A Swiss family office whose investment firepower was partly generated by an international chocolate producer has joined the £300m race to buy the dental chain run by a former Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey.
Sky News has learnt that Jacobs Holding, which last year snapped up Southern Dental, a group of NHS and private dental practices, is among the bidders for Portman Dental Care.
Portman was set up in 2009 by Sam Waley-Cohen, the amateur jockey who stunned the horseracing world by winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup seven years ago.
Mr Waley-Cohen owns a big stake in Portman, alongside Livingbridge, a buyout firm, which became a shareholder in 2014.
Jacobs Holding is not the only contender to buy Portman, with a host of other dental businesses and financial investors also in the frame.
It is, however, seen as a particularly credible bidder because of Jacobs’ investments in Southern Dental and other companies in the sector elsewhere in Europe.
Jacobs Holding’s sole economic beneficiary is the Jacobs Foundation, a charitable cause focused on child and youth development.
Its other investments have included Jacobs Suchard, the food manufacturer, and Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s largest cocoa producers.
Image: Jockey Sam Waley-Cohen won the Gold Cup riding Long Run
If Jacobs does win the auction for Portman, it is likely to merge it with its other recently-acquired UK operations.
Portman trades from roughly 60 practices across the UK and is understood to have grown its profits substantially since its last accounts were filed at Companies House for the year to September 2016.
Mr Waley-Cohen, an amateur jump jockey, was due to ride Walk In The Mill in this year’s Grand National but the horse was declared a non-runner after it was found to be lame.
The proposed sale of Portman follows Bupa’s takeover of the much larger chain Oasis in an £835m deal in February last year.
A string of takeovers led by private equity firms such as Nordic Capital in the European dental market have led to the creation of a cluster of large-scale operators in the sector.
Another big player in the UK market is MyDentist, which is backed by the private equity group Carlyle and has about 450 practices.
The price paid by Bupa for Oasis surprised analysts, who had pencilled in a much lower valuation for the business.
Sources said that it had fuelled hopes at Portman that it could also attract a premium price – potentially well in excess of £300m.
The auction of Portman, which did not respond to requests for comment, is being run by Moelis, the investment bank.
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Livingbridge said in a statement issued when Sky News revealed plans for the sale process last month: “We do not comment on market rumour and speculation.
“Portman Dental Care is the fastest-growing privately led dental group in the UK and is well placed to build on the strong momentum it has generated in recent years.”