Threshers deal saves 1,200 jobs at Unwins

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The Independent Online

Threshers, the UK's largest independent off-licence chain, confirmed it was buying 200 shops from its bust rival Unwins yesterday, saving as many as 1,200 of the 1,800 jobs which were lost after the company's collapse.

The deal comes less than four days after HBOS pulled the plug on Unwins' banking facilities, pushing it into administration, and ensures many of those whose jobs were threatened will be back in work early in the new year.

Threshers would not disclose how much it had paid for the stores. However, Unwins no longer owns the freeholds to its sites, so is estimated to have received no more than £10m in total. The deal does not include the company's head office in Dartford which, along with the remaining 180 stores, will be sold separately.

Threshers said yesterday it was calling all employees who live above the Unwins shops immediately to tell them whether their accommodation and jobs were safe. The administrator KPMG said it would write to update the other employees and was still holding out hope of selling the remaining sites to a retailer, which could preserve more of the lost jobs.

Myles Halley, one of the KPMG employees overseeing the administration, said: "This is a good outcome for all concerned. We appreciate it has been a very difficult and uncertain time for staff, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. It is too early to say how many people could be offered new contracts to work for Threshers but it is hoped that approximately 1,200 jobs will be available."

Roger Whiteside, the chief executive of the Threshers Group, said: "This is a great opportunity for the Threshers Group to reinforce its market position in the south-east of England. We will be working very hard to staff and stock the 200 stores and begin trading as soon as is practical."

The acquisition will increase the total number of shops in the Threshers estate - which includes the Wine Rack and The Local brands - back to more than 2,000.

The Thresher Group is owned by Terra Firma, Guy Hands' private-equity outfit which bought the company from Whitbread and Punch for £225m five years ago. At the time of purchase, the company had close to 2,500 stores, and also operated under the Bottoms Up brand. But over the past few years, the company has sold off its less profitable outlets and rebranded the bulk of the estate under the Threshers name.

Buying Unwins will be a special coup for Mr Hands, who began his career as an assistant in a Peter Dominic off-licence.

Unwins is owned by DM Private Equity, which bought the ailing off-licence chain for £32m in March. As the company was put into administration this week, it claimed that it had discovered a £13.5m hole in the group accounts, adding that it planned to take legal action against the company's former shareholders, directors and auditors.

Joanne McGuinness, a national officer for the retail workers' union Usdaw, said: "This is great news for our members who were facing a very bleak Christmas and will give many of them new hope they will have a job in 2006. Threshers has rightly decided it makes good commercial sense to take on the experienced Unwins staff who have performed minor miracles keeping the company alive for so long.

"Many of the Unwins staff live above their stores and were facing losing both their jobs and homes after the company collapsed. We'll be making the case to Threshers that they should allow those staff to stay in their homes paying reasonable rents which would [in effect] give Threshers 24-hour security cover for their new stores."