Bennetts bookshops back in hands of Kiwi owners

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 30/04/2011

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One of New Zealand's oldest book chains is back in local ownership after the Bennetts stores were bought out of the Whitcoulls administration.

The chain, which focuses on university textbooks, has been bought by a family trust linked to Geoff Spong, the New Zealander who in 1995 established Vol 1, another university textbook chain, which he later sold.

The deal, signed yesterday for an undisclosed sum, protects 30 jobs. Bennetts' headquarters will be in Palmerston North, where the company was established in 1889.

It will initially have eight stores, seven of which are on university and polytechnic campuses throughout New Zealand, as well as the flagship Bennetts Government Bookshop in Lambton Quay.

Bennetts' new owners have said they want to open stores on campuses throughout New Zealand, initially targeting Auckland.

Whitcoulls was placed in administration in February when its Australian parent company, RedGroup Retail, collapsed under a mountain of debt. This month 10 Whitcoulls stores at airports in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Rotorua were bought by Australian group LS Travel Retail, which will rebrand the outlets as Relay. Another 63 Whitcoulls and five Borders stores are still for sale.

Whitcoulls suffered from increasing competition from online sellers as well as electronic ebooks. But the new owners of Bennetts believed its specialist focus gave it a brighter future.

Sean Woodward of Invercargill, a lawyer and director of Bennetts, said textbooks were not optional purchases for academics or students, meaning a stable market remained. Bennetts would also improve its online sales offering.

Mr Woodward said Bennetts, which generates sales of about $10 million a year, remained profitable despite a lack of attention under Whitcoulls' ownership.

"In our view it's suffered from being a peripheral brand to a large corporate – it hasn't had the attention it needed and that's where it gets into trouble."

The initial focus will be to revitalise and standardise the shops throughout the country, broadening stock to include university memorabilia and convenience goods.

Bennetts was already planning new stores in Auckland to compete for the Auckland University of Technology market, Mr Woodward said. In the medium term it wanted to have outlets on academic campuses "from Invercargill to Whangarei".

The Bennett family controlled the book chain until 1988 when a majority stake was sold to Brierley Investments, which merged it with Whitcoulls. The company has had a string of owners since, including Graeme Hart and Eric Watson.

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Whitcoulls administrators Ferrier Hodgson could not be reached for comment.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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