Thought leadership

Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group has confirmed it is working on a possible last minute rescue of Debenhams. The department store chain is currently set to shut all its stores by the end of next March, putting 12,000 jobs at risk, after administrators failed to find a buyer for the business.

Mr Ashley has bought other struggling High Street businesses and used to be a major shareholder in Debenhams. But Frasers said there was “no certainty” it could save the chain.

One of the biggest issues, it said, was the collapse into administration last week of another High Street giant, Arcadia, which is the biggest concession holder in Debenhams department stores.

Frasers said in a statement: “The company confirms that it is in negotiations with the administrators of Debenhams’ UK business regarding a potential rescue transaction for Debenhams’ UK operations.

“Whilst Frasers Group hopes that a rescue package can be put in place and jobs saved, time is short and the position is further complicated by the recent administration of the Arcadia Group. “There is no certainty that any transaction will take place, particularly if discussions cannot be concluded swiftly.”

Liquidators moved in to Debenhams’ stores on Wednesday to start clearing stock after a potential rescue deal with JD Sports fell through. Mike Ashley, who founded Sports Direct and also owns House of Fraser, had already made an offer for Debenhams when it was initially put up for sale.

But this approach, thought to be in the region of £125m, was rejected as too low, leaving JD Sports as the last remaining bidder. It is understood Mr Ashley was interested in taking on about 30 stores out of 124. Mr Ashley has made no secret of his desire to acquire Debenhams.

He built up a 29% stake in the chain in the hope of taking it over, but saw his £150m holding wiped out last year when the company fell into administration. The chain then ended up in the hands of its lenders, a consortium led by the hedge fund Silverpoint.

“Any deal is uncertain given the hurdles involved” a person familiar with the situation at Frasers Group told BBC business correspondent Emma Simpson. Stockbroker Shore Capital said it could be Mike Ashley’s “last play” on Debenhams.

In a note, it said any potential rescue deal would centre on the chain’s “current and future stock position” and that it was unclear how many Debenhams stores would survive given many were located near to House of Fraser shops. “Frasers is known to be a hard negotiator and will probably walk away rather than over pay,” it added.

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