Sears raises pounds 92m in sale of Asprey holding: Retail group loses pounds 14m from foray into Dutch mail order business

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SEARS, the Selfridges to Dolcis retail group, underlined its concentration on the mass market when it sold its 25 per cent stake in Asprey, owner of the Crown jewellers. But it also revealed that it has lost more than pounds 14m in a disastrous foray into the Dutch mail order business.

The sale, of 20.3 million ordinary shares and 18.5 million participating preference shares, netted pounds 92m, giving it a pounds 7.8m profit over book value of pounds 84.8m. That will partly compensate for losses on the Dutch mail order group Meulen Post, which it aims to close only 18 months after acquiring it.

The closure, which has still to be agreed with the workforce, will cost pounds 5.5m, including pounds 1.8m of losses in the five months to end-June. The cost of the acquisition in January 1992 was not disclosed, although it is believed to have been less than pounds 2m. But it lost pounds 6.9m in the year to January and has been in 'intensive care' since then.

Both deals are part of the strategy of focusing on the core, mass market retail businesses, including the British Shoe Corporation chain introduced by Liam Strong, who joined as chief executive in February 1992.

A spokeswoman said Mr Strong quickly identified the Asprey holding for disposal. It contributed pounds 8.6m to profit last year and there will be a further pounds 3.7m contribution this year, until the date of the sale. Excluding the profit on disposal, the deal will dilute earnings by about 2 per cent.

The disposal has allowed Asprey, which also owns Mappin & Webb and Garrard, the Crown jewellers, to graduate from the Unlisted Securities Market to a full listing. The Asprey family's holding - it bought 1.1 million shares from Sears yesterday, lifting its stake from 50.5 per cent to 52 per cent - meant it could not meet the Stock Exchange's requirements for the proportion of shares available to the public without the Sears' sale.

Naim Attallah, Asprey's group chief executive, said he was pleased with Sears' disposal. 'It is a new era for us. We now have a wider base of shareholders.'

The disposal came as Asprey revealed that profits in the year to March had increased from pounds 19.4m to pounds 21.6m, although a return to a 30 per cent tax charge, compared with 19 per cent last time, meant earnings fell from 15.14p to 14.44p. The dividend was increased to 5.10p (4.85p).

The rise was due to a stream of purchases during the year, including Watches of Switzerland and Hamilton & Inches, the Edinburgh silversmith.

Of the existing businesses, Asprey lifted sales by 26 per cent to pounds 54.3m as the group expanded its customer base, but the other two businesses turned in lower profits.

'Rich people have become more selective,' Mr Attallah said. 'If they spent pounds 20,000 last year they will spend pounds 10,000 this.' But he is aiming to cash in on Eastern Europe by opening a Mappin & Webb branch in Prague.

(Photograph omitted)