New bosses at value fashion chain

Private equity firm ABN Amro Capital has installed a new management team at 320-store value clothing retailer Ethel Austin in an effort to breathe new life into the business.

On Monday, former PowerHouse managing director Simon Cooper replaced chief executive Phil Hoskinson, who becomes non-executive deputy chairman with immediate effect. Steve Smith has replaced finance director Steve Williams.

Ethel Austin chairman Roger Pedder said: ‘The appointment of Simon is in line with our stated strategy of reviewing the operational needs of the business in a challenging trading environment.’

The arrival of the team follows the appointment of Close Brothers to renegotiate the retailer’s bank debt.

Ethel Austin is one of a number of private equity-backed retailers renegotiating terms with banks against the backdrop of tougher trading.

Cooper said: ‘It’s a profit-making business that needs modernising. It needs to speed up. I’ll be looking at all areas of the business: supply chain, distribution, buying and merchandising. All the Christmas planning is done, but this is a good time to join the business and experience how it performs during peak trading.’

The most recent figures show Ethel Austin made a pre-tax profit of£13 million in the 12 months to August last year on sales of£152.5 million.

The retailer, whose main focus is women’s and children’s clothing, was acquired in June last year by ABN Amro for£122.5 million. At the time, the venture capitalist said it planned to expand the chain from 270 shops to 500.

Cooper has been one of the central figures in the restructuring of PowerHouse over the past 12 months. Chief executive Chris Onslow said the electricals retailer should break even at the end of the next financial year. As well as Cooper, business development director Brendan Dorrian has departed recently.

Onslow said he and finance director Kim Zaheer did not intend to replace the departing board members because most of the major structural changes have been completed.

PowerHouse is closing non-profitable outlets and is understood to have sealed a deal with Carphone Warehouse to sell pre-pay and line-rental contracts at all 90 stores. It is also thought to be piloting a small number of Carphone Warehouse concessions before Christmas. However, Onslow declined to comment.