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Fri 6th Oct 2017 - Update: Hollywood Bowl, EasyCoffee, Merlin, Booker/Tesco merger opposition
Hollywood Bowl Group reports like-for-like sales up 3.5%: Hollywood Bowl Group, the UK’s largest ten-pin bowling operator, has reported like-for-like sales increased 3.5% for the year ended 30 September 2017. In its pre-close trading update, the company said revenue grew 10% in the second half of the year and was up 8.9% for the full year. The company stated: “At its initial public offering in September 2016, Hollywood Bowl set out a growth strategy focused on expanding its number of centres, investing in refurbishments and the rebranding of its Bowlplex sites into Hollywood Bowl centres, and continuing to innovate and improve the customer experience. The successful execution of this strategy has delivered a strong financial and operational performance for the group, which is expected to result in earnings for the year to 30 September 2017 being marginally ahead of board expectations. The group is in a strong financial position, driven by its cash generation and the returns generated from its ongoing investment programme. Hollywood Bowl’s business model means that it is able to sustain its investment programme going forward through its ongoing cash generation. Therefore, as initially noted in April at the group’s half-year trading update, the board is considering returning capital to the group’s shareholders. A further update will be given on the potential return in the group’s FY17 results announcement, which is expected to be published on 11 December 2017.” Chief executive Stephen Burns added: “We are very pleased with our full-year performance, delivering good results marginally ahead of expectations, through the effective execution of our customer led strategy that is underpinned by our capital expenditure programme. Our centre teams continue to work very hard to ensure our customers have a fun-filled, great value for money leisure experience, whilst managing cost and improving our margins.”
 
EasyCoffee seeks funds to open 200 shops: EasyCoffee, the low-cost coffee concept by EasyGroup and Peoples Coffee director Nathan Lowry, is raising fresh equity and debt for its low-cost coffee concept EasyCoffee to help fund its ambitious plan to open 200 shops over the next three years. EasyCoffee has raised £2m of equity from private equity firm Jaguar Alternatives, having secured initial funding from Saudi investment group Al Dhowayan. It has also appointed Voltaire Financial to help source additional equity and £20m to £25m of debt. So far, EasyCoffee has opened a flagship store in Leicester Square; an outlet in Covent Garden, which is used for training and product development; and various stores in regional towns including Hastings, Blackburn and Edinburgh. It is on track to open ten new stores by the end of the year and has longer-term plans to open 200 stores operated mainly by franchise partners in three years. As part of the roll-out, Lowry, who holds a 50-year licence for EasyCoffee, said he was looking to buy high-street buildings across the UK. The properties would have an EasyCoffee on the ground floor, the first floor would be converted for co-working space and the top floors would be turned into residential studios. Lowry said he was not afraid to go up against established coffee shop brands and would actively seek out pitches close to rivals such as Costa and Starbucks. He told Property Week: “There is definitely a gap for a value coffee shop operation in competition with the usual suspects on the British high street. I challenge anyone to say our coffee or fit-out is of lesser quality than the competition, so eventually the public will vote with its feet and move to EasyCoffee.” The company is also looking to open stores in shopping centres, with one set to open in the Priory Shopping Centre in Dartford, Kent, by the end of the year. It is also looking to roll out other formats such as concessions, vending machines and drive-thrus. Dorothée Dembiermont, co-founder of Voltaire, said: “We have a robust business plan for the expansion and are in advanced talks with a couple of parties to come on board with growth capital to help Nathan execute his strategic vision.” The latest fund-raise values the EasyCoffee business at £15.5m.
 
Merlin approaches Seaworld over £1bn parks deal: Merlin Entertainments has approached Seaworld Entertainment to gauge its American rival’s interest in selling some of its theme parks in a deal that could be worth as much as $1bn. Merlin, which operates Madame Tussauds and Legoland among its portfolio, is understood to have mooted a potential acquisition of Seaworld’s Busch Gardens theme parks in Florida and Virginia, although the US group is thought to be reluctant to consider a break-up, reports The Times. There has been speculation Merlin could swallow at least a portion of Seaworld for almost a decade, with both businesses previously owned by Blackstone. Nick Varney, Merlin’s chief executive, has made no secret of his interest in its Busch Gardens parks. Merlin’s approach to Seaworld comes after suggestions in recent weeks the US group has been working with advisers to explore options, including a sale of the company. The process is said to have elicited interest from other potential suitors. The Busch Gardens venues in Tampa and Virginia are family-focused theme parks with exotic animals as well as rides and live entertainment. Although Merlin has a chain of Sea Life centres, it has a policy of not keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, which would rule out a bid for the whole of Seaworld. The American group has three Seaworld-branded parks plus a small number of Aquatica and Water Country attractions. The Seaworld-branded parks are famous for their killer whales, but the company’s stewardship of its orcas has attracted controversy. Four years ago the documentary Blackfish accused it of mistreatment and the company has struggled to halt declining revenues. Shares in Seaworld closed down 6.5% at $13.19 while shares in Merlin rose 3.4% to 463¾p.
 
Booker rivals urge CMA to block Tesco bid: The bosses of seven of the UK’s largest wholesalers have come out fighting against Tesco’s mooted £3.7bn takeover of Booker and called on the competition watchdog to block the deal. Their fiery opposition to the takeover, which they argue “threatens the survival of the independent retailer”, comes just a day after Tesco boss Dave Lewis reasserted his confidence in the Booker takeover remaining on track. The group of leading wholesalers who have written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is the country’s largest buying group Today’s Wholesale Services, Spar, Bestway, Bidfood, Landmark, Confex and Sugro. They refute Tesco’s claim the deal will enhance competition and promote consumer interests and instead argue the swoop on Booker will harm suppliers, result in higher prices and less choice for independent retailers and their consumers. The wholesalers, who together account for 60% of the market, claimed if the takeover proceeds “Tesco would have incontestable power over the procurement of all grocery categories in the UK and suppliers would find it even harder to resist Tesco’s demands”. The wholesalers argue they are already disadvantaged as they cannot match Tesco’s 29% share of the grocery market, which will increase with the Booker deal. The biggest threat is Booker will be able to buy its products at Tesco’s prices as the wholesaler takes advantage of the supermarket’s wider purchasing power. The letter said: “With these prices, it will be able to drive its competitors, be they delivered wholesalers, cash and carry or symbol operators, out of business. At the retail level, the combination of Booker’s wholesale prices and Tesco’s deep pockets will present independent retailers with a stark choice – join a Booker/Tesco symbol or go out of business.” The group also argued some suppliers, particularly of branded products, would fail without access to Tesco stores and the supermarkets’ extended reach to Booker’s network of convenience shops which includes Londis, Budgens, Happy Shopper and Premier. Tesco and Booker have defended their deal by arguing the wholesale market already benefits from competitive supply arrangements which allows independent retailers to switch easily. They have also said that the deal will provide better choice and lower prices for customers. However, industry experts along with this group of wholesalers have stressed the lower prices will only work for those who are supplied by Tesco and Booker. The CMA is expected to unveil its provisional findings on the deal by the end of this month before coming to a final decision by the end of the year. Competition experts have previously suggested Tesco may have to offer selling off thousands of Tesco Express stores or its One Stop convenience chain to alleviate competition concerns.

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