Northern Ireland gas service is sold

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Northern Ireland’s largest natural gas distribution and energy service has been sold in one of the biggest deals of its kind.

Around £700 million may have been paid for Phoenix Natural Gas, which has connected around 165,000 homes and businesses to its network. The exact figure has not been disclosed.

The business was bought by specialist investment fund manager Hastings, whose chief executive Andrew Day said he was excited about the future.

“The outlook for the use of natural gas as a clean and efficient fuel source in Northern Ireland is compelling,” he said.

Phoenix connects the Greater Belfast area and is responsible for making the fuel available to around half the population of Northern Ireland.

Owners, private equity firm Terra Firma, announced the sale of the company to Hastings’ managed fund Utilities Trust of Australia and the Royal Bank of Scotland Pension Fund.

Guy Hands, chairman of Terra Firma, said: “The success of this investment highlights the expertise of Terra Firma in transforming asset-backed businesses in essential industries. Since we bought the company in 2005, Phoenix has doubled in size and has increased gas availability to 300,000 properties, of which some 165,000 have already connected to the network. Phoenix is well positioned for future growth, and we are confident that under Hastings’ ownership it will continue to thrive.”

Phoenix Natural Gas formed Northern Ireland’s natural gas industry in 1996 and is one of the largest private sector investors in the region, connecting more than 8,000 homes and businesses to its network every year.

Hastings’ investment philosophy concentrates on providing long-term value for investors through a disciplined and cautious approach.

The potential of natural gas to increase fuel efficiency has been identified by the Housing Executive, provider of public housing in Northern Ireland, and proposals to increase the use of shale gas, including from Fermanagh in the west of the region, could help bring security of supply.

Peter Dixon, group chief executive of Phoenix Energy Holdings, said: “The key ambition for Phoenix in the years ahead is to continue to grow significantly the distribution business, and attracting an investor such as Hastings into the local Northern Ireland economy will help us to meet this ambition.

“Hastings sees great opportunities for growth here in Northern Ireland and in particular was attracted by Phoenix’s ambitions to continue to increase gas availability in its existing licence area, as well as to target opportunities for growth in areas that are new to Phoenix.”