Hamleys reaches endgame under ownership of China’s C.banner

October 21, 2018

The Chinese owner of Hamleys, the world’s most famous toy retailer,‎ has begun exploring a sale of the company just days after reporting multimillion-pound losses.

Sky News has learnt that C.banner International, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, has launched a strategic review of Hamleys, which it bought three years ago.

The review, which was prompted by several expressions of interest in a takeover from unnamed parties, is at a preliminary stage and might not lead to a formal sale process, according to a City source.

News of C.banner’s‎ decision to explore options for Hamleys throws the future ownership of the toy retailing giant into doubt just before its crucial Christmas trading period gets under way.

Vermilion Partners, a corporate finance firm with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and London, has been appointed to handle discussions with potential bidders.

The firm is an affiliate of Natixis (LSE: 0IHK.L – news) , the French bank.

The strategic review paves the way for Hamleys’ fourth change of ownership in 15 years following a succession of largely failed attempts by a range of international shareholders to expand the renowned brand globally.

It also marks C.banner’s potential retreat from the British retail sector, just months after it abandoned plans to buy a controlling stake in House of Fraser, the department store chain subsequently acquired by Sports Direct International (Other OTC: SDIPF – news) through a pre-pack administration.

Mike Ashley, Sports Direct’s chief executive, and private equity firms are likely to be among those who examine bids for Hamleys, retail analysts said this weekend.

The value of Hamleys, which comprises 129 stores globally, was unclear this weekend.

One hundred of those shops are operated under franchise.

Founded ‎in 1760, Hamleys is one of the most famous retailing names in the world, having occupied its current site on London’s Regent Street since 1881.

It was launched as Noah’s Ark by William Hamley, who stocked his store with items such as tin soldiers, wooden horses and rag dolls.

In 2003, the company was taken off the London stock market by Baugur Group, the Icelandic‎ investor which snapped up a string of big high street names in the decade before the financial crisis.

Baugur paid £47.4m for Hamleys, which was then sold in 2012 for £60m to Groupe Ludendo, a French company, by the winding-up committee of the failed Icelandic bank Landsbanki.

Groupe Ludendo hailed its takeover as a “platform to accelerate our international development”, but the move failed to pay significant dividends, leading to C.banner’s purchase three years later.

The Chinese takeover was timed to coincide with a state visit to the UK by the country’s president, Xi Jinping, and was described by both countries as a ‎sign of deepening economic ties.

Since then, Hamleys has opened a 115,000 sq ft store in Beijing in a ceremony overseen by Britain’s ambassador to China.

The retailer now has a presence in countries including Germany, India, Russia and Ukraine.

Its international growth has not translated into a stellar financial performance, however.

This week, Hamleys Global Holdings, its ultimate parent company, reported a pre-tax loss of £12m for 2017, citing “market pressures including currency effects”.

The accounts added that trading was on an improving trajectory, with 2.7% UK like-for-like sales growth in the first eight months of 2018.

They also said that Hamleys was “on track to return to net profitability in the next 12 months”.

Three more UK travel stores were scheduled to open this year, and two in Japan in December under the Hamleys World format.

Ralph Cunningham, the company’s chief executive, said in the accounts that he was “encouraged by our current trading performance”.

He added: “While our international franchise business experiences good growth, last year was one of the most challenging years in UK retail history.

“Hamleys was not immune to the impact of Brexit uncertainty, macroeconomic pressures‎, a general erosion in UK consumer confidence and falling customer footfall due to the threat of terrorism.”

Mr Cunningham is a well-regarded figure who has brought stability to the business, according to insiders.

The toy retailer also said this week that Alex Jablonowski, its finance director, was leaving the company and was being replaced by Yong Shen, a former executive at House of Fraser.

A potential sale of Hamleys would come at the end of a torrid year for Britain’s retail industry, with dozens of collapses and corporate restructurings involving names such as Carpetright (Other OTC: CGHXF – news) , Maplin, Mothercare (Other OTC: MHCRF – news) , Poundworld and Toys R Us.

A C.banner spokeswoman in Hong Kong declined to comment, while Hamleys also said it would not comment.

Source: Yahoo News UK