Bargain Booze firm Conviviality close to administration

By Ben Morris
Business Reporter

Image source, Chris Bull / Alamy Stock Photo

Conviviality, the owner of Bargain Booze, has announced plans to file for administration within two weeks.

The firm also owns Wine Rack and supplies more than 25,000 restaurants, hotels and bars.

Earlier this month it shocked investors with a profit warning and news of an unpaid £30m tax bill. It attempted to raise £125m to rescue the business, but this week said that effort had failed.

Conviviality employs about 2,500 staff and their jobs are now in jeopardy.

One of its most important customers is the JD Wetherspoon pub chain. Conviviality supplies all the wine and spirits to 900 Wetherspoon pubs - a contract worth tens of millions of pounds a year.

Wetherspoon said that at the moment deliveries are continuing and it has contingency plans if those supplies are disrupted.

Despite reassurance from Conviviality that it will continue to trade, the British Beer and Pub Association said the situation is "causing concern" for pubs as Conviviality is such a significant supplier.

'Fallen short'

Earlier this month, Conviviality slashed its forecast for underlying earnings this year to £55m from £70m.

Just days later, on 14 March, it revealed a £30m tax bill that had to be paid by the end of the month.

Those revelations prompted the resignation of chief executive Diana Hunter, who had been in charge since 2013, the year Conviviality listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Under her leadership the company expanded rapidly.

Its core business had been selling popular alcohol brands at rock bottom prices, but in 2015 Ms Hunter took the firm into the wholesaling of drinks with the purchase of Matthew Clark.

It also went upmarket with the purchase of wine specialist Bibendum.

The rapid demise of Conviviality

Image source, Conviviality

As recently as 29 January Conviviality management was buoyant. Announcing half-year pre-tax profits of £7.4m chief executive Diana Hunter celebrated the company's "strength" and "above market growth".

However, the first sign of trouble came a little over a month later, on 8 March. The company warned that profits would be 20% below market expectations. It blamed an error in its forecasts and weaker profit margins.

Then, on 14 March, it revealed a £30m tax bill that had to be paid by the end of the month. It entered discussions with its lenders and looked at raising funds on the stock market.

By 28 March the game was up. An effort to raise £125m from shareholders failed. A day later Conviviality announced its intention to call in the administrators.

From the first sign of trouble to the brink of failure took just 21 days.

Conviviality created a potentially strong business model according to Phil Carroll, a research analyst with investment firm, Shore Capital.

But, he said, management of the company's operations had "fallen short".

In particular the wholesale business had struggled to "get price increases to stick" and profit margins had suffered, he said.

Molly Johnson-Jones, a retail analyst at GlobalData, said: "Numerous accounting errors and misjudgements suggest poor management oversight."

Potential suitors

Conviviality had been trying to raise £125m to keep the business going, but on Wednesday it announced that those attempts had failed.

In its latest update, the company said: "Unless circumstances change, and in accordance with statutory requirements, the Board intend to appoint administrators within 10 business days.

"The secured creditors can, however, appoint administrators without the requirement for notice."

Conviviality said it was exploring "a number of inbound enquiries regarding a potential sale of all or parts of the business".

Brewers and food retailers might be among those interested in buying all, or part of Conviviality.

In particular, the Matthew Clark wholesale business and Bibendum wine specialist could attract buyers, analysts say.

Potential buyers might be impressed by some of the big firms supplied by Conviviality. They include:

  • Stonegate which has 690 pubs including the Slug and Lettuce chain
  • The brewer Wadworth, which owns 200 pubs
  • Mitchells & Butler, owner of O'Neill's and All Bar One

Conviviality is the latest in a series of retailers to run into trouble.

Last week, fashion chain New Look said it would close 60 stores and cut 1,000 jobs. At the end of February the UK arm of Toys R Us went into administration, and earlier this month it announced all of its stores would close.

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