Vue on verge of tying up a £450m sale

CINEMA chain Vue Entertainment was last night on the brink of being sold to private equity firm Doughty Hanson for around £450m.

Although a finalised deal has yet to be signed off by both parties, it is understood that Doughty Hanson is now the only bidder left in the race, after Vue’s management team stopped their discussions with rival private equity firm BC Partners and Canadian pension fund OMERS.

Vue is majority owned by its management, led by chief executive Tim Richards, while minority stakes are held by both private equity firm Coller Capital and hedge fund Och-Ziff.

The sale is set to net Richards, who founded Vue 12 years ago, a windfall of almost £25m.

Doughty Hanson has proposed that Vue’s management reinvest half of the profits from the sale back into the business and that they stay on afterwards in order to lead an aggressive expansion of the business in coming years.

The chain is expected to table a transformational acquisition proposition in the not-too-distant future, with speculation over a takeover centring on its listed rival Cineworld and on Odeon and UCI, owned by Terra Firma boss Guy Hands.

Sources close to the talks said that the top members of the two teams remained locked behind closed doors yesterday, attempting to thrash out the final nuances of the deal. A final announcement is anticipated by the end of the week at the very latest, barring any last-minute hurdles.

Vue operates 68 cinemas across the country, including Europe’s largest purpose-built all-digital cinema at the Westfield shopping centre in West London, which has 14 screens.

Richards had held senior roles at Hollywood movie studios Warner Bros, Paramount and UCI before leaving to set up Vue with business partner Alan McNair, now chief financial officer and deputy chief executive of the group.

The pair first worked out of their own homes and garages, before setting up office above a Greek restaurant in Chiswick and growing the group to operate six cinemas by 2001. They then pulled off an audacious £221m acquisition of Warner Village Cinemas in 2003, catapulting the company to become the third largest cinema operator in the UK.

Richards is also a board member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) council and the British Screen Advisory Council.

DOUGHTY Hanson’s chairman Nigel Doughty co-founded the firm along with Richard Hanson in 1984 and has since built it up to become one of the biggest private equity and fund management firms in Europe.

But the financier is better known in circles outside the City for his high-profile role as chairman of Nottingham Forest football club. Doughty succeeded Eric Barnes at the helm of the club in April 2002 and is a lifelong Forest fan, having been born and brought up in the area.

Forest fans are broadly supportive of their chairman – who, though not a tycoon on the same scale as a Roman Abramovich, has pumped large amounts of his own money into the club to save it from bankruptcy and brought it up to the middle of the Championship.

Doughty has also hit the headlines in the past for being one of the Labour party’s most generous donors. He gave £1m to the party in the second quarter of this year, in the run-up to the general election.

He is a committed philanthropist, having set up the Doughty Hanson Charitable Foundation, which fights poverty, disability and homelessness and promotes healthcare and education, and his own Doughty Family Foundation, set up with wife Lucy.