UK pub, restaurant owners eye debt waivers to ride out virus crisis

(Reuters) - Pub operator Marston's MARS.L and Wagamama-owner Restaurant Group RTN.L outlined plans to ride out major hits to sales from Europe's coronavirus shutdown on Wednesday, including seeking possible leeway on debt commitments later this year.

A man sits alone outside a pub on Carnaby Street, as the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases grow around the world, in London, Britain, March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday essentially shut down social life in Britain and ordered the most vulnerable to isolate for 12 weeks, as the country steps up efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

Marston’s, whose shares have lost 80% of their value in less than a month, said it was unlikely to pay an interim dividend and was in talks with its banking group about the option of waivers for its debt covenants.

Restaurant Group, down similarly as the crisis spread this month to Europe, said it was working with its lenders to have covenants waived throughout 2020.

Marston’s, a two-century old brewer known for its Pedigree, Hobgoblin and Lancaster Bomber beers, said retaining dividend would save the company 20 million pounds ($24.16 million) and that it still had “appropriate” headroom in its existing credit arrangements.

“We believe that we have sufficient liquidity to maintain operations at a materially reduced level of business,” the company said, adding that early stage discussions with its bank about waivers had been constructive.

Britain said on Tuesday it would launch a 330 billion-pound lifeline of loan guarantees and provide a further 20 billion pounds in tax cuts, grants and other help for businesses facing the risk of collapse.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak said he was including all retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in the suspension of a property tax.

By 1030 GMT Marston’s shares were up 23.7%, Restaurant Group down 1.9% and M&B up 1.9%. Shares in the companies had fallen between 11% and 14% earlier in the day.

“Investors seem to be confused as to whether having new sales guidance is good news as it provides some sort of clarity, or whether it simply makes (Restaurant Group’s) debt-related problems even worse,” AJ Bell’s investment director Russ Mould said.

Marston’s, which has an estate of around 1,400 pubs, also said it will suspend rent for tenants on a case by case basis.

Restaurant Group said it would be working with landlords across all business areas to reduce rents.

It expects to take a 15 million pound hit for each month the entire group is in shutdown after the first ten weeks.

“At this stage hospitality companies are starved of confidence, and in some cases liquidity, which said initiatives should go some way to assuage,” a Stifel analyst said.

Fellow pub group Mitchells & Butlers MAB.L said it could suffer a significant loss and still meet conditions in its debt programme but was reducing costs to conserve cash flow.

All expected major hits to sales and profits as the government asked people to avoid pubs, restaurants and theatres.

Frankie & Benny’s owner Restaurant Group warned that adjusted core earnings for the year ended Dec. 2020 would be between 95 million pounds and 105 million pounds, compared to 136.7 million pounds a year ago.

It will slash 2020 capital spending by at least 45 million pounds ($54.39 million).

Net debt stood at 1.4 billion pounds for Marston’s, 1.56 billion pounds for Mitchells & Butler’s and 286.6 million pounds for Restaurant Group, according to their latest annual results.

($1 = 0.8280 pounds)

Reporting by Tanishaa Nadkar in Bengaluru; Editing by Patrick Graham and Raissa Kasolowsky