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Saga floats idea of selling stake in ocean cruises arm

Saga is exploring ways to release money from its ocean cruises operation which could involve selling its two flagship vessels or offloading the entire business under a licensing arrangement.

Sky News has learnt that the heavily indebted company, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, is working with advisers on a range of potential options, which also include selling a stake in the division.

City sources said on Thursday that the process, which has been under way for a number of weeks, had yet to reach any firm conclusions.

They added, however, that Saga's board had determined that its ocean cruises arms, which operates the Spirit of Adventure and Spirit of Discovery, offered the likeliest route to unlocking substantial new financing.

In November, Sky News revealed that Saga, which specialises in providing insurance and holidays to the over-50s consumer, had drafted in bankers from Lazard to advise.

Saga, which is scheduled to update the City on trading next week, has been labouring under the weight of a large debt pile for years.

In the autumn it tapped its chairman, Roger de Haan, for a £35m, adding to the substantial sum of money it owes him.

Reviving the sale of its insurance underwriting division, which was on the cards a year ago, is not thought to have been ruled out altogether.

However, more realistic alternatives are said to include selling and leasing back the two cruise ships, which are now operating at near-capacity, selling a stake in the division or outsourcing its operation to another cruise company under a licensing deal.

The evaluation of new corporate activity by Saga's board comes ahead of a £150m bond repayment which is due in May but which is understood to be repayable from money lent by Mr de Haan.

In its interim results announced last September, Saga's balance sheet was saddled with net debt of more than £650m.

The company's shares have fallen by nearly a fifth during the last 12 months, leaving it with a market capitalisation of just over £200m.

Mr de Haan, the company's former chief executive, was parachuted back in to lead a turnaround in the summer of 2020, investing £100m as part of a broader capital-raising.

That came after it spurned a takeover bid from private equity investors.

At the start of last year, it unveiled a global website called Saga Exceptional, aimed at providing advice and services to over-50s consumers.

However, it has been forced to contend with a change of leadership in recent weeks following the resignation in November of chief executive Euan Sutherland.

He is being replaced by finance chief Mike Hazell.

A large part of the company's current travails relate to conditions in the motor insurance market, which it said had been impacting its ability to generate cash and reduce debt.

Saga had also been in talks to sell its underwriting business to Open, an Australian insurer, but failed to finalise a transaction.

Mr de Haan, the son of the company's founder, had already lent Saga £50m before extending that to an £85m facility earlier in the autumn.

Shares in Saga closed on Thursday at 146.8p.

A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment.