The salesman who went store crazy

Stephen Hinchliffe started out selling used cars and became one of the biggest proprietors on the high street. But now his Facia group is bust, the Sock Shop is in receivership, and even he must be wondering if he can bounce back again. Paul Vallely reports
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The electronic gates are closed at the luxurious villa in the leafy Sheffield suburb of Dore. Behind the high stone walls topped with barbed wire and hedges, smart cars stand idle in the drive. A video camera stands as sullen sentinel at the entrance in case any of the 100 journalists who have requested interviews with the owner should become too bold.

In fact, the owner, Stephen Hinchliffe, is not inside. He is somewhere in London, desperately trying to piece together a deal that might allow him to buy back part of his retail empire. This is the empire that collapsed with debts of pounds 3m last weekend, leaving 8,500 employees in almost 1,000 shops across the nation's high streets wondering about their future.

Until it went into receivership few of us had heard of Facia, the holding company that owned a string of household names such as Saxone, Sock Shop, Freeman Hardy Willis and Red or Dead. Even fewer knew of the whirlwind buying spree that Hinchliffe, a former used-car salesman from Sheffield, had undertaken to make himself the second largest private retailer in the country.

The gates have always been closed at the villa in Dore, prompting a welter of speculation about the man who lives behind them. For what is it that a man could have to hide who has, in all other respects, lived his life so ostentatiously in public?

The notion of Stephen Hinchliffe as a private man might surprise many. He is larger than life, and not just because of his 6ft 5in frame, sun- bleached blond hair, broad Sheffield accent and knuckle-crushing handshake. The man nicknamed The Hinch sports the statutory chunky gold watch, has a penchant for golf in Florida, smokes Dunhills and drives a jade Mercedes (number plate SH1). He owns 15 per cent of Sheffield United football club (though he was thwarted in his ambition to become club chairman). He also has a collection of 70 classic cars.

Six years ago he marked his 40th birthday by taking 40 friends on a four- day birthday mystery tour: he chartered Concorde to fly to Egypt where he laid on a Nile river boat party complete with belly dancers beneath the pyramids. "His ability to spend is horrific," one said. "You go on holiday with him and he has to buy two more suitcases just to hold all the stuff he buys."

The style extends to his business life. When in the Eighties he was chairman of James Wilkes, a Sheffield-based engineering firm, Hinchliffe found a stately home for the company's headquarters, Beauchief Hall, with peacocks and deer in the grounds, a basement discotheque and a helicopter for the chairman.

If anything his irredeemable flamboyance has increased. When the jeweller Gerald Ratner fell from grace in 1994, Hinchliffe bought the ex-tycoon's Sikorsky helicopter for his personal use. When he needed a chief operations officer he chose a lieutenant of Ralph Halpern, famous as the boss of Burton but more famous as the "five times a night" stud of a leggy Page 3 blonde who kissed-and-told.

And last week when Facia was sinking he tried to do a rescue deal by selling the group to a shell company with a minor US stock market listing owned by William Grosvenor, former PR man to Asil Nadir - a job that one City wag reckoned was akin to being chief lookout man on the Titanic.

Yet for all the showmanship, there is a solid foundation to Stephen Hinchliffe's success. Born and bred in Sheffield, the son of a postal clerk, he was good at maths at school and became an accountant before switching to marketing. He was a success. He led a management buy-out of the Sheffield-based Wades department stores from Asda in 1984 and then turned a pounds 2m loss into a pounds 2m profit in two years before selling the chain for pounds 20m. Hinchliffe made pounds 7.3m personally from the deal.

He used the money to buy a stake in James Wilkes where he became chairman and increased profits 11-fold in five years. By the time he left in 1992 it had moved from engineering to become the largest manufacturer of beermats in the world.

But he left Wilkes under a cloud - albeit with a pounds 533,000 pay-off. First came public criticism of corporate excess over the helicopter, the stately home and the peacocks. Such apparent extravagance at the height of the recession drew Wilkes to the attention of a rival company, Petrocon, which launched a hostile bid and hired a local firm of private detectives to investigate Hinchliffe's spending habits. Though the bid was defeated, pressure from shareholders and the firm's brokers, NM Rothschild, forced Hinchliffe to resign.

The decisive factor was probably that at the height of the bid Hinchliffe was arrested - though never charged - by the West Midlands fraud squad investigating a deal with another company. "It was a non-event," says one of Hinchliffe's close associates. "I think he was stitched up. Coincidentally there was a photographer there when the police came, even though it was 7am There were people he had crossed swords with." He was also forced out as chairman by a boardroom coup at another public company, Lynx Holdings.

There were indeed people with whom he had crossed swords. "He was given a reputation as someone not to be trusted," said one local businessman. "It was not that he did anything illegal. But he was a classic deal maker - started in the 1970s as a used-car dealer. He was never going to be thought quite respectable in South Yorkshire business circles." People, ever ready to laugh at new money, were wont to mock the personal extravagances such as his blue-tiled swimming pool which played underwater music.

Hinchliffe himself appeared bemused but sanguine at all this, putting it down to small-town jealousy. "Sheffield is a small business community and anyone who is active is noticeable," he said at the time. "Not everyone admires success."

He left Sheffield and moved on to the national stage. But his first three ventures eventually ended ingloriously - a tennis court surfacer called En Tout Cas, the soccer kit firm Bukta, and the retail company Shoesave all collapsed, though Hinchliffe had resigned from each and sold control before they went into liquidation. But then in August 1994 he bought the leather goods chain, Salisburys, and embarked upon an ambitious scheme to buy up and revitalise fading high-street names. He bought one a month - Sock Shop, the jewellers Torq, the fashion chain Red or Dead. He bought - among others - Oakland Menswear from C&A, then the Contessa lingerie shops, then the shoe shops Freeman Hardy Willis, Trueform and Saxone.

He was paying only a fraction of what the chains were worth in the boom days of the 1980. But with each purchase the riddle at the heart of the Hinchliffe empire grew. How was he paying for all this?

Facia was a private company. Though the City wondered how he was buying companies with no apparent source of finance, Stephen Hinchliffe had no need to answer their questions. Until Facia went public with the stock- market flotation he kept hinting at he could do what he liked - so long as he filed accounts with Companies House within 18 months of Facia's being set up in August 1994. The deals, he told journalists, were all done using short-term loans, the income generated by the group and his private money which, he once dropped a jocular hint to the Yorkshire Post, might be some pounds 100m.

Hinchliffe paid pounds 3m for Salisburys but all the other deals were shrouded in secrecy. Some analysts assumed he must be picking up has-been stores for small change, though one member of the Facia board, David MacLellan, head of venture capital at Murray Johnstone, told the Investor's Chronicle last year that Hinchliffe had paid a lot of money for several of them.

The strategy was simple. To eliminate pounds 10m in overheads by centralising costs, warehousing and distribution, to upgrade merchandise and store design and to cross-fertilise between stores - "synergy" became one of Hinchliffe's favourite words. "I've never bought wrecks," he said at the time. "I've taken over well-established businesses that have lost their way. As I see it, their only way is up."

But there was another way - down. "It may not have been the basic strategy that was wrong," said one of his ex-associates this week. "But he just didn't have enough money. The companies were underfunded. He needed around pounds 50,000 to redo each shop. If you have more than 800 shops that's pounds 40m."

That was not clear at the time. "He acquired businesses so quickly - one a month - that the accounting structure wasn't there to keep up," said another insider. The longest period between agreeing a deal and owning a company was three weeks. "It was a company dominated by one individual. He moved quickly and not always with the full knowledge of everyone around him."

In public Hinchliffe continued to make reassuring noises. "When the accounts come out in April there'll be no surprises," he told the Yorkshire Post. "Everything is done in an ordinary conventional way."

But the accounts did not come out in April. Instead Hinchliffe began to try to renegotiate the pounds 48m annual rent bill on his shops, asking landlords - including Sears, the firm that had sold him Saxone but retained the rental rights - if they would accept a month's money in advance instead of the usual three. Some did, but others cut up rough. Two even sent in the bailiffs.

It was only the first in a series of problems. Next Companies House announced he would face a fine if he did not file Facia's accounts by 1 July. Then the Department of Trade and Industry announced it was to start court proceedings to disqualify Hinchliffe from being a company director. The action grew out of the liquidation of Boxgrey, the company that had controlled En Tout Cas, which collapsed a month after Hinchliffe sold it leaving 600 creditors and 130 staff owed more than pounds 3m. Elsewhere confidence in Hinchliffe was beginning to ebb.

His bankers, the Israeli-based United Mizrahi Bank, told him that he would have to find a new lender when the current facility expired at the end of this year. Yet more was to come. The auditors responsible for endorsing the accounts of Sock Shop and Salisburys both refused to give unqualified approval to the companies' finances. Sock Shop's auditors Deloitte and Touche noted a significant number of transactions between subsidiary companies and the parent company and a significant number of transactions with related parties of the Facia group. The auditors said they had not been given sufficient time to analyse the group's finances in full. Of Salisburys, KPMG - eventually to be appointed receivers for the Facia group - said they had "not obtained all the information and explanations we considered necessary".

It was Sears that pulled the rug. Its finance director concluded that Hinchliffe could not adequately refinance when the Israelis pulled out. That meant Facia wouldn't be able to pay its outstanding debts to Sears. It served a petition seeking to put Hinchliffe's footwear businesses into administration.

"In the end Sears ran out of patience," said one close ex-associate. "Stephen is a great deal maker, but his strengths are not in managing companies - as I found out to my cost. He's not crooked but he cuts corners and he doesn't tell people the full story. But don't write him off. He'll bounce back. He always does."

The 1,000 people whose jobs are now at risk may hope he does not bounce in their direction.