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Private equity tycoon Hands wants arms around Agent Provocateur

(c) Sky News 2017: <a href="">Private equity tycoon Hands wants arms around Agent Provocateur</a>

The private equity tycoon Guy Hands has made a surprise late entrance into the auction of Agent Provocateur, the struggling underwear brand which is facing the prospect of administration.

Sky News has learnt that Mr Hands, whose investment firm Terra Firma Capital Partners is run by the former Sainsbury (Amsterdam: SJ6.AS - news) 's boss Justin King, has lodged an offer for Agent Provocateur in recent days.

It was unclear on Friday whether Mr Hands personally, or Terra Firma, is orchestrating the bid, which pitches the tycoon against Lion Capital, another private equity group.

Mr Hands is best-known for his tumultuous ownership of EMI, the music group, which ended with the company being seized by its lenders five years ago.

The emergence of Mr Hands' interest comes just days after Sky News reported that 3i, Agent Provocateur's current owner, had lined up a firm which oversees complex corporate restructurings to handle the sale process.

AlixPartners was installed this week as the principal adviser, replacing Rothschild, the investment bank.

Insiders said it reflected the growing prospect of Agent Provocateur being sold through a process called a pre-pack administration, which would enable the eventual buyer to acquire the business without some of its liabilities.

Lion Capital, the former owner of La Senza, and Etam, the French women's fashion brand, are said to be among the bidders, although neither is thought to have offered the current owner - private equity firm 3i - more than the £30m Agent Provocateur owes to its lenders.

Sports Direct International (Other OTC: SDIPF - news) , the controversial chain headed by Mike Ashley, is also said to have been examining an offer.

A decision on a deal is expected shortly.

Agent Provocateur, once promoted by Kate Moss, has been hit by lacklustre sales and a number of accounting issues, souring 3i's decade of ownership.

Fabrizio Malverdi, the brand's chief executive, is seen as unlikely to remain with the business after any transaction.

Other key figures - including the former chief executive Garry Hogarth - have also left in the wake of a review last year, led by Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS-PB - news) , which examined and then decided against a sale.

3i said last year that Agent Provocateur had been "impacted by declining luxury spend in a number of its key markets", the effect of which had been exacerbated by "the inconsistent execution of its recent store expansion programme and the discovery of accounting issues".‎

Mr Malverdi, a luxury goods executive whose previous employers included LVMH, was parachuted in last year, with a restructuring plan supported by an additional £4m investment by 3i.

These "challenges", 3i said, had prompted the value of its stake in Agent Provocateur to be reduced by £39m.

Sales in the year to 28 March 2015, the last for which accounts are available, rose 16% to £61.7m, but pre-tax profits fell by more than a quarter to £4.6m.

Terra Firma declined to comment.