House of Fraser's Plight Wasn't All About Amazon

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- House of Fraser has changed hands for the third time in just over a decade.

Sports Direct International Plc, controlled by Mike Ashley, has acquired the business from administrators for 90 million pounds ($115 million) in cash. He must not make the mistake of previous owners, who promised much but ultimately failed to deliver.

Inevitably, the turmoil will draw the usual assertions that Amazon.com Inc., which has upended retailing by capturing sales from physical stores and provoking piles of investment in digital shopfronts, nearly killed House of Fraser.

But the online giant wasn't the cause of its troubles: that was down to a succession of owners over the past decade who did not invest enough in the business.

House of Fraser's Plight Wasn't All About Amazon

Ashley, who is buying all of House of Fraser's stores, its brand name and its stock, must pump sufficient funds into the business to give it a new lease of life.

House of Fraser, which began life in 1849 as a small drapery shop in Glasgow, has had a colorful history. Its recent past has not been conducive to the continuous spending needed to ensure a bricks-and-mortar retailer can survive in an online age.

In 2006 the retailer attracted the interest of Baugur Group, the investment vehicle that had already swooped on vast swaths of the British high street. Baugur collapsed three years later, and ownership eventually passed to a diverse collection of shareholders, including Icelandic bank Landsbanki.

The company did make some progress before Baugur's demise, opening new stores in Belfast and Westfield White City in London in 2008, and developing its stable of own brands.

But after that failure, the environment became more difficult. Private equity buyers are not always known for heavy investment in the businesses they buy, but being owned by one that’s gone into administration is really troubling.

While the management team in place from 2006, comprising Chairman Don McCarthy and Chief Executive Officer John King, did what they could, the chain was in a tricky spot. The combination of a rapidly changing retail environment and an owner that was in no position to pump in extra funds, meant it had to rely on its own cash to keep up.

House of Fraser's Plight Wasn't All About Amazon

House of Fraser was left having to direct funding to areas that would get the best return, and that meant shortchanging other shops. Some locations began to look tired and unappealing. On top of that House of Fraser was also laboring under a heavy debt burden, with a 250 million pound bond issued to refinance its debt in 2011. 

The final chapter began in April 2014, when 89 percent of the company was acquired by Sanpower Group, a Chinese conglomerate, through a vehicle called Nanjing Cenbest. The purchase price was 450 million pounds, including debt.

House of Fraser insists that Sanpower did provide the business with sufficient financial firepower, plowing in 55 million pounds over the past year or so.

But after the years of under-investment, together with the flight to online shopping, escalating costs and many stores badly in need of an update, this was too little too late.

In April, Sanpower agreed to sell a 51 percent stake in House of Fraser to C.Banner International Holding, which owns Hamleys. But earlier this week, that deal collapsed.

That left Sanpower as the owner of the department store. It could have provided the investment that the company needed. But it took the fateful decision not to pump in more cash to help the chain get over the squeeze as it stocked up for Christmas.

House of Fraser's future now rests with Ashley – the initial signs are worrying, given that Sports Direct already has a lot on its plate. He must break with the past pattern of under-investment if the retailer is to have another chance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.