Holter on the loose

09 March, 2007

Castel could sell Oddbins in an attempt to get its wines into the UK market

What now for Oddbins? Castel's adventure in UK wine retailing has been described as a "disaster" by financial experts and only a little more kindly by the trade at large. There is no likelihood of the French business clawing back the £57 million it paid five years ago (plus the money the chain has lost it since then). More worryingly, there are those who fear that the off-licence which once broke the mould is now itself broken beyond repair.

Castel's folly was to pay almost twice as much as its rival bidders had on the table. Family businesses can sometimes get away with a little recklessness of this sort, but imagine if the deal had been funded by venture capital. The management would have been fired and big questions asked about due diligence. Word has it that Castel didn't make its final instalment to Diageo due to a quibble over details, but we can still safely assume that it overpaid.

Castel has been accused of not understanding what it bought. Perhaps. It hasn't exactly been sensitive in its management style. Overloading stores with unpopular Castel brands won it few friends; and its buying team, once one of the most admired in the business, is now understaffed and making margin demands that have caused widespread consternation.

But the most jaw-dropping decision has been to rebrand some of the best Oddbins sites as Nicolas. It suggests that Castel has no confidence left in the chain, whatever its public protestations. There are some who would argue that if Castel can't make Oddbins work in Bath, where its store is no more, it won't be able to make it work anywhere.

We hear that Oddbins is a touchy subject at Castel board meetings: nobody wants reminding how much cash the deal has cost the company and how embarrassing an exit would be. But surely that exit must come, unless Castel has a genius strategy up its sleeve or it has a deeper masochistic tendency than any of us imagined.

Castel may save some face by expanding its Nicolas brand, but is a high street chain restricted to French wine really a formula worth backing in the current climate? Where that leaves the remaining Oddbins shops is anyone's guess. An online retailer, perhaps?

Venture capital is fond of backing seemingly lost causes and perhaps there will be an appetite among wine-loving financiers to have a crack at rejuvenating the Oddbins brand. But asset-strippers beware: Oddbins is more or less bereft of freehold interests and the estate size is falling all the time. What exactly would a bidder be getting for their money?

The deal most likely to interest Castel is one that would give it a much-needed route to market for its brands, which under-achieve in the UK. The irony is that these are precisely the wines that its own employees don't currently buy because they aren't convinced they're right for this market.

Bidders who are saddled with any long-term commitment to Castel brands should consider whether an Oddbins purchase is quite the bargain they think it is.




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