It might also help avoid the sort of monopoly concerns that torpedoed Asda’s attempt to merge with Sainsbury’s in 2018, when petrol forecourt competition was one of the watchdog’s chief objections. While EG Group operates across 4,800 forecourts globally, in the UK it runs a more modest 341 petrol stations. A swoop on Asda would almost double the Issas’ footprint at home. They have built up EG Group as the world’s third-largest convenience store operator largely under the radar in under two decades.
It generated £20bn in turnover last year and served 17 million customers across petrol stations and stand-alone minimarts.
Lately, the brothers have been signalling their ambitions more openly. EG Group held talks about a £10bn float last year, and Mohsin and Zuber suffered a rare setback last month when they were outbid by Seven & I Holdings, the Japanese owner of 7-Eleven convenience stores, in a $20bn (£15bn) auction for US operator Marathon Petroleum.
Earlier this year, they were also attempting to take control of Australian fuel player Caltex’s retail operations for £2bn, though the pandemic appears to have put the process on hold.
Asda, with conventional supermarkets and online operations outside the Issa brothers’ forecourt comfort zone, would of course bring new challenges. It remains equally possible that no surprise bid will emerge from the North West, but even at this late stage, nobody inside the sale process is underestimating the Issa brothers.
Beware rush of autumn floats
The Asda sale is a sign bankers and bosses are keen to get deals done this autumn in what may prove to be a brief window of relatively benign market conditions. We should not be surprised even to see a mini-boom in stock market floats as private owners seize their opportunity to cash in.
Investors should have their wits about them. Many of the companies making their way to market will be doing so mostly because their owners are hurting in the pandemic and want some money back. For many, the Aim junior market offers a last resort. Look out especially for start-ups that have been kept on the road by lending from their shareholders. It’s often a sign they are not good enough businesses to merit further equity backing. Buyer beware.