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The American owners of Boots are poised to launch an auction of the high street pharmacy valuing the business at more than £5bn.
Walgreens Boots Alliance is set to instruct Goldman Sachs to review options for the 172-year-old retailer, which could include the sale of one of Britain’s best-known chains.
Boots could alternatively be floated on the stock exchange, according to Sky News, which first reported the hiring of investment bankers. Shares in Walgreens rose more than 4pc in New York on Friday.
City sources said that Walgreens’ offloading of Boots “has been coming for some time” after the American firm’s distribution arm in Europe was sold earlier this year.
The Nottingham-based company has a rich heritage dating back to 1849 when pharmacist John Boot opened his first herbal remedies store in the city.
Boots now has 2,200 stores in the UK and employs 55,000 people.
London-listed Alliance Boots was the subject of what was then Europe’s biggest buyout in 2007 when US private equity firm KKR defeated rival Terra Firma in a takeover worth £11bn.
Walgreens took a minority stake in the business nine years ago before completing its buyout in 2014.
Walgreens US operation has shifted towards healthcare rather than drugs as it comes under pressure from more agile tech insurgents such as Amazon.
Until recently Boots has faced criticism for refusing to invest in its shops. But under Sebastian James, the former Dixons Carphone boss, stores have been modernised in a move that some speculated was priming the business for a sale.
In addition, sluggish trading has turned a corner. It has long been a laggard among Walgreens’ businesses and has suffered as shoppers shun town and city centres.
Nevertheless, one investment banker said there was likely to be significant interest if an auction goes ahead. “If you don’t go to Boots, where else is there?” they said, in reference to the fact that the company has an almost unrivalled retail network in the UK.
A potential auction will stoke speculation that another of Britain’s best-known retailers is set to fall into the hands of a private equity buyer.
Morrisons recently agreed a £10bn sale to US buyout firm Clayton Dublier & Rice. And last year Asda was bought by the petrol forecourt tycoons the Issa brothers in conjunction with UK private equity house TDR Capital.
A sale of Boots is likely to face government scrutiny. The retailer plays a crucial role in the delivery of pharmacy services and could yet have a greater role to play in combating coronavirus in years to come.
A Walgreens Boots Alliance spokesman said the company did not comment on market speculation and that Boots was an important part of the group.
He added: “However, it is accurate that WBA announced a renewed set of priorities and strategic direction in October, which includes a more pointed focus on North America and on healthcare.
“As underlined during the last WBA investor conference, the group continues to be very pleased with the performance of Boots and the international division as a whole.”