Mothercare: Rumours of takeovers continue

Susan Moger & Tudor Rickards

Mothercare is a high profile brand in the UK which is struggling to become a successful global operation. It is also facing rumoured takeover bids

Recent rumours suggest that Mothercare is ‘ripe for a takeover’. These have been supported by speculative share purchases. Venture capitalist Cinven is currently [Dec 12th 2011] favourite to move for Mothercare.

Background

To the general British public, Mothercare has developed iconic status since its origins in the 1960s. In some ways it has the ‘much loved’ status of Woolworths. LWD subscribers will be familiar with the demise of “Woolies” adding to the gloom of last Christmas for its employees. In hard times, sentiment is a commodity that does not guarantee survival.

The Company was founded by Selim Zilkha and James Goldsmith in 1961. In 1982 it merged with Habitat to form Habitat Mothercare and in 1986 Habitat Mothercare merged with British Home Stores to form Storehouse. Mothercare also acquired the Early Learning Centre (ELC) in 2007.

Profits have been increasingly coming internationally, this year just about balancing losses in the UK. The financials suggest that a takeover by a venture capital organisation would result in more rapid and drastic actions to address UK losses.

The declining fortunes of Mothercare are indicated by a sequence of CEOs. Ben Gordon was the fifth in rapid succession four years ago. At first,his appointment was accompanied by a strong rise in share price which eventually reversed (until the recent takeover rumours)

Crisis actions

The firm has followed the well-known steps for businesses facing financial problems. In particular, there have been changes in leadership, and steps to reduce costs.

Any signs of rethinking its strategy?

Cost cutting has included announcements of reducing the number of stores in the UK as leases expire. Signs of rethinking strategy are less evident.

Alan Parker, executive chairman of Mothercare was quoted in The Telegraph [17th Nov 2011] as saying

“We have to rejuvenate the whole brand and offering. The competition in the UK is more intense than overseas. We need to review the format and location of our outlets in Britain.”

More than an economic downturn?

Matt Piner, at the retail consultancy Conlumino, said: “Mothercare has blamed its falling UK sales and profits on the economic environment, but in reality all this has done is expose the wider issues the retailer faces.

However, with consumers now increasingly confident using the internet and sites such as Mumsnet to educate themselves, the once habitual visit to Mothercare is becoming a thing of the past. Instead, consumers research what they need online and head to the cheapest retailers to buy it – which nowadays normally means one of the supermarkets.”

In addition, retailers such as Boots and Superdrug have made great efforts at providing advice as well as products for young families and with greater high-street footfalls.

Is the story straightforward?

Oner evaluation was less convinced about the non-UK business prospects.

Mothercare’s overseas growth has been hugely impressive. But despite the rapid growth in the international business over the past six years, the UK remains the driver (or not) of profits. For all the talk of reducing exposure to the UK market and restructuring the property portfolio, retail space in the UK actually grew last year.

Of course [Former Chairman] Peacock – and his chief executive Ben Gordon – would rather talk about Eastern Europe than the UK. International sales rose 15pc-plus, while the UK has seen sales fall 4.3pc, despite weak comparatives.

The retailer has made much of its international franchisee business in recent years, [flying out analysts and journalists] as far as India to see the business. But whatever the spin, Mothercare’s fortunes are still tied to the UK market. Last year the group sold £587m worth of baby stuff and toys to UK shoppers and £206.4m to its international franchisees. Mothercare – rather bizarrely in my view – prefers to highlight “network sales”, which include the international franchisees mark-up (of which Mothercare takes just a small “mid-single digit” cut).

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