High street retailer BHS has collapsed into administration, putting 11,000 jobs at risk and threatening the closure of up to 164 stores.
It is the biggest retail failure since Woolworths went bust in 2008,
There are four BHS stores in Northern Ireland: Belfast, Holywood Exchange, Newtownabbey and Lisburn.
In a statement, administrators Duff & Phelps said: “The group (BHS) has been undergoing restructuring and, as has been widely reported, the shareholders have been in negotiations to find a buyer for the business. These negotiations have been unsuccessful.
“In addition property sales have not materialised as expected in both number and value. Consequently, as a result of a lower-than-expected cash balance, the group is very unlikely to meet all contractual payments.
“The directors therefore have no alternative but to put the group into administration to protect it for all creditors. The group will continue to trade as usual whilst the administrators seek to sell it as a going concern.”
The company’s owner, Dominic Chappell, said he will continue to work with the administrators to “find a solution post the administration”.
He also said “no-one is to blame” for the collapse.
Speaking to the Press Association, Mr Chappell said: “No-one is to blame. It was a combination of bad trading and not being able to raise enough money from the property portfolio.
“In the end, we just couldn’t reach an agreement with Arcadia over pensions.”
BHS was bought last year by a consortium called Retail Acquisitions, headed by Mr Chappell, for £1 from retail entrepreneur Sir Philip Green, the owner of the Arcadia retail empire.
BHS has debts of more than £1.3 billion, including a pension fund deficit of £571 million, which proved a major stumbling block in last-ditch rescue talks over the weekend.
Rival retailer Sports Direct is understood to want to some of BHS’s 164 stores, but will only do so if it does not have to take on any pension liabilities.
Sir Philip is reported to have offered £80 million towards the cost of BHS pensions, though the regulator could still pursue further payment from the retail billionaire.
Sir Philip bought BHS for £200 million in 2000.
It is thought that, along with Sports Direct, up to 30 other retailers may look to buy either a slimmed-down version of the business out of administration or pick over its store estate.
However, experts warned that it was “unlikely” a buyer for the business in its current form would be found.
Julie Palmer, partner at insolvency firm Begbies Traynor, said: “As an under-performing brand that simply hasn’t kept up with the pace of change in the retail sector and requires major investment, it looks increasingly unlikely that any buyer will be brave enough to salvage the business in anything like its current form.”
John Hannett, general secretary of the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said: “This is devastating news for the employees of BHS and we urge the company to change their attitude to trade unions and begin a dialogue with us at this difficult and worrying time.
“We also urge the administrators and the company to comply with the law - consult with staff and Usdaw as the union for BHS workers.
“We don’t want to see BHS staff locked out of discussions, sent to the back of the queue of creditors and treated like fixtures and fittings, as happened at Woolworth’s.
“The Government needs to intervene now to protect taxpayers from picking up the bill for redundancy payments and safeguarding the Pension Protection Fund.
“We are in touch with our members working in BHS to reassure them that we will provide the support, advice and representation they require.”
A line of staff filed into BHS’s headquarters in Marylebone Road, central London, shortly before 11am.
They emerged around 20 minutes later, with several people holding their heads in their hands, and walked into an adjacent office building belonging to the firm.
One staff member later confirmed they had been spoken to about the situation, but added that she could not elaborate on what they were told.