Arcadia billionaire Sir Philip Green was on typically pugnacious form this week as he dismissed a report that he is seeking to sell up.
Green labelled a Sunday Times story “totally false” and concluded “for the avoidance of doubt the group is not in discussions with any party regarding a partial or total disposal”.
The paper is sticking to its story, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens in due course.
“The spotlight will increasingly fall on pension safeguards when deals occur”
But there is one aspect of the story which is likely to prove highly relevant, not just in the case of any future sale of Arcadia but right across retail and business more widely. And that is the spotlight that will increasingly fall on pension safeguards when deals occur.
The row that followed BHS’ demise has been replicated at other businesses since, notably in recent weeks in the wake of construction company Carillion’s collapse.
Ahead of agreeing a CVA late last year, Toys R Us had to pay almost £9m into the Pension Protection Fund. The retailer is still under pensions scrutiny amid ongoing uncertainty about its future – its pension deficit is understood to stand at about £74m.
There are numerous retail deals in prospect and, in tough trading conditions for many retailers, some will be distress situations.
Deal advisers will be on the alert for any potential damage to their own corporate reputations in such transactions, mindful of the great and good of the financial world who ended up in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee during the BHS inquiry.
The leader of that investigation, MP Frank Field, has been doing the media rounds this week following the story about the possible sale of Arcadia, calling for increased focus on the interests of pensioners.
He told Retail Week: “What we propose is that the regulator should have the power in cases like this to call people in and should therefore be able to put the voice of the pensioners across and to try and get the best deal possible for them.”
Whatever the letter of the law, companies and their advisers will increasingly be judged in the court of public opinion as far as the fate of pensions are concerned.
For retailers, who rely on consumer support day in and day out, that could bring big implications for future success
The view from the bus
Stock market retail newcomer Footasylum held an analysts’ day last week, when chief executive Clare Nesbitt seems to have made a good impression.
Analyst Nick Bubb, who went to the event, reported that Nesbitt said she “very rarely spends much time in the office and prefers to be out and about staying close to the core 16 to 24 customer base in gyms, sports events, festivals and on public transport”.
“Quite a few directors of retail companies, I suspect, haven’t sat on a bus for a while. Perhaps it might be time to start”
That sounds exactly the sort of thing good retailers should be doing, and typically did in the past.
While they may have enjoyed the trappings of success, the best always kept in touch with how their customers lived – and therefore what they wanted to buy, the considerations that affected that and what mattered in their lives.
At times like the present, when the pace of change can seem overwhelming, it is all the more important to keep in touch with the reality of customers’ experience and how they spend their time.
The penalty for not doing so could be fatal.
Quite a few directors of retail companies, I suspect, haven’t sat on a bus for a while. Perhaps it might be time to start – or to make more time for whatever the equivalent might be to better understand your customers.
As former M&S chief executive Lord Rose used to say: “Look out the window.” The world will pass by those retailers that don’t.