LONDON Virgin Money could announce it is buying a small UK bank as early as this month, sources familiar with the situation said, a move that could make it the first high-profile arrival in the sector in Britain since the crisis.
Virgin Money, the consumer credit arm of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has been one of several names mentioned as potential new entrants as rescued UK lenders sell off assets and nationalised mortgage bank Northern Rock is prepared for sale.
The acquisition -- a toehold in the sector expected to total around 50 million pounds ($80.5 million), including a capital injection to meet regulatory requirements -- could be announced "within weeks," and the group could receive the necessary regulatory approval around the same time, the sources said.
Completion of the deal would take several weeks longer. The target is not expected to be listed, one of the sources said.
One source familiar with the procedure, however, cautioned regulatory approval to take on a deposit-taking institution, virtually as complex as the process of applying for a banking licence from scratch, could take over a year, a delay that would not bring Virgin Bank into existence before the fourth quarter.
Virgin applied to the Financial Services Authority for a banking licence in October and is expected to pursue its plans to become a deposit-taking bank even without the acquisition.
Both the FSA and Virgin declined to comment on the regulatory process and the deal.
The acquisition of a small deposit-taking institution is expected to be a springboard that will bring Virgin Money closer to its aim of becoming a financial services player offering a full range of services, initially online.
Headed by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Virgin Money has hired specialist investment bank Quayle Munro as its advisor. The former head of Quayle Munro, former Barings boss Peter Norris, became Virgin chairman last year.
Virgin Money, which is expected to post an operating profit of 40 to 50 million pounds for 2009, currently provides mortgages, savings products, loans and credit cards.
Virgin is frequently named as a suitor for a slice of the billions of pounds in UK banking assets set to be put on the block over the coming months and years, including failed mortgage lender Northern Rock. Virgin made a failed approach for Northern Rock in 2007, though the sale was eventually scrapped and the bank nationalised.
Other possible acquirers of UK banking assets include National Australia Bank, which says it is actively considering UK opportunities, retailer Tesco and Spain's Santander, owner of Abbey.
Brazil's Itau Unibanco has also been named as a potential new entrant, and is reported to be interested in stakes in Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds held by the UK government.
Other new arrivals expected this year include Metro Bank, a start-up from U.S. entrepreneur Vernon Hill, and a bank backed by UK stockbroker Panmure Gordon. Both are awaiting FSA approval.
(Reporting by Clara Ferreira-Marques; editing by John Stonestreet)