House of Fraser flagship store in Oxford Street

LONDON — Now, the hard work begins.

Crisis-hit House of Fraser could mark the biggest challenge yet for Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley in a cold climate for British high-street retailers, with shriveling footfall and rising rents, taxes and competition from online channels.

On Friday, the billionaire businessman, who helms the 3.5-billion-pound retail group Sports Direct International, stepped in to rescue House of Fraser, which had been placed briefly in bankruptcy protection Friday morning, with a check for 90 million pounds.

The 169-year-old retailer had fallen victim to the usual problems facing so many British brick-and-mortar retail chains: It didn’t invest, it didn’t embrace e-commerce soon — or deeply — enough, and it failed to forge a proper identity or generate any heat.

Over the years, it became an anonymous box housing hundreds of midmarket brands and giving shoppers little reason to flock to its 59 U.K. stores, half of which are set to close this year, with 6,000 layoffs planned. The closures were part of a restructuring plan agreed upon in June to help attract a new investor.

HoF was also the victim of its most recent owner, Sanpower’s Yuan Yafei, who promised much when he bought the store in 2014 — but delivered little. First, he refused to invest in the dusty store estate with its dim lighting and threadbare carpets. Then he failed to find the right investor when he saw HoF crumbling before everyone’s eyes.

HoF was forced to file for bankruptcy protection on Friday morning because Sanpower’s white knight, fellow Chinese conglomerate C.banner, disappeared. C.banner was supposed to take a 51 percent stake in the store and inject 70 million pounds, but it walked away after failing to raise the funds following the collapse of its share price.

The store scrambled to find a replacement investor and accepted Ashley’s offer after the company sought bankruptcy protection.

The portly Ashley, a colorful figure in Britain, is best known as the owner of Newcastle United Football Club and the mass-market sporting goods retailer Sports Direct. He’s famous for his rough-and-tumble approach to business and most of his Sports Direct stores are anonymous — and utterly charmless.

In 2016, following an investigation, the U.K. Parliament’s business, innovation and skills committee published a scorching report describing the “appalling” Victorian conditions at Ashley’s warehouses and shops. Ashley took responsibility and admitted the company had broken the law by not paying staff national minimum wage. He also promised to address any shortcomings in the working practices at the retailer.

Earlier this month, when Ashley’s name emerged as the front-runner to rescue House of Fraser, The Daily Telegraph dubbed him the U.K. high street’s “resident grim reaper” for his habit of pouncing on struggling or bankrupt retailers and “then snapping up assets on the cheap.”

Despite — or maybe because of — his reputation, Ashley has repeatedly expressed a desire to move upmarket, and is actually making some strides: In March 2017, one of his companies purchased Agent Provocateur, which Ashley also rescued from bankruptcy protection, and is in the process of relaunching it.

In 2016, he splashed upward of 100 million pounds on a property on Oxford Street to house a flagship for his upscale multibrand fashion store Flannels, and has said his plan is to transform Sports Direct into “the Selfridges of sports.” He has made some progress on that front, building new Sports Direct shops outside London and adding retail concepts such as U.S. Collective, a sporty lifestyle area.

In early 2016, Ashley acquired 11 percent of another struggling retailer, French Connection, and he also has stakes in Debenhams and JD Sports. Sports Direct, which was founded in 1982 and has nearly 700 stores worldwide, also holds a minority stake in Iconix.

Ashley previously owned 11 percent of House of Fraser, a stake he took in 2014 when Sanpower bought the store. Observers believe Ashley has a great opportunity to clean up and relaunch HoF, although many in the industry remain panicky that he’ll just fill it with sneakers, tracksuits and footballs.

“It will be interesting to see how Sports Direct’s multichannel experience could help to turn around House of Fraser’s department stores’ ill fate,” said Paul Souber, cohead of the real estate division at Colliers International, the commercial real estate company. In a report, Souber wondered whether Sports Direct will “relish the challenge” of building a multichannel experience, and whether it can “successfully transform House of Fraser’s customer experience through online, physical and social sales.”

Sofie Willmott, senior retail analyst at GlobalData, the data and analytics company, said to give HoF the best chance of survival, Sports Direct and Ashley “must make drastic changes to (HoF’s) product proposition and store environment to entice shoppers back. This will require significant investment — something which the chain has been starved of in recent years.”

She added that Ashley could harness his mixed portfolio of retail businesses to transform House of Fraser and suggested he combine the star power of Agent Provocateur and Flannels (which sells brands including Burberry, Fendi and Sophia Webster) to create a more upmarket department store.

”Given the success of luxury department stores like Selfridges and Harrods, Ashley may attempt to replicate their model using House of Fraser’s locations. However, it is questionable whether the high-end price points would appeal nationwide, particularly given that London-based department store retailers have benefited from tourism.”

Not surprisingly, HoF managers — who had scrambled to find a buyer for the business — were relieved when the Ashley announcement came. The store, which had gross assets of 946.3 million pounds, and made a 14.7 million pound net profit for the year ended January 2017, had until Aug. 20 to pay its bills, or slide straight into bankruptcy.

An hour or so before the Ashley announcement, the company’s chief executive officer Alex Williamson said: “An acquisition of the 169-year-old retail business will see House of Fraser regain stability, certainty and financial strength.”

After a string of rotten luck — much of it self-inflicted — many are hoping a new day will dawn for the Ashley-owned store.

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