Sanpower Said Plotting Global House of Fraser

The Chinese group's deal to buy the British department store chain is still being finalized, but it already has big dreams for its newest acquisition.

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LONDON — If China’s Sanpower Group has its way, the sun will never set on Britain’s House of Fraser.

This story first appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Sanpower’s deal to buy the British department store chain for more than 450 million pounds, or $750 million, is still being finalized, but the conglomerate already has big dreams for its newest acquisition.

“Sanpower is planning to take the House of Fraser brand global, starting with China. That is their goal,” said a source familiar with both parties.

As reported, the terms of the sale have already been agreed, and lawyers for both parties are nailing down the final details. The deal will likely be unveiled early this week.

Sanpower is a 5.5 billion pound, or $9.14 billion, Nanjing, China-based conglomerate with a portfolio that spans IT, finance, media, real estate, retail and e-commerce. Run by its founder Yuan Yafei, the group has two publicly listed subsidiaries, including Nanjing Xinjiekou Department Store Co. Ltd., which sells general merchandise, including clothing. Established in 1952, Nanjing Xinjiekou is one of China’s 10 largest department stores and was the first company in Nanjing to be publicly listed, according to Sanpower.

Its other holdings include Chinese GQ and GQ Style, China News Service, China Newsweek and China Business Times. Sanpower owns or controls more than 100 companies and has a workforce of nearly 30,000.

The sale to Sanpower ends a particularly challenging chapter in the history of the 165-year-old House of Fraser, which has 60 locations across the U.K. and Ireland, and which trades over 5 million square feet of selling space and online.

“They were severely lacking in investment, and were starved of capital,” said retail analyst Freddie George of Cantor Fitzgerald Europe Research. “The owners dribbled in money for projects such as the Oxford Street store refurbishment, but there was an overall lack of investment.”

House of Fraser has annual sales in excess of 1.25 billion pounds, or $2.08 billion, according to the company, and employs 6,500 House of Fraser staff and 10,000 concession staff. The retailer is the only national department store chain in the U.K. selling brands other than its own.

The chain had long been seeking to rationalize its fragmented shareholder base and find new, strategic investors that would add value to the business and help it evolve as a multichannel retailer. It was also eager to leverage its retail network and name abroad.

House of Fraser was delisted from the London Stock Exchange in 2006 after it was purchased by the Highland investor consortium. The consortium was led by Baugur Group, the ambitious Icelandic retail investor that collapsed following the financial crash of 2008. At the time, House of Fraser’s enterprise value was 453.4 million pounds, or $825.2 million, at average exchange for 2006.

Today, almost half of all House of Fraser shares are in the hands of representatives of the failed Icelandic banks once linked to Baugur. Other shareholders include British retailers Sir Tom Hunter and Kevin Stanford and Lloyds Bank. The store’s chairman is Don McCarthy, whose family holds nearly 20 percent of the shares.

House of Fraser had been pursuing a dual-track strategy of readying for an initial public offering and holding talks with trade buyers. Earlier this year, advanced talks with Galeries Lafayette broke down, and an IPO was on track for this summer, with Rothschild handling the process.

Neither Sanpower nor House of Fraser has made any statement yet regarding the sale, but industry observers say that Sanpower could also begin manufacturing brands to sell through House of Fraser stores. The store currently stocks fashion brands including Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Alice by Temperley and Phase Eight.

House of Fraser’s management team is led by chief executive officer John King, who has turned the chain around and pushed hard into the digital space.

On his watch, the store has built up a successful e-commerce business, houseoffraser.co.uk, and a houseoffraser.com concept store, a mobile Web site and mobile app, while click-and-collect has become a rapidly expanding distribution channel. Last week, the company launched its redesigned Web site around the fact that 50 percent of the store’s online traffic is coming from mobile devices.

Load times are quicker, new header and navigation menus allow customers to shop by department or shop by brand, and there are more interactive elements designed to maximize the rate of conversion. The shopping bag feature has been improved to make it more concise and easier to edit.

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