Yates and Tchenguiz chase SFI

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Both the Yates wine bar group and property magnate Robert Tchenguiz are being widely tipped as potential bidders for SFI.Despite reports splashed...

Both the Yates wine bar group and property magnate Robert Tchenguiz are being widely tipped as potential bidders for SFI.

Despite reports splashed across the national press that Yates made an initial offer of £60m, SFI was still refusing to confirm whether any bids had been tabled by the close of the week.

Friday was the first deadline for registering interest following the recent release of a limited sale prospectus by SFI.

"This is a story being peddled by Yates which is shouting its interest from the rooftops," said a harrowed sounding spokeswoman for SFI. "A for sale sign has not been hung above the company". However, she then confirmed that: "There is quite a lot of interest from other private and trade buyers."

This is understood to be a reference to Robert Tchegnguiz, the wheeler-dealer property magnate who burst on to the pub scene in 2004 with the £151m purchase of 161 Laurel pubs, soon followed by the stealthy acquisition of 364 Spirit pubs for £345m. Mr Tchenguiz is known to be ambitious for further acquisitions.

Mr Tchenguiz, whose office would not comment, is also widely tipped as an interested party in Barracuda if put up for sale - the acquisition of both this estate and the 157-strong SFI would bring his total pub holdings to around 800 properties.

A source at Yate's, however, talked down a potential Tchenguiz bid, saying: "He plays for property, going for sale and leaseback, and there are no freeholds in this deal."

Yates believes there is a synergy between SFI's Slug & Lettuce and Litten Tree concepts and its own Ha! Ha! bars. With appropriate management already in place, it is thought that head office savings of up to £6m could be made from closing SFI's head office.

SFI has been struggling since its dramatic withdrawal from the stock market in April 2003 after a £20m hole was uncovered in its accounts. However, the group's best known brand, the Slug and Lettuce concept, remains profitable and with prime venues on high streets across Britain it is clearly the main attraction for bidders.

Of the 157 SFI venues, up to 50 are understood to be loss-making; a high figure which will be reflected in the price put on the company as a whole.

Stuart Lawson, SFI's chief executive, has made it widely known that he believes the rescue package put together by the current board - one which appears to be showing signs of turning the company around - is still a viable option. However as he admits, it will be SFI's financial backers who will make the final decision.

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