The Kingfisher story sums up UK retail over the past 21 years: a tale of ambition, innovation, internationalisation and transformation.
In the intervening years the business was turned into a powerful retail conglomerate, incorporating the B&Q, Superdrug and Comet chains as well as Woolworths.
By 1988 it had already been the target of a hostile takeover bid from Dixons and in 1989 Kingfisher boss Geoff Mulcahy returned the compliment when he attempted to wrest control of Dixons from founder Stanley Kalms. The warring between the two store groups is still regarded as one of the most bitterly fought feuds the sector has ever witnessed.
Although born out of Woolworths, the jewel in Kingfisher’s crown was, and remains, B&Q. The opening of B&Q’s big-box warehouse format, inspired by retailers in the US, was a landmark moment in 1994.
B&Q, the UK DIY market leader, became a springboard into international markets. In 1998, it merged with French counterpart Castorama and in 1999 B&Q made its debut in China when it opened in Shanghai. Kingfisher had also internationalised its electricals arm by buying French giant Darty in 1993.
Woolworths was reinvented and new store types created, including the Big W hypermarket in 1999 – Kingfisher’s most audacious attempt to change the face of UK retailing. It was an ambition, dashed in 1999, that was to shift the retailer’s direction irrevocably. That year, Kingfisher agreed a merger deal with Asda to create a food and general merchandise powerhouse similar to Wal-Mart. But at the last minute, Wal-Mart swooped in to scoop up Asda for £6.7bn.
The collapse of Kingfisher’s hopes changed everything. Determination to deliver shareholder value led to the eventual break-up of the stores. In 2001, Woolworths was demerged and Superdrug was sold to Dutch retailer Kruidvat. In 2003 the electricals division, including Comet and Darty, was demerged and is listed today as Kesa Electricals.
Kingfisher took management control of Castorama after a takeover tussle with French bosses in 2002 and Mulcahy stood down at the end of the year.
By the time Mulcahy left, a £1,000 investment made in Kingfisher when he had joined would have been worth £29,250. Similarly, the business bought for £310m was capitalised at almost £6bn. Nobody other than Mulcahy’s rival, Kalms, had ever generated greater returns from a retailer. Ironically, Mulcahy was eased out of Kingfisher as some believed he had not acted quickly enough to change the business.
Successor Gerry Murphy, appointed in January 2003, was welcomed by the City but during his tenure murmurs of discontent grew to a roar. He successfully integrated B&Q and Castorama, sharpened focus by exiting peripheral markets and Kingfisher’s international business did well. But criticism mounted over performance at the flagship B&Q UK chain. By the time his departure was announced in November 2007, Kingfisher’s valuation had reached a five-year low.
The hunt was on for a leader to invigorate Kingfisher and B&Q. In January 2008 internal favourite Ian Cheshire, head of B&Q since 2005, won the job. He surprised sceptics with his pace of change at Kingfisher, setting tough targets and hiring high-profile executives – former Superdrug boss Euan Sutherland and Ikea UK chief executive Peter Høgsted.
As the credit crunch bit this year, Cheshire was making progress. And Mulcahy, now chairman of the British Retail Consortium, stepped into the limelight again as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to save Kingfisher foundation stone Woolworths from collapse.