Will Groucho become another old folks' home after £20m sale?

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The Independent Online

Nestling in the heart of London's Soho, inconspicuous from the street but discreetly glamorous within, the Groucho Club has been the favourite watering hole of media luvvies for more than two decades.

But now members fear the unique nature of the club will change after its sale for a little over £20m to a private-equity firm whose investment portfolio includes care homes, lamp-post manufacturers and road sweepers.

Jude Law, Stephen Fry, Keith Allen, Tracey Emin, Dawn French, Matt Lucas and David Walliams are among the 4,000 members of a club so exclusive that it rejects eight out of 10 applications to join.

Graphite Capital, which has bought the Groucho from Joel Cadbury, immediately sought to reassure members it would be "business as usual" at the Dean Street drinking hole.

The new owner has pledged to expand the club in response to members' requests for more bedrooms and "outposts" of the Groucho outside London.

It has formed a new company, The Groucho Club Ltd, to work with the existing management, led by Margaret Levin and Mary-Lou Sturridge. Mr Cadbury, who led a consortium to acquire the Groucho with Rupert Hambro in 2001, will stay on the board. Graphite said that it "plans to be a long-term investor and fully supports the management's strategy".

But in the past two years, Graphite has invested in 11 companies and exited 15, including the restaurant chain Wagamama, the stationer Paperchase, the bookstore Ottakar's and the fashion outlet Jane Norman.

Mark Borkowski, one of the founder members of the Groucho, said: "When something changes in a place like that, of course you're uneasy. If they're going to expand it and make it better, of course that's a good thing. But these corporate types are never going to keep the same spirit as the people who set it up."

Since Mr Cadbury, the chocolate heir, took over in 2001, managers of the Groucho have installed new kitchens and internet services and invested in what has become an important collection of British art. It now has 150 works of art, including pieces by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

The club wants like to add at least another 10 bedrooms to its existing 19, which members can use at a cut-price rate.

The Groucho is also keen to open up new branches, although insiders said it would not simply emulate fellow private-members' clubs in London such as Soho House, which recently opened in New York, and Home House, which has Babington House, an outpost in Somerset.

The Groucho's founder, Tony Mackintosh, said: "I am delighted to know that the club will continue in good hands. I am also very supportive of the development plans for the future of the club."

Under the sale, Graphite will acquire all of the shares in the Groucho - 92 per cent of shareholders have already accepted their offer.

Graphite, which is based in London, manages more than £750m in funds for private and institutional shareholders. Its investments include the Northampton-based care homes operator Avery Homes, and Countdown, a Swindon-based laundry supplier - all a far cry from the artists, television stars, media executives and writers who frequent the Groucho.

Club history

*The club, founded in 1985, was named after a quip by Groucho Marx. "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."

It is notoriously difficult to gain membership.

Nick Jones joked that he set up the rival Soho House because the waiting list for the Groucho was so long.

Historically, the club had no rules, but Stephen Fry recently provided the wording for a humorous prohibition on mobile phones - "an anathema, a curse, a horror, a dread and a deep unpleasantness" - illegal substances and string vests.

Members are strictly sworn to secrecy about what goes on inside the Groucho, but that has not stopped lurid tales emerging.

Julie Burchill famously held court there - remembered by original member Lynne Franks for her "little voice and red lips". On the 20th anniversary last year, Toby Young insisted that he did not "go all the way" with a woman in the toilets - an incident written up in the members' book by Christopher Silvester.

Even the wine at the Groucho is unique - with bespoke labels created by Marc Quinn, Peter Blake and Gavin Turk.

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