Ireland's BWG Group, which operates the Spar and Mace convenience store franchises in the Republic and owns West Country Spar wholesaler Appleby Westward in the UK, is to be sold.

The company has appointed IBI Corporate Finance to handle the deal, with a spokesman stressing that the process was at "a very early stage". Some trade analysts estimated that the sale could attract bids of more than €300m.

The company's biggest shareholder, Electra Partners, a private equity group, is expected to exit the business. Four years ago it led a €220m management buyout of BWG from Pernod Ricard, and holds a 65% share.

Businessman John Clohisey owns 20% of the business and a number of Spar shops. BWG chief executive Leo Crawford together with managers and staff account for 15%.

Though analysts have always anticipated that the business would be sold, news of the sell-off has come earlier than many in the industry had expected. It had been tipped for disposal in 2007.

With Irish retail sales booming in tandem with the Irish economy, the sale is certain to attract interest from trade players, private equity groups and millionaire businesspeople.

It is understood that a number of tentative approaches have already been made.

The group recently reported that its operating profit rose 18% last year to €55m, with turnover topping the €1.66bn mark. Crawford said: "A strong performance from our key symbol brands Spar and Mace reinforced our position as the leading Irish convenience food retailer."

BWG controls a network of 900 convenience stores in Ireland and the UK.

In the Republic, BWG Retail operates the franchise for Spar, Eurospar and Mace, while its wholesale arm has 24 cash and carry outlets and a foodservice unit that supplies the catering trade.

The company recently announced plans to sell off €90m worth of stores to its franchised retailers.

BWG's property division currently owns or leases 167 retail properties in the Dublin area. Crawford said that up to 40 franchisees had taken up an offer to buy their premises.