Focus owners seek financial help or a sale

THE owners of the UK’s fourth-largest DIY chain Focus are looking to investment bankers to advise on the future of the heavily debt laden business, which could lead to a sale.

US based private equity firm Cerberus is taking advice from Lazard on the future of Focus, and is in talks with its banks about refinancing its loans and overdrafts.

The business, which has 180 stores in Britain, has debts totalling approximately £230m and made a loss of £21m on sales of nearly £490m in the year to 21 February, accounts filed at Companies House in August show.

Last year Focus secured a company voluntary agreement which made it possible to cut leases on a number of empty stores, and also managed to extend its £50m overdraft by two years.

One £60m loan carries a high interest rate of seven per cent over Libor – the rate at which banks lend to each other – and will have accrued some £19m in interest by the end of January.

Competition issues could however prevent rivals Home Retail Group, the owners of the Homebase home improvement chain and the Argos chain, and Kingfisher, which owns market leader B&Q, from buying the business.

Data for the DIY sector shows B&Q has a market share of 27 per cent, while a spokesperson for Home Retail Group said Homebase’s share of the market could also prevent an acquisition. Focus has a market share of just 3.5 per cent.

The retail chain was originally founded in 1987 by Bill Archer and has 180 stores nationwide, and last changed hands in 2007 for £1.

While DIY was once a boom sector, the industry’s popularity has taken a nose dive and analysts expect sales to fall further this year. However, Focus has recently trialled a new format in 11 stores, with additional cut-price items under the revived Payless brand. The changes are starting to pay off and Cerberus could decide to roll this programme out further.