Gunnar Sigurdsson: How House of Fraser became the icing on Baugur's retailing cake

A day in the life of the UK managing director of the Baugur Group
Click to follow
The Independent Online


Gunnar Sigurdsson is hoping that his 10-year-old son will understand why he can't hang around to celebrate the end of his first decade. Birthday festivities must wait until the family's bank holiday break in France because the UK boss of Baugur has a deal to complete first.

Early starts are a matter of course when your day job is running the UK's most prolific dealmaker. In the three short years that Mr Sigurdsson has been running the Icelandic group's British interests he has lost count of the number of times he has left home hopeful of finalising a bid before the day is out.

Today is the turn of House of Fraser, the department store group that first caught Baugur's attention back in 2003. Provided the lawyers sign off on the documentation for the £351m, 24 August will be a red-letter day in the Sigurdsson household for more reasons than needing to bake a cake.


The first port of call is Baugur's West End base: its sparsely decorated, very Scandinavian looking, fourth floor office overlooking the fancy stores of New Bond Street. Although the shopping thoroughfare is one of the country's rare high streets not actually to feature one of the chains owned by the controversial Icelanders, it can surely only be a matter of time.

Since Baugur burst on to the UK retailing scene with its takeover of Hamleys, the Regent Street toy store, in June 2003, barely a week has gone by that it has not been linked to a possible bid target. Its latest conquest of House of Fraser began back in April, when shortly before Easter it made a dawn raid on the group's stock, snapping up a 9.5 per cent stake. Ever since then, Baugur's UK managing director has spent much of his time pouring over the department store group's books, working out how to make the numbers stack up to get its target's directors to back a bid.

"We have been following the company for a long time. We did a lot of work to model and assess the feasibility of making a bid," Mr Sigurdsson says. All the action, of course, occurred long before Thursday, the day the deal was unveiled to an impatient City.


By late morning, the scene for the next seven hours has been well and truly set. Mr Sigurdsson is breathing down the necks of Baugur's lawyers at Allen & Overy, anxious to ensure that an 11th-hour delay does not spoil his holiday. The fact that an entire working day is devoted to one deal makes it an exception to the rule. Normally by now the affable Icelander would have had time to tot up the exact scale of his company's contribution towards propping up the British economy, not to mention run his slide rule over several potential acquisitions.

"We have made a good name for ourselves as active dealmakers on the UK retail scene. Any time any business is up for sale we are contacted, so our deal flow is fantastic," says Mr Sigurdsson. "It's never been the case that we haven't had anything to look at."

From health food shops to jewellers, womenswear chains to supermarkets, Baugur already has its fingers in most of the country's retailing pies. Its portfolio includes Iceland, the frozen food chain (and yes, the name predated Baugur's ownership); the women's fashion chains Jane Norman, Karen Millen, Whistles, Oasis, Warehouse, Principle and Coast; the women's shoe shops Pied a Terre, Nine West, Chelsea Cobbler and Bertie; Julian Graves, the nuts-to-vitamins chain; the jewellers Goldsmiths and Mappin & Webb; and the tea specialists Whittard of Chelsea (and no, there are no plans to rechristen it Whittard of Reykjavik). And that's excluding the handful of quoted retailers in which Baugur has stakes, such as French Connection and Woolworths.

Which means that the other main way Mr Sigurdsson spends his time is checking out how Baugur's portfolio of investments is getting on. He sits on several boards as a non-executive, including Hamleys and Iceland, and regularly has the various management teams of each company trooping in and out of his office.


As with most days, lunch is nothing special; Mr Sigurdsson prefers to eat a quick sandwich at his desk than to linger over a meal out. The one difference today is that he has no need to give Baugur's chief executive, Jon Asgeir Johannesson, a call while he is eating, as the Icelander is in situ, waiting to sign off on the House of Fraser deal.

The pair are friends of old. Given Iceland's microscopic headcount - its population of 300,000 would fit into Northumberland, Britain's least densely populated county - it is no surprise that all of its movers and shakers are from similar circles. In any given day, Mr Johannesson, who hit the headlines last year over allegations, since dropped, that he had defrauded his business during its brief period as a quoted company, would chat to his right-hand man at least three or four times. They make a useful couple: Mr Sigurdsson's banking background makes him the numbers man, while Jon Asgeir (as he is known) has all the retailing flair.

Retailing is in the Johannesson DNA - Jon Asgeir's father and grandfather ran shops. The family is revered back in Iceland for opening the country's first discount supermarket chain and helping to drive down food prices in what is one of the world's most expensive countries.

Given Iceland's current battle with inflation - the bank recently raised interest rates to a record 13.5 per cent in a desperate attempt to stop inflation hitting 11 per cent in time for Christmas - Baugur's Bonus discount chain is more popular than ever.

For his part, Mr Sigurdsson shrugs off any possible threat from the country's overheating economy. "We are insulated because our business at the moment is all very heavily focused on the UK." He does not see any long-term dangers even to Iceland itself, citing the fact that the country's business interests are far more diversified now than when it was reliant only on its fishing boats.


With still no news from the lawyers, Mr Sigurdsson is getting increasingly nervous about making that holiday. He is not the only one waiting for an update. The consortium behind the 148p-per-share offer included no less than seven members. As well as Baugur, which will own 35 per cent of House of Fraser once the deal completes, there is Don McCarthy, the retailer behind Rubicon Retail, which is home to Warehouse and all those UK shoe chains; Sir Tom Hunter, the Scottish investor; FL Group, a fellow Icelandic group which owns the carrier Icelandair; Kevin Stanford, who used to own Karen Millen; HBOS, one of Baugur's lenders; and Stefan Cassar, another Rubicon executive.

"We have a habit of working with people that we like to work with, so we tend to build consortiums that are bigger than most people's. These are all people who have worked together on many different projects. It's a group that trusts one another very well," explains Mr Sigurdsson.


Eventually, after a relative eternity, the news flashes up on dealers' screens. Almost five months after making that initial dawn raid, Baugur has launched the biggest deal in its history.

Landing House of Fraser will go some way to make up for missing out on Somerfield. Baugur had been part of a consortium to acquire the supermarket chain, but was unceremoniously thrown out at the height of the alleged fraud frenzy. It takes a further three hours on the phone, doing a succession of media interviews, before Mr Sigurdsson finally gets to call it a day and head home to see if his wife and two sons have saved him any cake.