Mike Ashley set to pitch for a takeover at Heatons
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is on course to take over Irish discount department store Heatons, which has 10 stores in Northern Ireland.
Belfast-born Heatons managing director John O'Neill, who has been with the company since 1986, is among the directors to sell up to the billionaire's Sports Direct company.
Sports Direct already owned half of the shares in Heatons but has now struck a €47.5m (£34.8m) deal to buy up the clothes and homeware retailer.
Heatons has 44 stores in the Republic of Ireland as well as its 10 here.
Sports Direct chief executive Dave Forsey said: "We look forward to accelerating investment into the existing store portfolio and strengthening the Heatons and Sports Direct brands across Ireland."
Mr Ashley secured an initial agreement with minority shareholder Sandra Minor to buy a stake in Warrnambool, the holding company of Heatons.
When that deal goes through, Sports Direct will own more than half of the company and it has a conditional agreement to then buy the remaining shares from Mark Heaton, Hugh Heaton, Mr O'Neill, Warrnambool and Katipo Limited.
Twenty-seven of Heatons' 44 stores in the Republic have a dedicated instore SportsWorld section, while the Northern Ireland shops either have a Sports Direct branded section or have a Sports Direct outlet in the same premises. Warrnambool also owns and operates five standalone Sports Direct branded stores in Northern Ireland.
In the year to the end of April last year, the holding company had revenues of more than €219m (£161m), gross assets of €158m (£116m) and profits before tax of €10m (£7.3m).
The deal is subject to clearance from the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. Heatons was founded in Athlone in Co Westmeath in 1946. In 2014 it was named one of Ireland's 'best managed' companies by Deloitte.