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Hamptons deal part of exit strategy, reveals Countrywide chief

Countrywide has snapped up Hamptons International in line with plans to inject value into the group in preparation for a possible return to the public market.

Speaking exclusively to The Negotiator, Grenville Turner (pictured), group chief executive of Countywide, which withdrew from the stock market following its £1.05bn acquisition by US buyout firm Apollo in February 2007, says: "The majority of our shareholding is currently with private equity, but our likely exit provision is to return to the public market.

"We are taking this period of being a private company to ensure that the way the business is structured, run and expanded creates value.

"Privatisation was always going to be a three to five-year plan, and we are over three years into this now, but there is no timescale for the exit."

Turner says that the option to return to market is constantly under review, but depends on the relative success of the group and market appetite at the time. But he does not rule out alternative exits.

"We will take the business either back to the market or consider an alternative exit such as a trade sale or secondary private equity deal."

Countrywide's acquisition of Hamptons International includes 80 offices and 750 staff, leaving offices in the Middle East and North Africa under the ownership of Hamptons' existing parent company, Emaar Properties, the United Arab Emirates' largest listed property group.

Turner says: "Hamptons International was not an opportunistic acquisition. It came out of a very detailed analysis of our existing network, which looked at opportunities in sectors and geographies and identified three elements for expansion: Central London, the high-end market and international."

"We looked at a range of companies, some helped with parts of these objectives, but Hamptons International helped us with all three."

Turner insists he plans to retain all 750 of the business' staff, though did not rule out possible cuts at a later date.

The deal follows the closure of Hamptons Mortgages last February, which prompted market speculation about Emaar's long-term commitment to UK agency.

However, Turner insists that Hamptons International was not up for sale when he approached Emaar about the deal.

He and his team are currently in the throes of considering the growth strategy for the business, which he says will retain the Hamptons brand and expand across the North of the country. "The business is still very much Southern-based, so there are opportunities to expand in other key locations in the UK, and in London there is a real opportunity for us to take more market share."

For now he says he is working with Hamptons' management team to identify synergies with Countrywide, but has yet to determine any specifics.

Turner declines to comment on the terms of the deal, including the price tag, but reveals that the group's debt position has improved following its debt restructure last year, which reduced its debt interest payments to around £11m, which compares with between £60m and £70m in 2008.

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