PE Firms Dig In

Dobbies Garden Centres, which operates 21 garden centres in England and Scotland saw its share price rise over 9.6% this morning after it confirmed that it had received an approach regarding a possible bid for the group.

Although the name of its suitor was not given, speculation suggests that the bidder could be a private equity house, which if correct could be the latest step in consolidation for a sector that currently seems to be attracting its fair share of private equity interest.

Analysts suggest that the approach could originate from Apax Partners or Sir Tom Hunter's West Coast Capital, which holds a 10.6% stake in Dobbies.

Sir Tom Hunter has moved into garden centres in a big way over recent times with the Gbp445.1m (US$795m) acquisition of Wyevale Garden Centres in April last year. Wyevale had been no stranger to private equity interest as in October 2005, European buyout firm Cinven announced that it was considering a bid for the group.

At the time of the Wyevale deal, West Coast Capital, along with the other members of the acquiring consortium comprising Iceland's Baugur, HBOS and property group Prestbury confirmed that it would be their intention to expand Wyevale's garden business.

The consortium has since done that when in January this year the same group made a Gbp30.2m (US$59m) or 86.5 pence per share recommended offer for Blooms of Bressingham, a smaller garden centre operator that ran 10 centres.

Sir Tom's floral interests do not end there as he also owns a 29.9% interest in Flying Brands, which owns Flying Flowers, a Jersey-based florist.

Aside from acquiring garden centres West Coast Capital has had a busy year forming part of the consortia acquiring retirement home builder McCarthy & Stone, UK housebuilder Crest Nicholson and earlier this month the group acquired 21 hospitals from Capio, the Swedish healthcare services firm that was acquired by Apax Partners and Nordic Capital last year.

Apax Partners, the other private equity group named in today's ruminations bought into the Scandinavian garden centre market with the acquisition of Plantasjen, a garden centre chain operating in Norway, Sweden and Finland in December last year. The chain, which operated 72 centres, was sold by Nordic buyout firm EQT, having been originally bought by EQT in 2001.