Reliance Industries and Apollo Global Management in £5bn bid for Boots

The Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has teamed up with the US private equity fund Apollo Global Management to make a £5bn bid for the UK’s Boots chain.

The US group Walgreens, which has controlled the pharmacy and beauty retailer since 2012, is expected to keep a minority stake under the deal.

Walgreens’ ongoing interest comes after concerns about the funding of Boots’ £7bn-plus pension fund, one of the largest private schemes in the UK, for which the US group is understood to underwrite guarantees worth billions of pounds. The trustees are understood to have wanted substantial additional funding from potential bidders.

A buyout led by Reliance Industries, which already owns the toy store Hamleys and is one of India’s biggest retail groups, is expected to lead to expansion in Asia, according to Bloomberg, which first reported the bid.

Ambani, who is one of India’s richest people with a fortune of more than $100bn (£79.7bn) according to Forbes, is chair of Reliance Industries, the group founded by his father that has interests in petrochemicals, oil and gas, telecom and retail.

The Ambani family live in the 27-storey Antilla tower block in Mumbai, which was the most expensive house ever built in India.

Reliance is one of India’s biggest bricks-and-mortar retailers, via the Fresh and Smart convenience store chains, and has been building an online portfolio to complement its position as the leading telecoms business under the Jio brand.

In the UK, the group bought the toy retailer Hamleys for £70m in 2019 and last year spent £57m on the 120-hectare (300-acre) Stoke Park estate in Buckinghamshire, which includes a 27-hole championship golf course and country club that is being redeveloped.

Apollo has long been interested in the UK retail market, having been rumoured to be interested in Marks & Spencer and the Morrisons supermarket chain. It lost out on Asda to the billionaire Issa brothers in 2020, lent money to the former Topshop boss Philip Green as he tried to rescue his retail empire, and previously owned the jewellery retailer Watches of Switzerland. It also backs the Alteri fund, which bought the Missguided online fashion retailer shortly before it went into administration last month and bought Bensons for Beds in 2020.

Apollo is also a leading investor in retail around the world, owning the Casino supermarket chain in France and Albertsons in the US.

It is not clear if the UK-based Issa brothers and their private equity partner TDR Capital, who recently bought Asda and own a string of petrol forecourts, will launch a rival bid. The Issas’ interest is thought to have cooled in recent weeks as Asda battles a tough grocery market.

Two of the world’s biggest private equity funds, CVC and Bain Capital, had considered making an offer for Boots but are understood to have stepped back as they were not prepared to pay more than £4bn.

Walgreens is thought to have initially wanted up to £10bn for Boots when it began weighing up a sale last year as the group said it had a “renewed set of priorities and strategic direction” including “a more pointed focus on North America and on healthcare”.

Boots, which was founded by the Quaker John Boot in 1849, has been in private hands since 2007, the year after it teamed up with the Italian billionaire Stefano Pessina’s Alliance Unichem (now Alliance Healthcare).

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The Nottingham-based retailer and pharmacist, which has more than 2,000 outlets and employs about 55,000 people, has had a tough time in recent years as it has struggled to deal with an ageing store portfolio as retailing shifts online. In 2019, Boots said it would close up to 200 stores over two years.

Tony Shiret, a retail analyst at Panmure Gordon, said Boots faced competition from supermarkets, discounters such as B&M and Savers and a host of new online rivals such as THG’s LookFantastic and Cult Beauty.

He said Boots had been given some leeway by the demise of Debenhams and closure of a host of other department stores which had put a chunk of the premium beauty market up for grabs.

But Shiret added: “Boots continues to be a legacy operator in a market with plenty of new entrants.”

While the group was deemed an essential retailer and was therefore able to trade during the pandemic high street lockdowns, its stores suffered from low visitor numbers while neighbouring businesses remained closed.

In 2017, WBA sold off the Boots manufacturing business to the France-based specialist Fareva, including the Nottingham factory that it opened in the 1930s.

This article was amended on 10 June 2022. Reliance’s telecoms brand is Jio, not “Jia”, as an earlier version said.


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