Li Ning, the famous Chinese Olympic gold-medallist-turned-businessman, is about to take control of the iconic British shoemaker Clarks less than a month after its shareholders agreed in principle to sell most of their shares to a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, LionRock Capital. Li is the non-executive chairman of Lion Rock, and his family controls directly and indirectly Li Ning Company, which markets the Li-Ning brand of sports products.
Li, the former gymnastics star who lit the Olympic flame at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, is also the controlling shareholder of Viva China Holdings, a Hong Kong-based investment company, registered in the Cayman Islands. That company has agreed in principle to pay £51 million (€57.5m-$69.7m) for 51 percent of LionRock Partners QiLe, a company wholly-owned by LionRock Capital created to carry out an unspecified acquisition, according to a filing with the Hong Kong stock exchange. Such companies are known as special purpose vehicle (SPV). C&J Clarks, the family-owned company that owns the Clarks brand, is evidently the target of the acquisition.
LionRock and the SPV will hold a majority of the outstanding equity in Clarks after LionRock completes its planned £100 million (€113m-$136.5m) bailout deal with the Clark family. The purchase of a 51 percent stake in the SVP would in turn give Hong Kong-listed Viva China control of Clarks. Viva China would buy the stake in the SVP through its wholly-owned unit Viva China Consumables, but it has warned that the acquisition may not materialize.
The price tag for Clarks would be offset against £54 million (€61m-$73.7m) that Viva China lent to LionRock last September to finance an acquisition, according to the filing. Clarks not commented so far.
Viva China, which is 92 percent owned by Li, describes itself as an integrated conglomerate primarily engaged in developing sports centers and coordinating competitions and events. The group is also developing new businesses in sports, health and leisure consumables, according to its website.
Clarks was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns, which saw all its 320 U.K. stores shuttered. It cut 900 jobs last May and warned of a deteriorating performance in 2020. The 195-year-old company was ultimately forced to seek financial help under a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), which was agreed on last December.
Under the CVA, none of Clarks’ 320 stores will have to close, and no jobs will be lost, but landlords of 60 outlets will receive no rent at all, while the remaining 260 will move to a turnover-based arrangement.
In November, LionRock’s founder and managing director, Daniel Tseung said the deal would help Clarks expand its global operations and “also allow growth into key emerging markets.”
Galahad Clark, a member of the Clark family who owns Vivobarefoot, said earlier this month that the company failed to “move fast enough into the 21st century” with an online presence. He said that the company’s fragmented family ownership meant it had lacked strategic direction under a series of external chief executives. LionRock provideds “a lot of exciting opportunities,” he added. “Truth be told, it probably needed new owners, and of all the owners in the world, these look like pretty good owners,” he also said.