Boots Fights Hands For £600m Co-op Pharmacies
Britain's biggest high street chemist is battling against City investors including Guy Hands, the former owner of EMI Music, to win control of the struggling Co-operative Group's pharmacy chain.
Sky News has learnt that potential buyers of the division tabled preliminary offers on Thursday, two days before a crucial meeting of Co-op members at which urgent reforms of the mutual's governance will be thrashed out.
The bidders included Alliance Boots, which is the UK's largest health and beauty retailer with almost 2,500 shops, Terra Firma Capital Partner, Mr Hands' investment vehicle, CVC Capital Partners, the biggest shareholder in Formula One motor racing, and Carlyle, which owns Holland & Barrett, the health-food chain.
Charterhouse, Cinven and Montagu, three other private equity groups, were also among the bidders, according to people close to the process.
It was unclear on Friday whether Alliance Boots, which is part-owned by the giant US retailer Walgreens, would pursue its interest throughout the auction process and whether it was keen to acquire the entire chain of Co-op pharmacies.
Analysts said that it could seek to offload some of the Co-op outlets to a potential partner.
Legal opinions are mixed about whether a sale to Alliance Boots would trigger an objection from the Competition and Markets Authority, although Co-op executives are understood to be hopeful that the fragmentation of the UK market would make such a deal possible.
Speaking on Thursday as Alliance Boots announced record annual profit of nearly £1.3bn, the company's executive chairman, Stefano Pessina, said it would continue to concentrate its expansion on emerging markets.
The Co-op's pharmacies unit comprises 750 outlets, which employ 6,500 staff and serve 200,000 customers a week.
The business has struggled because of cost-cutting within the NHS' prescription drugs budget although it is still profitable, making operating profit of £28.2m on sales of £764m in the year to January 5, 2013.
A source close to one bidder said its pre-tax profit in the most recent financial year had been roughly £67m, making £600m "an appropriate ballpark" for bids.
It was unclear whether other major pharmacy chains such as Lloyds and Superdrug had tabled offers.
The Co-op has decided to explore a sale of the business, as well as its much smaller farming operations, to raise cash as it aims to puts its finances on a firmer long-term footing.
The annual meeting and special general meeting in Manchester on Saturday will include a crucial vote on reforms to the mutual's management and governance structure proposed by Lord Myners, the former City minister, in the wake of its £2.5bn annual loss.
The Co-op and the bidders for its pharmacies business declined to comment on Friday.