Unwins examines bids as bankruptcy looms

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Unwins, the off-licence chain, is examining several takeover bids ahead of a court hearing tomorrow that will determine if it has to go into administration.

The private-equity owned group is in talks with several bidders after receiving more than 25 expressions of interest for all or parts of the business. "It has progressed to a number of offers, but there is still a long way to go," an insider said.

Trade buyers and private equity firms are in the running, with Terra Firma, which owns the off-licence chain Threshers, mooted as one possible suitor.

The directors of Unwins filed an application to the High Court last Monday to place the business into administration. It is in limbo until tomorrow, when a court hearing will decide its fate. The directors are being advised by Andrew Pepper, a partner at the administrators Kroll. The application, made under the Insolvency Act, serves as a short-term protection against creditors such as landlords and suppliers, to whom Unwins is believed to owe about £10m.

The move came just nine months after the 380-outlet chain, the biggest in south-east England, was acquired by DM Private Equity for £32m including debt. It already secured an emergency cash injection from its owner recently to see it through Christmas.

Unwins is selling off 40 stores and has shut several more after running down stocks for months. It has also made some 190 staff redundant.

DM, chaired by the Australian businessman Phillip Cook, acquired the 162-year-old business from its long-standing owners, the Wetz family.

The deal saw all 96 Unwins' freehold shops sold to the property company Helical Bar under a leaseback agreement for around £25m.

Mr Cook began a major restructuring of Unwins in September, including a rationalisation of the chain's supplier base which led to problems with suppliers. The group cut the number of products it stocks from several thousands to several hundreds.