Glimmer of hope for local jobs at Focus and Alworths

THE bitter sweet state of the local economy was highlighted once again last week.

On Thursday it emerged that the Focus DIY Group, which has a store in The Myre, had gone into administration, plunging dozens of store workers into an uncertain future.

However, there was good news for the troubled Alworths staff in Castle Street after it emerged a buyer had been found for the chain of stores.

Around 100 Focus jobs are thought to be at risk locally as staff at the Forfar and Arbroath branches in Angus, along with their counterparts in Fife, await their fate.

Administrators Ernst & Young launched a hunt to find a buyer in an attempt to save nearly 4,000 jobs across the U.K. after Simon Allport, Tom Jack and Alan Hudson from Ernst & Young were appointed joint administrators. Simon Allport revealed low consumer confidence and a very weak housing transaction market has impacted on Focus and placed considerable pressure on sales and margins.

He said: “Despite management’s actions to tightly control costs and restructure the operations, unfortunately it has not been possible for the business to continue to trade outside of insolvency.”

The joint administrators were seeking offers for the sale of the business as a going concern.

Allport added: “Focus will continue to trade as we look for a buyer for the group and its stores. It is very much business as usual and we are grateful to all the group’s loyal customers, suppliers and employees for their continued support.”

However, by Friday it emerged there was some good news for the company and its employees- although at the time of going to press on Tuesday (yesterday) it was unclear how the Forfar branch would be affected.

A further statement continued: “Joint administrators from Ernst & Young have completed an agreement with Kingfisher Plc to sell up to 31 Focus Group DIY stores for cash consideration of £23m.

Simon Allport added: “This deal represents an exceptional outcome for creditors of Focus Group DIY. The joint administrators will continue to trade all of the group’s stores and will seek further offers for a going concern sale of the group’s business and assets.”

Operating over 175 stores throughout the UK, Focus is a leading DIY and gardening retailer, headquartered in Crewe and employing 3,920 staff.

It was founded in 1987 and has annual sales of circa £450 million.

Details of the deal and its impact on the Forfar branch are confidential until completion.

Meanwhile, there was relief once again for staff at Alworths in the town centre after it emerged a buyer had been found for the chain of stores.

In the last few years the store has been dogged by uncertainty after the failure of first Woolworths, then Pound Mart and latterly Alworths.

However, it emerged Alworths, which has 17 branches across the U.K. - four of them in Scotland - has been taken over by budget retailer Poundstretcher.

When contacted on Friday a spokesperson for the company confirmed the administrators of Alworths Ltd, Neil Bennett and Michael Healy of Leonard Curtis, have sold the entire business to Poundstretcher Limited.

“We are delighted to announce that we have completed the sale of the Alworths business and 15 of the 17 stores placed in administration at the end of March this year” said Neil Bennett.

“We successfully traded the stores for five weeks and had a lot of interest in the business from the start, resulting in the sale to Poundstretcher. We are delighted that the majority of the 235 jobs across the whole company have been saved and 15 of the stores have joined the Poundstretcher chain.

“This is a particularly good result: for the employees of the business, the creditors of the Alworths company, and for the British high street. We wish the staff and the customers of all these stores the very best.”

Poundstretcher, which has 320 branches nationwide, will be the third chain to move into the Castle Street shop since the demise of Woolworths in 2009.

Staff faced an uncertain future at the beginning of April when the administrators were called in.

The news that their jobs could be under threat came as another body blow for the 13 members of staff, many of whom were made redundant by Woolworths and then by Pound-Mart, which opened in the former Woolworths store in September, 2009.

The Pound-Mart store was only open for a few months, closing its doors in April 2010.

The opening of the Alworths store on June 18 last year, their second store in Scotland, was hailed as a great community event, allaying fears that Forfar was to be left with a large, town-centre shop unoccupied at the same time as the nearby Royal Hotel closed its doors.