Despite the slew of executive departures and volatile trading, House of Fraser executive chairman Frank Slevin insists it’s on the right track.

House of Fraser

House of Fraser

House of Fraser, Belfast

Last week it emerged that chief executive Nigel Oddy had resigned from House of Fraser (HoF) in October after less than two years in the role.

His exit follows that of his right-hand man, chief customer officer Andy Harding earlier this year, while HoF’s multichannel, clothing and home, food and beauty bosses have all made for the door over the past 12 months.

But sitting on the top floor of House of Fraser’s Baker Street offices, the pinstripe-suited Slevin insists he is enjoying the job. 

“I love every day.”

Every day? “Every day,” he says.

He arrived in 2014 at the request of Yuan Yafei, the notoriously eccentric billionaire at the helm of Sanpower, after he bought House of Fraser.

The Sanpower acquisition was seen as HoF’s saviour, with many predicting a House of Fraser resurgence after many years in John Lewis’ shadow.

Two years later though and, while some impressive new hires have been made – most notably David Walmsley from M&S and Maria Hollins from Asos – the business is leaking talent.

Lack of funding

Despite securing a billionaire’s backing, there has been a notable lack of investment at House of Fraser since the acquisition.

Reports of a promised £75m from Sanpower did not materialise and multiple projects have been waylaid or cancelled over the past two years.

Slevin maintains that the board meeting notes from Sanpower’s acquisition of House of Fraser make no mention of any sums of money and that the series of exits is coincidence – people have their own motivations for leaving jobs after all.

The mystery of the £75m is, Slevin believes, probably explained by an IT project proposal in 2014 for a similar amount, which then proved an unnecessary investment.

While Sanpower has not injected any funds into House of Fraser, Slevin makes the valid point that it has not taken dividends from the business either

The waylaid projects include a new website, which will now come in the new year, and its first Chinese store, which is due to open on December 21.

The cancelled investments include a state-of-the-art warehouse facility of 750,000 sq ft, which would have generated 1,000 new jobs.

Slevin says that external consultants have found that this warehouse is not necessary for the business right now, but that once that threshold is reached, the investment will be forthcoming. 

While Sanpower has not injected any funds into House of Fraser, Slevin makes the valid point that it has not taken dividends from the business either. 

The five-year plan

The revelation of Oddy’s departure has forced HoF to bring forward its announcement of a five-year plan.

Slevin says that this strategic thinking is a departure for the group, which was very much focused on trading from one year to the next before his arrival.

HoF is understandably reticent about giving away many details before the big reveal early next year, but a big theme is a focus on retail experience.

But you have to hope there’s more up HoF’s sleeves than experiential retail: a look at rival John Lewis’ new Leeds store shows that its contemporaries are already impressing here.

Missing skills

And a look at Debenhams, HoF’s closest competitor, doesn’t provide much comfort either.

The arrival of chairman Ian Cheshire and chief executive Sergio Bucher has bolstered its management expertise and many are expecting big things.

Cheshire’s leadership skills, Bucher’s digital prowess and the trading nous of Suzanne Harlow look formidable when compared to the void around HoF’s boardroom table.

It’s set to be a tough few years for retailers, and mid-market department stores have a particuarly precarious position

Former banker Slevin is himself spread thinly.

As well as HoF, he also chairs Hamleys – owned by Sanpower’s strategic partner C.Bannerand fellow Sanpower-owned gift and technology retailer Brookstone.

He clearly has a close relationship with Yafei – the two talk every day – and he describes him as “loving” the business, the brand and heritage that comes with it. 

He also points to the fact that Yafei has not imposed any Chinese managers on HoF, a situation which he terms “if not unique, then pretty unusual”.

However, Slevin himself was hired into HoF by Yafei.

It’s set to be a tough few years for retailers, and mid-market department stores have a particuarly precarious position.

With a revived Debenhams and ever-prosperous John Lewis to contend with, HoF’s position looks trickier by the day. Slevin’s strategy has a lot to live up to.