Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group has returned to the fight with a last-ditch offer for Debenhams in a bid to save the largest and oldest British department store chain from liquidation.
The group, which owns the Sports Direct chain of sporting goods stores as well as another U.K. department store chain, House of Fraser, revived its interest in Debenhams over the weekend after JD Sports Fashion pulled out of acquisition talks last week, forcing the administrators to start winding up the 242-year-old company with 12,000 jobs at risk across 124 stores.
Frasers said it hoped a rescue package could be put in place and jobs saved, but warned that “time is short and the position is further complicated by the recent administration (bankruptcy) of the Arcadia Group, Debenhams’ biggest concession holder.”
Debenhams started clearing its inventories last week, with brisk activity online and offline after the U.K. government lifted its second lockdown on non-essential retailing. The receivers said that all its stores would be closed, unless a buyer can be found, within hours of the Arcadia Group filing for administration, thus threatening a further 13,000 job losses. It owns many fashion stores and concessions operating under banners such as Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins.
“There is no certainty that any transaction will take place, particularly if discussions cannot be concluded swiftly,” Frasers said in a statement, indicating that it will not accept the receivers’ previously proposed minimum purchase price of £300 million (€329m-$399m) for the business.
The Sunday Times reported that Frasers is pushing for a deal that could value the chain at more than £200 million (€219m-$266m), depending on how much stock is left. Frasers’ finance director, Chris Wootton, told the newspaper that Debenhams “has been overly reliant on Arcadia for many years” adding that a deal could be “a bridge too far.”
Ashley previously built up a stake of nearly 30 percent in Debenhams, but it was wiped out last year in a debt restructuring deal with the department store’s lenders.
Two Shore Capital analysts, Clive Black and Greg Lawless, said this would be Ashley’s “last play” for Debenhams. According to the media, he may be willing to keep all its stores in operation on a licensing basis for 12 months. According to the two analysts, Ashley may only want 30-40 stores in the end, much like JD, “subject to tough rent negotiations.”