m, although analysts have said the price tag looks high given that Unwins barely broke even in the year to the end of February. Its freehold property estate is worth £27m.

A combined Oddbins and Unwins would have around 700 stores. It is not known whether Castel intends to keep the Unwins name, with observers speculating that the French group is more interested in the company's prime high street sites than its brand.

Unwins is owned by descendants of Michael Wetz, the founder of wine and spirit importer Phillips Newman, which bought the company in 1921. The descendants - four main families with 84 shareholders in total - have attracted keen interest for what is one of the last independent chains of its size to be put up for sale in the South of England. Eight bidders made it to last month's short list, including Thresher, Wine Cellar-owner Maryland Securities, and Lancelot, an investment vehicle set up by two former directors of T&S that recently tried to buy Londis.

Castel's acquisition of Oddbins did not go down well with wine critics, who have lamented its decision to "dumb down" by shrinking its wine ranges and investing less in staff training.