Belfast Telegraph

Ailing outdoor retailer may be saved by buyer

A struggling outdoor clothing and equipment retailer with four shops in Northern Ireland could soon be saved.

Scottish clothing group Edinburgh Woollen Mill has emerged as a frontrunner to acquire parts of ailing retailer Blacks Leisure.

Potential bidders had until yesterday to register interest with the sale adviser, KPMG, and reports suggest a flurry of bids have been tabled from companies including Mountain Warehouse and Go Outdoors.

The company owns 98 Blacks outlets and 208 Millets stores, with a Blacks and a Millets in Belfast as well as a Millets in Newtownabbey and in Ballymena.

There have been concerns over the future of the stricken firm, after its biggest shareholder Sports Direct walked away from buy-out talks, sparking fears of a lack of interest.

But sources familiar with the process confirmed a number of bidders had come forward, including Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which recently snapped up 58 Jane Norman stores after the retailer fell into administration.

Blacks Leisure declined to comment.

Shares in Blacks Leisure surged 22% as speculation over potential bidders escalated but the price is still down 96% since the start of the year, giving the company a market value of £1.4m.

KPMG is expected to sell the company under a pre-pack administration so the winning bidder can pick it up free of liabilities.

Blacks, which also owns brands Peter Storm and Eurohike and is in £36m of debt, put itself up for sale after failing to secure extra funding to turn around the business, which would have included a revamp of its stores.

The retailer made a £16m loss in the first half of the year and recently warned that its full-year performance would be worse than expected.

It was hit by the unexpected warm weather in October and November as much of its clothing is aimed at harsher conditions, such as fleeces and waterproof jackets.

Sports Direct, which is owned by Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, had been seen as the most likely to step in to rescue the ailing retailer, having already tried to buy the company last year.

But Sports Direct recently issued a statement confirming it had withdrawn an offer for the company.

However, whether the company will make a move on Blacks if it falls into administration remains to be seen.