(Corrects currency figures in first and second paragraphs)
By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Australia’s biggest retail group Wesfarmers Ltd unveiled on Monday a A$1.7 billion ($1.2 billion) expansion into Britain’s hardware sector, betting on an extension of the DIY craze that turned its Bunnings stores into the market leader at home.
Wesfarmers, which also owns the Coles supermarket chain, said in a stock exchange filing that it plans to buy the Homebase unit of Britain’s Home Retail Group Plc for A$705 million and then spend another 500 million pounds ($714.85 million) refurbishing its 265 stores.
No further details were disclosed. Last week, Home Retail Group said it was in advanced talks to sell Homebase as part of a “transformation” plan, and warned its annual profit was likely to come in at the bottom of a 92 million-118 million pound range ($131.31 million-$168.42 million).
“It’s not without risk,” Wesfarmers Managing Director Richard Goyder told reporters after announcing the deal. “(But) we’ll put the grunt of Wesfarmers behind it.”
Wesfarmers’ overseas expansion highlights the confidence it has gained in the DIY sector since buying Bunnings Warehouse two decades ago.
The chain has ridden a housing boom and a fixation with property-focused TV shows to now hold a 40 percent share of Australia’s A$40 billion home improvement market.
Bunnings’ success constrasts with the fate of its nearest rival, Masters Home Improvement, whose owner supermarket giant Woolworths Ltd put up for sale on Monday. The DIY chain, a joint venture with U.S.-listed Lowe’s Companies Inc , holds just 9 percent of the market and racked up A$600 million of losses since it set up in 2011, local media said.
“Bunnings has staked out that territory so well to the exclusion of anyone else. The impression that they have made on the Australian psyche is that it is a default,” said Tom Piotrowski, a market analyst at Commonwealth Securities, which holds Wesfarmers shares.
Bunnings’ dominance may force Woolworths to simply close Masters as it may be unable to sell it off to private equity firms, analysts said, adding that shuttering Masters could benefit the third-largest hardware retailer, Metcash Ltd , which has 5 percent market share.
Metcash shares rose 6 percent on the news, while Woolworths shares were up 4 percent.
“Whether or not they can find a buyer does remain to be seen, but it could be a way for Bunnings to assert more dominance,” said IBISWorld analyst Spencer Little. ($1 = 1.4459 Australian dollars) ($1 = 0.6994 pounds) (Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Miral Fahmy)