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British Pubs Aren't the Only Brexit Bargain

Andrea Felsted

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 2.7 billion pound ($3.3 billion) offer for the British pub chain Greene King Plc from an investment group backed by billionaire Li Ka-Shing has put the spotlight on other unloved businesses in the U.K. leisure sector.

One stands out: Whitbread Plc. Since the hotel and restaurant operator returned 2.5 billion pounds to shareholders from the 3.9 billion pound sale of its Costa coffee stores, its stock has been in the doldrums. But it owns lots of property, which is just the thing that drew Li to Greene King. Some 65% of Whitbread’s estate is freehold, and international buyers might be attracted by the prospect of using the dirt-cheap pound to grab themselves some British property assets.

The central business isn’t without its attractions either. Hotels suffer more than pubs during recessions; while Brits will always eat and drink, they may be less inclined to take a mini-break. Yet Whitbread is the country’s leading hotel chain, with a focus on the value sector, so it should be able to weather a downturn. While bookings fell during the last downswing, it outperformed its rivals thanks to cost controls and winning more custom among cost-conscious holidaymakers and business travelers trading down to cheaper digs. Premier Inn, Whitbread’s main budget hotel brand, has long been seen as a potential target for a bigger chain.

With the value of Whitbread’s debt and equity not much higher than the value of its real estate portfolio, there’s certainly cause for interest.

Of course, the company could try to better exploit the value of that property itself. Earlier this year the Sunday Telegraph reported that the activist hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., which owns a stake in Whitbread, was agitating for change on the property holdings.

Greg Johnson, an analyst at Shore Capital, estimates that 3.7 billion pounds might be realized from selling the real estate, while Whitbread estimates the value of its property at between 4.9 billion pounds and 5.8 billion pounds.

On Shore’s estimates, the operating company could be worth another 3.6 billion pounds. Adding in 300 million pounds for Whitbread’s German business, and assuming net debt of 500 million pounds, would take the equity value to about 7.1 billion pounds. That’s well above the current market capitalization of 5.7 billion pounds. No wonder Elliott is sharpening its knives.

Superficially there’s appeal in Whitbread doing this by itself. But sale-and-leaseback deals (when companies sell off freehold sites and rent them back) are risky. Look at the retail sector, where chains such as Debenhams Plc were tied to ruinous long-term leases after following this path, hampering their financial flexibility when times got bad – as they do inevitably in consumer businesses.

With the current political and economic uncertainty, Whitbread would be wise to resist any big moves to sell off its property. Activist investors were right to urge it to offload Costa to capitalize on piping hot valuations in the coffee market. Their case on real estate is less compelling.

The dilemma for Whitbread’s chief executive Alison Brittain is that by leaving the freehold estate largely intact, she encourages a buyer to come in and exploit that value instead. That risk is heightened by a slump in the share price. Brittain should prepare the defenses. Shareholders should take some heart, however. She managed to wring a very good price from the Coca-Cola Company for Costa. If a property-hungry bidder came knocking for Premier Inn she might just do the same.

To contact the author of this story: Andrea Felsted at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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