Ratner wants to buy back H Samuel

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The Independent Online

Gerald Ratner, the former Ratners chairman, who was ousted after he described the company's jewellery as "total crap", has emerged as a candidate to buy back the H Samuel chain which was put up for sale yesterday.

Mr Ratner's interest in returning to his old haunts emerged as more than 1,000 high street shops were put up for sale yesterday, underlining the difficulties many retailers still face, even after an upbeat Christmas.

Sears, the sprawling retail conglomerate, led the way when it announced it was abandoning its loss-making Saxone and Curtess shoe shops, which have 230 branches between them. It is also seeking a buyer for Millets, the modestly profitable outdoor leisurewear retailer, which has 170 outlets.

Signet, the re-named Ratners business, is selling all its British stores to concentrate on its American business. Both the H Samuel business, which has 440 shops, and the more upmarket Ernest Jones chain, which has 170 branches, are being sold to reduce the company's debt mountain.

Mr Ratner is believed to be keen to buy back H Samuel though it is not clear if he could raise the finances. He is likely to face stiff competition from Goldsmiths, the small but growing jewellers, which has already offered pounds 250m for both chains but is principally interested in Ernest Jones. Argos and possibly Littlewoods could be interested in H Samuel.

Signet needs to sell the businesses to reduce its pounds 300m debts and realise some value for impatient shareholders. It has been prompted to sell after an improvement in the group's trading, which could force the asking price higher.

Commenting on Mr Ratner's interest, Signet's chairman, Jim McAdam, said: "If it is a serious offer, we'll look at it."

Sears, which has already sold the Freeman Hardy Willis shoe shops and Olympus Sports, has been trying to prune its disparate empire to concentrate on fewer brands. Stephen Hinchliffe, whose fast-expanding Facia group bought Freeman Hardy Willis, is believed to be looking at the shoe shops, though the company says it has been approached by other buyers. The stores are thought to have negligible value in spite of being well known brand names.

Sears is making a provision of pounds 30m to cover the cost of sale or closure and says the decision will save pounds 8m a year. The company hopes to convert some of the stores to branches of Shoe Express and Shoe City which are performing well.

The City reacted positively to the news, though criticised the group for moving too slowly. John Richards, retail analysts at NatWest Securities said: "A more focused approach is developing at Sears but the trouble is it is a slow drip rather than a wholesale clear out. It's a bit like Chinese torture." He has cut his full year profit forecast from pounds 115m to pounds 103m.

The company is also contrac ting out its IT and accounting functions to the accountants Arthur Andersen. The transfer of the IT functions will affect around 900 employees.

Commenting on the trading difficulties, Sears chairman Sir Bob Reid said: "The retail environment has been incresingly difficult with low consumer demand and heavy competition. We believe that the focusing of the group on a smaller number of large brands, together with this re-structuring of our operations, will progressively increase our efficiency and the long term profitability of the group."