The Hilco boss has an uneviable reputation as the ‘undertaker’ of the high street, but the bad press is only one side of the story. Nicola Harrison reports

Paul McGowan

Paul McGowan

Family Married, with three children
Interests Football, sailing, travel

Of all the people in Retail Week’s Power List, Paul McGowan arguably gets the worst press - and he’s not even a retailer.

The Hilco chief’s association with being at the centre of any big retail deal involving troubled businesses means he can make the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Since starting up the UK office of Hilco in 2000, the extraordinarily well connected Northern Irishman has been involved with deals and administrations including Allders, Littlewoods, Woolworths, Borders, Allied Carpets and more recently Habitat and HMV Canada, which Hilco purchased at the end of last month.

In an economic climate like this, McGowan’s phone will be ringing off the hook as embattled retailers, lenders and administrators chase their five minutes with the go-to-guy for troubled retailers.

Often referred to as the undertaker of retail, some see him as a “vulture” benefiting from misery on the high street. But those who know him say McGowan and his colleagues at Hilco unfairly bear the brunt of bad press surrounding retail failures.

Barry Knight, head of retail at accountancy firm Grant Thornton, argues that while some people view Hilco as a “necessary evil”, they forget that it invests in retailers and provides working capital “when no one else will”.

McGowan was once a retailer himself. After qualifying as an accountant, he got bored and decided to make the jump into the industry, ending up as the finance and operations director at scarves brand Jacqmar. He then moved to Leslie Fay where he was latterly chief executive, so has intimate knowledge of what it is like to run a retail business.

In contrast to his characterisation by detractors as a scavenger, McGowan has used that experience to help turn around Denby, the pottery firm acquired by Hilco’s private equity arm Valco Partners in 2009.

It is one of Hilco’s successful turnarounds, but usually overshadowed by the numerous administrations associated with McGowan’s team. But arguably Hilco has ensured that brands like Allied Carpets and Habitat UK have had a retail future by selling them on to eager buyers.

Love him or loathe him, his influence and network are extensive. McGowan has many a retail chief executive’s personal number stored on his mobile. If he’s not personally involved in a deal, he knows who is.

The 49-year-old, who is thought to own more than 20% of Hilco UK’s shares, has a lot going for him. “He’s a very bright and very astute businessman,” says Knight. “His work rate is beyond belief.”

While he usually takes a robust approach to business negotiations, he has a mischievous sense of humour and can often be found holding court at industry events.

The Chelsea supporter knows how to relax too. When he’s not doing deals, he’s sunning himself by the pool in Mallorca, probably listening to Genesis. And while he doesn’t like to court too much media attention, he knows how to throw a good party. At Hilco’s 10th anniversary last year the firm held a lavish bash at Kensington Roof Gardens.

Knight describes McGowan as “absolutely charming”, and retailers must think so too because there were many high-profile retail bosses quaffing champagne and nibbling the canapes that night.

Most retailers will hope they never have to call in McGowan, but they also know that, if they ever hit trouble, then they’ll need him on-side.