Bourne Leisure founders check back into Butlin’s in £300m deal

Business

The family which jointly founded one of Britain’s biggest leisure empires is finalising a £300m-plus deal to retake control of Butlin’s, the holiday camps chain.

Sky News has learnt that a vehicle connected to the Harris family, which helped to establish Bourne Leisure in the 1960s, is close to signing a transaction with Blackstone, the group’s current owner.

It was unclear whether Paul Harris, the family member understood to be leading the deal, had arranged any external financing to support it.

A deal, which could be struck as soon as next week, would take the total proceeds from the sale of Butlin’s to more than £600m – a significant achievement in an economy being ravaged by inflation and forecasts of a prolonged recession.

The Harris family’s interest bid to acquire Butlin’s comes 18 months after it sold Bourne Leisure to Blackstone, the giant American private equity firm, for more than £3bn.

As part of that deal, Blackstone said at the time that the Harris, Cook and Allen founding families were reinvesting in Bourne Leisure, although it is unclear how large a stake the trio now own.

An auction of the chain of three holiday camps has been under way since early this year, drawing interest from financial bidders including Bain Capital, Epiris, TDR Capital and Guy Hands’ Terra Firma Capital Partners.

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Bourne Leisure itself has owned Butlin’s since 2000, when it bought the business and its sister brands Haven Holidays and Warner Hotels in a deal reportedly worth £600m.

Last month, the UK’s biggest private pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), confirmed a Sky News report that it was buying Butlin’s underlying real estate assets for £300m.

The sale of its operating business is notable because of the number of failed auctions being triggered by turmoil in global debt financing markets.

Among the deals to have been pulled were auctions of Parkdean Resorts, another big leisure group, and Boots, Britain’s biggest high street chemist.

Numerous other sale processes have been postponed as companies grapple with one of the toughest operating environments for decades.

Butlin’s was established by its eponymous founder, Billy Butlin, in 1936, and rapidly became one of the most popular holiday destinations for staycationing Britons.

According to the brand’s official history, Mr Butlin “felt sorry for families staying in drab guest-houses with nothing much to do” during a trip to Barry Island.

In its heyday, Butlin’s operated from nine sites across the UK, entertaining one million holidaymakers each year with knobbly knees competitions and glamorous granny contests.

The brand became such an entrenched part of Britain’s popular consciousness that it provided the inspiration for Hi-de-Hi!, the long-running BBC sitcom.

Its fortunes waned with the explosive growth of opportunities for Britons to holiday abroad, but has enjoyed a resurgence as the pandemic has fuelled a boom in domestic vacations.

Butlin’s sites are at Skegness, Minehead in Somerset and Bognor Regis, the traditional seaside town close to the South Downs National Park.

Rothschild, the investment bank, is advising Blackstone on the Butlin’s sale.

Blackstone declined to comment on Saturday, while the Harris family could not be reached for comment.

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