The owners of Birmingham’s NEC exhibition centre are preparing to reap a massive windfall from its sale four years after buying it from Birmingham City Council.
Sky News has learnt that LDC, the private equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group, is in talks with prospective advisers about an auction of NEC Group, which hosts popular events such as Crufts, the world’s most famous show for pedigree dogs.
The talks are at an early stage and a formal sale process is not expected until next year, according to people close to the situation.
NEC Group has been transformed under LDC’s ownership, spending tens of millions of pounds on capital expenditure projects and attracting major leisure groups such as the owner of Legoland and the activities group founded by the adventurer Bear Grylls.
Nevertheless, a sale at a valuation approaching £800m or more is likely to prompt questions about the nature of the deal struck by Birmingham City Council in early 2015.
A source close to LDC said it and the management of NEC Group owned the entirety of the company’s shares, suggesting that the Council did not insist on an anti-embarrassment clause in the £307m sale agreement.
The NEC Group is chaired by Peter Phillipson, a successful businessman who has headed companies including Merlin Entertainments.
Its chief executive is Paul Thandi, who has expressed an ambition “to build Disneyland in Birmingham”.
Image: Crufts is the world’s most famous show for pedigree dogs
As well as the main NEC venue, the company also owns the Genting Arena, Barclaycard Arena, the International Convention Centre and The Ticket Factory, a ticketing agency.
In total, the group has more than 2000 employees and boasts seven million visitors to its sites annually.
The NEC opened in 1976, and its sale in 2015 attracted some scepticism from critics who question whether it was being disposed of too cheaply.
Sources said that a formal decision had yet to be made about a sale process or the appointment of advisers.
If it did attract a price-tag of £800m or more, it would represent LDC’s biggest-ever exit from an investment, according to people close to the firm.
Potential buyers would include other exhibition centre-owners and private equity firms.
Attendance at NEC Group’s two arenas has been growing strongly, thanks to attracting performances from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga, as well as Disney on Ice and Strictly Come Dancing.
The group has also expanded geographically, securing the contract to operate the refurbished Bradford Odeon as a major live events venue in the north of England.
A person close to LDC said it had also invested in the group’s customer data analytics operation, which had helped to double footfall across its venues over the last three years.
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“The group is completely unrecognisable from the business LDC backed in January 2015,” they added.
An LDC spokesman declined to comment.