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Bid to save 3,000 jobs as Superquinn seeks buyer

Ireland's third largest supermarket chain, Superquinn, went into receivership last night.

The 51-year-old company has debts of more than €375m, and owes millions of euro to small suppliers, including bakeries, vegetable growers and food producers.

However, a buyer for the supermarket chain is already in the frame, giving hope to the 3,000 workers employed by the company. The stores will continue to operate as normal.

Musgrave's -- the owner of Supervalu, Centra and Mace -- last night emerged as a likely contender to buy the debt-laden chain. An announcement on a buyer could be made as soon as today. If a foreign buyer emerges, the most likely is Sainsbury's or ASDA, owned by US giant Walmart.

The receivership of such a high-profile company illustrates the depth of the retail slump. A consortium of developers and businessmen bought the business from Feargal Quinn in 2005 for €450m. That was just two years before the downturn set in. It is understood the banks owed money are AIB, Bank of Ireland and National Irish Bank (NIB). These banks will now seek to recoup their money through a sale of the business.

It is also understood the business, which does not publish accounts, is performing well, but the problems are connected with the value of the properties that make up the group.

The chain traditionally occupies the top end of the retail market, but has found it hard to compete on price with larger multiples like Dunnes Stores and Tesco.

The majority of its stores are in the Dublin area, its traditional heartland.

The company was bought in 2005 by Select Retail Holdings and among the backers of this firm are developer David Courtney, accountant Kieran Ryan and financier Simon Cantrell. Three years ago, property developer Bernard McNamara sold his shares in the company.

A spokeswoman for the company last night was unable to provide information on how many stores were likely to be kept open.

Recent expansion attempts by the company have proven difficult.

It wanted to develop a supermarket on the site of the Montrose hotel in Stillorgan, south Dublin, but today the site stands empty.

Earlier this year it announced the closure of its Naas, Co Kildare, store.

The company has been the subject of endless speculation about its future over the past two years, particularly because of its large debt burden.

Some critics have accused it of losing touch with its original roots, with Mr Quinn now only acting as president of the firm while other figures were running the business on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, the company appointed a former Dunnes Stores executive, Andrew Street, to run the business.

He replaced former Hamleys' executive Simon Burke, who remained on in a non-executive position.

At the time, Mr Burke expressed satisfaction with the new arrangements. "I jumped at the chance to get Andrew. There are very few people around with that type of experience," he told the media.

Meanwhile, the Irish retail market is under pressure across a number of fronts.

Price wars

Rents, often set before the economic collapse, are expensive; while price wars are also becoming common among the main players.

And farmers have been complaining about the kind of prices they are being paid by the supermarkets. The three main supermarkets are also having to face challenges from low-cost retailers like the German pair Aldi and Lidl.

Increasingly, smaller stores like Spar are offering a wider range of goods, stealing market share of the larger retailers.

Last night, Gerry Light, assistant general secretary of the union Mandate, said he was concerned about the latest decision and would be looking for assurances on behalf of the staff.

Superquinn: The key figures

Simon Burke

Simon Burke has an enviable reputation in the retail world. He was was approached to take on the job of revitalising the chain.

Andrew Street

Andrew Street joined Superquinn just last November as its chief executive. He was previously the most senior non-family director at Dunnes Stores after Margaret Heffernan and Frank Dunne.

Bernard McNamara

Once one of the country's biggest developers, Bernard McNamara last year admitted he was bust, owing the banks about €1bn. He sold his 14.5pc stake in Superquinn back in 2008 to other members of the takeover consortium as he sought to free up assets.

Feargal Quinn

At the time Feargal Quinn and his family sold their supermarket chain in 2005 for €420m, it was the end of an era. He remained the president of Superquinn -- an honorary role to retain a link with the business.

Terry Sweeney

Galway hotelier Terry Sweeney was another member of the consortium, but has also come under intense pressure as the recession took hold.

Jerry O'Reilly

Another developer, one of his main companies -- Gamine Trading -- was criticised by auditors for failing to provide full and accurate information on the finances.

David Courtney

One of the principals behind Spain Courtney Doyle, Mr Courtney was just last week fending off rumours that the property advisory firm was about to close.

Irish Independent