It's hard keeping up. High street off-licence specialist Thresher Group now has its third owner in a fortnight and finds itself in the hands of yet another private equity firm, Vision Capital. What's going on?
This week Vision finalised a deal worth £265m for a 75% stake in Thresher Group as well as domestic-goods retailer Brighthouse.It's an example of the secondary (in this case tertiary) buyout deals that typify the private equity market at the moment. The seller, a consortium led by Edmund Truell, had bought both businesses from Guy Hands' Terra Firma only weeks earlier for an undisclosed amount.
It seems a speedy sell-off was Truell's plan all along - his main interest was in the £85m Threshers pension fund, which he has put into a giant investment fund pot he is building. Truell, the founder of Duke Street Capital, has acted quickly to address the deficit in the pension fund, pumping in £32m. His consortium's remaining 25% stake in Thresher Group represents the pension element of the Thresher business.
So, what is Vision buying? And what does it hope to gain? Thresher Group currently owns 1,870 stores under four different fascias: Threshers, The Local, Haddows and Wine Rack. It employs more than 12,000 people and claims half the UK's population live within a 10-minute walk of one of its stores.
Thresher's latest results suggest it has turned the corner after a shaky period. For the 12 months to 1 July 2006 it showed a 0.9% increase in sales to £781m, but a pre-tax profit of £15.4m compared with a £1.1m loss the previous year. It recorded an operating loss of £9.4m, but this too was a big improvement on the 2005 figure of £22.8m.
In a sector which is in decline, down 8% year-on-year, Vision must be encouraged to see that three of its four fascias are in growth, with only Wine Rack in decline, and the group is trying to sell or convert its 50 Wine Rack stores.It is also looking to speed up its franchise scheme. It has just opened its 50th franchise store and has had 2,500 applications in the past year.
Vision Capital chief executive Julian Marsh was tight-lipped about future plans but appeared to back the current management team led by CEO Roger Whiteside. "This is a win-win deal for us and Edmund Truell's consortium," he said before the sale was finalised. "We are looking forward to acquiring these businesses with potential for further growth and working with their management teams to achieve it."
But industry insiders are sceptical about the long-term future of the group, which faces competition from rival off-licence chains, supermarkets and c-stores.
A former Unwins director warned the new owner that it needs to invest in the right people if it is to avoid a similar fate to that company, which collapsed spectacularly in December 2005.
He also questioned Thresher Group's current promotional strategy: "Anyone can give stuff away. Thresher's three-for-two deals and the voucher stunt before Christmas may have generated great publicity but you can't keep doing that."
He also believes that, because of the logistics needed to run a big chain, the cost of staff and spiralling rents, there is very little room for maneouvre. "If you are making 10p on a bottle of wine the cost of rent is likely to kill the business," he says.
"Often private equity firms will look to get money out of the stores via sale and leaseback deals. But since Terra Firma did that, with a sizeable portion of the Thresher Group estate prior to selling it off, that's not going to be an option."