Qatari investors just can’t seem to get enough of European department stores.
In the latest move by investors from the megarich Middle Eastern nation, it was revealed Tuesday that the multibillionaire former Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al Thani has acquired a 10 percent stake in El Corte Inglés, Spain’s largest department store chain.
His personal investment of 1 billion euros, or $1.12 billion, marks the third in five years by individuals or investors linked to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund: In 2010, Qatar Holding bought Harrods for $2.2 billion, while in 2013 the Qatari-backed investment fund Divine Investments, or Disa, bought the French retailer Printemps for an undisclosed sum.
The purchase also marks further overseas investment in major European department store groups following The Hudson Bay Co.’s $3.3 billion purchase of Kaufhof in Germany last month. There had been speculation several years ago of a possible merger between El Corte Inglés and Kaufhof.
All figures have been converted at average exchange rates for the periods to which they refer.
El Corte Inglés, named after a tailor’s shop, was founded in 1935 by Ramón Areces Rodriguez, with backing from his uncle Cesar Rodriguez. One of Spain’s largest employers, it had sales of 14.29 billion euros, or $19 billion, in 2013, and is best known for its mix of premium and luxury fashion and accessories, lavish food halls, and stores that stretch across the Iberian peninsula.
The company is privately owned, with the majority still in the hands of the founding family. A 35 percent stake is held by the Ramón Areces Foundation, which promotes and furthers research, education and culture in Spain.
The ECI group also owns retail chains, hypermarkets, convenience stores, travel and IT businesses. In 2013, its contribution to the Spanish national income was 3.35 billion euros, or $4.46 billion, according to the company.
The agreement with Al Thani was several years in the making, according to Dimas Gimeno, the company’s chairman and a member of the founding family. “It’s a great satisfaction for our group to be joined by such a qualified global investor. The new shareholder will accompany us in our growth and expansion,” he told Spanish media.
According to reports, the money will be used for international expansion and paying down debt. Shares will come from ECI’s treasury stock, and Al Thani will have a seat on the board of the food, clothing and household goods retailer.
El Corte Inglés operates 91 stores in Spain and two in Portugal. In addition, the group has 42 Hipercor supermarkets, 98 retail locations for its low-cost apparel line Sfera and namesake travel agencies and insurance companies.
But the retailer has struggled as Spain’s economy has been in a deep recession from which it only now is recovering. In 2013, sales were down 1.8 percent on the previous year, although consolidated net profit rose 6.2 percent to 174.4 million euros, or $231.9 million.
Al Thani could not be reached for comment.
George Wallace, chief executive officer of the London-based consultancy MHE Retail, said the purchase comes as no surprise, given the fact that the Qataris have rapidly been snapping up trophy assets — in a variety of sectors — across Europe.
The Gulf state investors also have minority stakes in LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Volkswagen and Porsche.
In April, Constellation Hotels, part of the Qatari Investment Authority, of which Al Thani was formerly ceo, purchased a majority stake in the group, which owns some of London’s swankiest hotels.
The QIA bought Claridges, The Berkeley and The Connaught from Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. Last year, Constellation Hotels acquired Le Grand Hotel in Paris for 330 million euros, or $363 million.
Earlier this year, Qatar took over the summertime Goodwood Festival in Britain, doubling the prize money for the horse racing events to 4.5 million pounds, or $7 million.
“El Corte Inglés is a highly regarded, safe department store group, a blue-chip acquisition in Spain, and would be at the top of anybody’s shopping list,” said Wallace, adding the deal was a win-win.
“Spain has been through five to six pretty tough years and unemployment is still high. Department stores require very large investments to keep them up to a decent standard,” Marshall said. “I would assume this was a very welcome injection of funds from a shareholder with a small minority stake, a shareholder that is not a competitor.”
The retail analyst and consultant Nick Bubb called ECI “the Harrods of Spain,” and added that Al Thani isn’t the only one eyeballing investments in the country. “Note that the big shopping-center developers Intu are also bullish about the outlook for Spain,” he said.
Maureen Hinton, group research director at retail consultancy Conlumino in London, said department stores across Europe are generally trying to lift themselves to a more premium level and rise above the middle market. She said it’s likely the Spanish retailer will invest in the in-store experience as well as omnichannel.
Al Thani is a famously savvy investor known for being open-minded and diplomatic, with a wide variety of interests. On his watch the QIA, one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, purchased Harrods outright, and took stakes in The London Stock Exchange and Europe’s tallest building, The Shard, in London.
He is also a true, high-rolling Qatari, hungry for fashion and luxury brand names. His fellow Qataris are the biggest buyers of luxury goods in the Middle East, and are among the splashiest international spenders when they’re in London.
According to a Global Blue report last month, in the pre-Ramadan period, Qataris were expected to notch the highest average spend of any international shopper group in the U.K., with 1,432 pounds, or $2,186, per transaction.
In November, the run-up to Christmas, they spent 1,643 pounds, or $2,570, per transaction, nearly 40 percent higher than any other nation during the period.
The country, which is rich in natural gas, has one of the world’s highest levels of disposable income, and a gross domestic product per capita of $100,000. As reported, Harvey Nichols will open a branch in Doha, Qatar in the first quarter of 2017.