`Second time lucky' hope of Rymans' buyer

The man who bought the Rymans chain from Pentos's receivers over the weekend knows only too well what can drive a company to the wall - his last publicly-quoted retail venture, AT Trust, was also forced into receivership five years ago.

Theo Paphitis acquired the stationery store chain on Saturday for about £5m, less than a third of what bankers to Pentos were hoping to raise. KPMG said Mr Paphitis's offer was the best of up to nine offers.

Mr Paphitis and the 600 staff at Rymans, whose jobs he hopes to save, will pray that he is more successful than when he briefly ran AT Trust, which had interests including a chain of shops selling plastic policemen's helmets and other souvenirs to London tourists.

AT Trust was a fast-growing conglomerate for a while in the late 1980s. It combined the rights to pitch-side advertising at Cardiff Arms Park with a company that made cookery programmes for television and owned a hotel in the Wirral.

AT, formerly Astra, Trust made an acquisition too far, however, when it launched a hostile bid for Splash, which owned the Cerex gift shop chain.

There were plans to float Cerex off from AT Trust on the unlisted securities market but stock discrepancies at Splash, which led to a £1m extraordinary write-off and a court wrangle with Stoy Hayward, Splash's auditors, proved the undoing of the entire company.

After a fight over how to sort out the mess, Mr Paphitis was thrown off the board. Nine months later the company called in the receivers. Mr Paphitis bought the sports advertising company back from AT Trust's receivers and subsequently acquired NAG Telecom, a cellular phone supplier and the vehicle for the Rymans acquisition.

NAG has had concessions in seven Rymans stores for more than a year, and Mr Paphitis said he intended to steer the shops away from their stationery roots towards higher value electronic goods, including mobile telephones as well as such things as electronic organisers and other high-technology office equipment. The sale of Rymans is the last of Pentos's three divisions to have been sold since KPMG was appointed on 1 March. Barclays and Midland, Pentos's bankers, have recouped £50m from the £70m they were owed.

It was their decision not to provide a further £20m of funding that pushed the group into receivership.

Dillons, the book chain, was sold to Thorn EMI for £36m within days. The office furniture business was sold two weeks ago for £9.2m to Bullough, the furniture and fridges group.

The sale of Rymans is thought to have the support of its franchisees who were beaten in their bid to buy out the shops by the NAG bid.

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