Arcadia is expected to enter administration in the coming hours after the weekend failed to bring a last-minute rescue deal for Sir Philip Green’s retail giant.
Amid concerns among MPs and unions about the impact of possible job cuts from the 13,000-strong workforce and a shortfall in the group’s pension scheme, the company’s collapse was also expected to jeopardise a takeover by JD Sports of the department store chain Debenhams, which rents out space to dozens of Arcadia-owned outlets.
Questions about the immediate future of Green’s fashion empire surfaced on Friday after it became known that talks he had been holding with potential lenders for a £30m loan had failed.
The group had been seeking extra funding to help it plug the gap from lost sales during coronavirus restrictions and the closure of non-essential shops including clothing stores.
It is understood that Green and Arcadia would favour a so-called light-touch trading administration, to protect the business from creditors, while the administrators sought a buyer for all or parts of the company.
This process, which is currently being used byDebenhams, would allow Arcadia’s management to keep control of the day-to-day running of the business during the sale. Crucially, it would also allow Arcadia’s shops in England to reopen on 2 December when the lockdown lifts, to try to capture some essential pre-Christmas trade.
The expectation that the group will enter administration has led to fresh concerns not just for its workers but for the members of its pension fund, which has an estimated deficit of £350m.
Stephen Timms, the chair of parliament’s influential work and pensions select committee, called on Green and his family to plug the funding shortfall.
He said he would write to the Pensions Regulator on Monday to “underline the importance of securing the interests of pension scheme members”, adding: “Whatever happens to the group, the Green family must make good the deficit in the Arcadia pension fund.”
Arcadia’s fall into administration would have wider repercussions for the retail sector in the UK.
JD Sports has been holding exclusive talks over a purchase of Debenhams and had been expected to make a decision by the end of last week about whether to proceed. But the company is thought to be reconsidering the deal, given the anticipated collapse of Arcadia, which is one of the biggest concession holders at Debenhams.
JD Sports declined to comment. However, the potential departure of brands such as Dorothy Perkins and Burton from Debenhams branches would leave a potential buyer with a lot of empty space.
However it is understood that Ashley, a billionaire who bought the House of Fraser department store chain out of administration in 2018, has not submitted any offer to Arcadia’s board.
Arcadia Group was in difficulty long before the pandemic and narrowly avoided administration last year, when Green managed to get creditors to back a rescue plan which involved closing 50 stores and cutting 1,000 jobs.
If administrators are called in, Arcadia’s pension fund will be taken on by the Pensions Protection Fund, the industry-backed “lifeboat”. Under this scheme, members who have not yet reached the normal retirement age indicated by the scheme could lose 10% of their benefits, even if they have already started taking the pension.
Green was widely criticised following the collapse of department store BHS in 2016, a year after he sold it to a former bankrupt, Dominic Chappell, when it had a £571m pensions deficit.
Green ended up paying £353m to support the BHS scheme after pressure from the pensions regulator.
Arcadia’s pension scheme is in a better position that that of BHS, although Green’s wife, Tina, who is the ultimate owner of Arcadia, has previously pledged to pay an extra £100m into the Arcadia scheme over three years. She has already paid £50m of the promised additional cash, and the rest is guarantee to be paid next year.
Arcadia’s latest troubles highlight the plight of the British high street, which has accelerated during the pandemic, according to the Unite union, which represents about 50 staff working at the group’s head office.
Unite’s regional officer, Debbie McSweeney, said: “We call on the government to redouble its efforts to formulate a radical post-Covid-19 blueprint to revive the country’s ailing town centres and high streets. Such a strategy is desperately needed as high streets underpin the social fabric of our communities.”
She added: “Unite is strongly committed to ensuring that our members receive their full notice and redundancy pay, should the next step be administration.”