The downfall of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group is being closely watched around the retail sector as its potential collapse is seen as being crucially tied to similarly struggling Debenhams and setting off who-knows how many consequences as a result.
Another member of the retail billionaires club, Mike Ashley, boss of Frasers Group PLC (LON:FRAS), stepped in over the weekend to offer a £50mln loan.
With Arcadia owned by a pair of titled billionaires, in Sir Philip and Lady Green, it would seem that the ‘emergency £50mln’ offered by Ashley was mere pocket change.
But Ashley’s hunger for acquisitions is perhaps only surpassed by his appetite for unconventional methods.
In recent years, one morsel that he had his eye on was Debenhams, the embattled department store group that has 124 UK stores and an attractive danish brand in Magasin du Nord, but is currently in its second administration.
Arcadia’s brands have many concessions in Debenhams stores and Green’s brands accounted for an estimated £75mln annual sales, or around 5% of the total, before the pandemic.
Peter Cowgill, boss of JD Sports Fashion PLC (LON:JD.), one of the many fierce rivals Ashley has built up over the years, has apparently been closer to a deal, with talks underway in recent weeks about a rescue deal.
Cowgill, who like Ashley has been snaffling distressed smaller competitors for many a year, also rejected a suggestion from Ashley that he was encouraged to buy Debenhams by Philip Green to stymie Ashley.
The Sunday Times quoted an insider as saying: “If Peter was trying to buy a banana plantation in Grenada, Mike would be up in one of the trees somewhere. He’s always sniffing around.”
It has been reported in the past week that Cowgill could not agree a deal for Debenhams, not helped by concerns about how the impending collapse of Arcadia and a third lockdown in January could affect the industry.
But while exclusive discussions between the FTSE 100 retailer and the department store group’s administrators have ended, Yahoo Finance reported that it had not withdrawn completely.
A most recent attempt by Ashley, who had a £150m stake in Debenhams wiped out in a debt-for-equity swap, to acquire Debenhams foundered on the £300mln price tag set by private equity owners Silver Point Capital and restructuring firm Hilco, with stories over the weekend that the magnate was also raging at being frozen out of talks by investment banks.
Other companies that may be waiting for the other shoe to drop is newly listed The Hut Group (LON:THG), which is said to have made an offer for Debenhams’ online business.
With Arcadia so intertwined with Debenhams, its potential administration could spark several after-effects around the industry, including no doubt some bruised egos.
Nick Bubb, the independent retail analyst, offered an insight from Enid Blyton that he said seemed worth dedicating to Mike Ashley: “The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones. Laugh at them, tread on them, and let them lead you to something better.”