One of Northern Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs is to buy 15 Co Down pubs - from a property company which faces being struck off the register for failing to file accounts.
Bill Wolsey's Beannchor bar and hotel group is snapping up the venues - in places like Groomsport, Hillsborough, Portaferry and Bangor - from MAR Properties, whose portfolio was estimated to be worth £1bn just three years ago.
The pubs include the Groomsport Inn and sister pub The Stables, the Hillside in Hillsborough, Lisbarnett House near Lisbane and the Esplanade in Ballyholme, Bangor.
It's understood Mr Wolsey and MAR are finalising the deal with an announcement due next week.
Mr Wolsey said negotiations were "at a delicate stage" and declined to comment further.
Colin Neill, chief executive of industry group Pubs of Ulster, welcomed the prospect of an acquisition of pubs during a tough time for the licensed trade.
"Such acquisitions are often the only way to safeguard the jobs and livelihoods of those employed in the industry and this is of vital importance," Mr Neill said.
The assets of MAR Properties -pubs, shopping centres and other property in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland - have fallen in value in the property crash.
It faces being struck off for not filing its accounts with Companies House, with its 2009 figures overdue since September last year.
Companies House yesterday confirmed it had received an objection to the proposed striking-off, and had received a 'promise to file' letter dated March 28, which suspended the strike-off action for 28 days.
A spokeswoman for Companies House said the company's directors could now face prosecution for failing to file within the 28 days. Accounts for 2008 showed losses of £3m that year, up from £1.86m a year earlier.
No-one from MAR Properties was available for comment. Former chief executive Robert Horner, who stepped down in September last year, declined to speak about his former employers.
The 15 pubs which form the new deal were among a portfolio of 19 which MAR took over from the Jewell Group three years ago.
The property company was set up 1997 by William Rush, Noel Murphy and Adam Armstrong.
They were part of a syndicate which owned Grand National-winning racehorse Monty's Pass.
According to the 2008 accounts, all three men have given guarantees to banks for the company's liabilities, including Bank of Scotland (Ireland). Mr Murphy and Mr Rush also have given guarantees to Ulster Bank for £9m.
Mr Rush and Mr Murphy signed personal guarantees to Anglo Irish Bank for £4.2m, while Mr Armstrong gave the bank a personal guarantee of £3.6m.
They will be Beannchor's first acquisition since taking control of Leighinmohr Hotel in Ballymena last year and will bring its portfolio of pubs and hotels to almost 50.
Leases already held on the properties by their current operators are expected to continue under the new arrangement.
While the economic downturn has curtailed most pub companies, the Beannchor Group has expanded rapidly, opening six pizzerias under the Little Wing brand and unveiling a £16m expansion of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter.
It will also open a pub called The Dirty Onion close to the Merchant.