Retail relief as House of Fraser gets new lease of life

Mike Ashley has declared his aim to keep as many stores open as possible
Mike Ashley has declared his aim to keep as many stores open as possible

After an early morning wobble, the future of House of Fraser in Belfast and many other stores appeared secure once again with the news that Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley has bought the company.

The retail mogul, who also owns a significant stake in Debenhams, already owns 11% of the House of Fraser group.

It was announced on Friday morning that the troubled business was going into administration but very shortly it emerged that Ashley had agreed a purchase for £90 million.

Mr Ashley’s deal was struck through a pre-pack administration process, where a company is put into administration before a new buyer cherry-picks the best assets. Around 17,000 staff were told they would be transferring to Sports Direct as the businessman declared his aim to make House of Fraser the “Harrods of the high street”, keeping as many of the 59 stores as possible open.

It is understood he is also keen to aquire the House of Fraser store in Dublin but it is not included in the main deal.

In Belfast, where the store at Victoria Square had been assumed to be safe before the spectre of administration loomed, the news was welcomed by Rajesh Rana, president of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce.

“It’s obviously good to hear that the chain has been bought over by Sports Direct which does safeguard the company and the brand,” he said.

“We’re aware that stores were due to close under the CVA and that may still be the case, but Belfast has always been a very strong trading store for House of Fraser so the fundamentals here are still very strong.”

Hugh Black, who opened Victoria Square as manager in 2008, said he was pleased at the deal.

“It’s a good thing.They’ll not be closing Belfast that’s for sure,” he said emphatically predicting that the the new owner would broadly follow the plans drawn before Chinese investor C. banner pulled out.

That involved closing a number of underperforming stores.

“Mike Ashley now has got lots of opportunities with the House of Fraser Group to do things. The 31 that they were going to keep were the ones they had indentified as having the potential to continue trading well.

“I think House of Fraser has a reasonably good future with this guy.”

Retail NI CEO Glyn Roberts said the acquistion was good news all round.

“Given the huge importance of the Belfast store to both Victoria Square and the city centre economy as a major footfall driver, its closure would have been a huge loss.”