Two of the world's biggest tobacco manufacturers are in talks about a deal to shore up the finances of Palmer & Harvey (P&H), the cash-and-carry group that ranks among the UK's largest private companies.
Sky News has learnt that Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which owns Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges, and L&B's parent, Imperial Brands, are examining whether to pump tens of millions of pounds into P&H in return for an equity stake.
The talks have taken on increasing urgency in recent weeks, according to people close to P&H, which employs more than 4,000 people across the UK and has annual revenues of more than £4bn.
The latest developments comes less than a month after Sky News revealed P&H's lenders' mounting concerns at the potential impact of Tesco's proposed £3.7bn takeover of Booker.
Contracts with Tesco account for roughly 40% of P&H's revenues, according to industry sources - a slug of business that analysts believe the UK's biggest retailer could seek to shift to Booker if the takeover is completed.
P&H's borrowings are said to be secured against some of its major contracts, which is said to have emerged as a significant factor in the latest refinancing discussions.
Insiders said that Imperial Brands and JTI were each owed tens of millions of pounds by P&H, but insisted that the tobacco manufacturers taking an equity stake in the wholesaler was only one of several options under consideration.
The cigarette makers are not the only companies concerned about P&H's financial health.
J Sainsbury is understood to have agreed to provide interim financial support to P&H, which delivers tobacco products to the supermarket chain's stores across the country.
A Sainsbury's spokesman declined to comment on specific arrangements with P&H but said: "Through our trading finance platform, we're able to offer our suppliers financial support."
P&H called in FTI Consulting, a professional services firm, to provide advice on a refinancing of the company earlier this year.
A spokeswoman for P&H described that as a "planned" move. She added: "As part of the planned refinancing process, we are in constructive discussions with our lenders and stakeholders.
"The company believes it is well-placed to take advantage of the many opportunities that the market currently presents."
A serious crisis at P&H would be damaging for its own stakeholders, but would also be unwelcome for Tesco, since it could undermine its argument that the Booker takeover would not infringe competition in Britain's grocery supply industry.
Tesco stunned the City when it pounced on Booker in late January, with rivals warning that it would create an excessively concentrated player in food wholesaling, retailing and distribution.
The Competition and Markets Authority is widely expected to refer the deal to a so-called Phase-II inquiry, which would elevate it to the most rigorous level of anti-trust scrutiny.
An Imperial Brands spokesman said: "We are aware of P&H's ongoing refinancing discussions and are talking with them about a range of potential options to support their business.
"It would be inappropriate to comment further."
JTI said it did not comment on "corporate speculation or rumour".
P&H's existing lending syndicate includes Barclays, HSBC, Santander UK and GE Capital.
A change in GE Capital's UK presence is said to be one of the factors behind the imminent refinancing of P&H's balance sheet.
P&H is majority-owned by current employees and management, with the remaining shares held by former staff.
The company was established in 1925 as a tobacco and sweets wholesaler, and is the biggest distributor to the UK's convenience sector.
It serves about 90,000 outlets across the country, using a fleet of 1,300 vehicles.
The company is run by Tony Reed, a former boss of Tesco's convenience retailing business, who joined just a few months ago.
One source close to P&H insisted that the takeover of Booker could open up new business opportunities for the independent wholesaler.
The company P&H is a partner of Wm Morrison at its fuel retailing outlets, and a major distributor for Conviviality Retail, the owner of Bargain Booze.
Booker owns the Budgens and London fascias, although Tesco has argued that they are operated using a franchise model, and should not be used to justify rivals' arguments that the deal is anti-competitive.