Sketchley quits the high street

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The Independent Online
SKETCHLEY, the troubled dry-cleaning and business services group, yesterday signalled an end to its high-street presence with the sale of its 620 outlets to the Minit Group for just pounds 1.23m.

John Jackson, the chief executive, resigned as the sale was announced, leaving Sketchley without a chief executive. He was said to be looking to pursue other interests.

The group will be forced to change its name once the sale has been completed. Yesterday it also emerged that profits from Sketchley's retail division were too little to carry on paying the rent on its properties.

Sketchley has a market value of pounds 34m, but in the last three years has run up losses of pounds 30m. In 1996, Sketchley said it would close 160 outlets in the face of stiff competition. It has struggled to sublet enough of the stores to cover the rents, and many remain closed.

Last July, David Davies, the chairman, announced results which he called "disappointing in the extreme". An expected profit turned into a pounds 4.3m loss after serious accounting errors were discovered. Richard Meyers, then finance director, resigned that day.

In January the group said it was in talks with a mystery bidder for the entire group, but these ended last week.

The business problems were compounded by tragedy when Ray Washbrook, a 25-year-old father of two who worked for a Stevenage subsidiary of Sketchley, died after being trapped overnight inside an industrial tumble drier. Two weeks ago the company was fined pounds 25,000 for contravening health and safety regulations in the incident.

Minit Group, the international key-cutting to shoe-repair chain owned by UBS Capital, yesterday said it would keep the Sketchley name as well as its other retail brands, including SupaSnaps, Jeeves of Belgravia, Lilliman & Cox and Tothills. It will also guarantee the rump Sketchley business against becoming liable for rent on the properties - a bill for up to pounds 50m over the coming years - should the Minit group fail.

Gavin Chittick, finance director of Minit's UK operation, pledged to transform Sketchley into a "services supermarket", training staff to offer shoe and watch repairs, key cutting and dry cleaning under one roof. He added there were no plans for redundancies.

Under another name, the rump Sketchley group will concentrate on business services such as renting out work clothes and contracting for British Telecom. No replacement for Mr Jackson has yet been proposed.