Even before its future plans were revealed to us exclusively this week, Oddbins’ story had become stranger than fiction.
Oddbins has to be the original comeback kid, having been written off more times than a Rover at a rally race. When it was plunged, debt-ridden, into administration in 2011, with an estate of 128 barely-stocked stores, an army of unpaid creditors and its reputation at rock bottom it seemed the best years were long gone.
But when the privately run European Food Brokers successfully won 37 stores and the rights to the name, the solid credentials of owner Raj Chatha lent the move credibility with a supply base still reeling from the effects of the Oddbins era under former boss Simon Baile.
Obbins has emerged this week with renewed fighting spirit, setting out to achieve what some have dismissed as the unachievable – giving the UK a national off-licence network.
So can the team do it? The Oddbins of today is far different from the broken business that hit the headlines for its spectacular decline and, with the backing of a committed investor, it appears in a more stable position than it’s ever been.
Where Baile’s confidence often bordered on the arrogant, Akintola’s doesn’t come from the idea that the world owes Oddbins a living and that if the doors were open people would walk in because that’s what they have always done. He wants to go against the grain, convinced a world without bargain-basement deals is what his shoppers want – and he’s happy to let them go next door to the supermarket. It may be bold, maverick thinking but at least he has direction.
Setting out to rebuild a chain of scale is fraught with challenges, not least a resurgent Wine Rack, which is also attempting to establish itself as a national force.
Fighting it out for the best sites and franchisees while keeping managers of existing stores in profit is going to be tough. But if you’re an independent struggling and looking to sell up, this could be the exit opportunity you were waiting for. Ironically, both businesses could see former employees lost in the succession of closures and collapses return to run new-look stores.
The trade might not have seen it coming, but expect a battle that will test the commitment of Chatha and Wine Rack’s City investors and could reignite the industry’s standing in the high street that many believed was beyond recovery.