Mr Hinchliffe and his amazing shopping list

To the bewilderment of the City, a Sheffield mystery man has bought up a huge collection of high-street failures. So what is driving his spree?

SOCK SHOP, Freeman Hardy & Willis, Salisburys and Trueform are some of the more familiar names still trading on British high streets. They have two other things in common. They have all made spectacular losses in recent history. And in the past 18 months they have all been mysteriously snapped up by one man.

That man, Stephen Hinchliffe, has come from nowhere become Britain's second largest private retailer after Littlewoods. Almost overnight, he has gained control of an empire with estimated annual sales in excess of pounds 250m, 6,000 employees and 720 outlets - more than Marks & Spencer, albeit much smaller ones.

What's more, his holding company, Facia, shows no signs of pausing for breath. Despite the poor retail climate, another deal involving a household name is being lined up.

The City and the retail trade are mystified. What could be the attraction of such a motley assortment of stretcher cases and retail has-beens? It is a puzzle that the colourful Mr Hinchliffe has done little to clarify: Facia has yet to file its first report and accounts.

Mr Hinchliffe, too, remains an enigma. He has a penchant for helicopters, classic cars and opulent corporate offices, but remains virtually unknown outside the retail trade and his South Yorkshire bailiwick.

"I've tried to find out about him myself," says Mike McDonald, the millionaire Manchester businessman who recently beat Mr Hinchliffe to the punch by taking control of the struggling First Division football club Sheffield United, where the Facia founder retains a 15 per cent stake and a seat on the board.

"He's a bit flamboyant and likes to be the person in the limelight, but when you go to check him out on the business side you hit brick walls. You can't even draw the accounts." He can only offer one plausible explanation for Mr Hinchliffe's extraordinary spree. "You don't need money to buy lame ducks."

Stephen Hinchliffe is no David Sainsbury - or Sir Ralph Halpern for that matter - yet his controversial business career bears comparison with the ups and downs experienced by the likes of George Davies or Gerald Ratner.

Born and bred in Sheffield, the son of a civil servant, Stephen Hinchliffe trained as an accountant, working in a local engineering company and a regional hospital board before moving into marketing. After stints in the grocery trade and computer systems, he led a management buy-in of the Sheffield-based Wades department stores from Asda in 1984.

It was here, in the city of steel, that he cut his teeth in retailing, turning a pounds 2m loss into a pounds 2m profit in two years before selling the chain for pounds 20m.

He used the proceeds from that deal, and from several unrelated property ventures, to buy a sizeable stake in Sheffield-based James Wilkes, a small engineering company where he ended up as chairman. Profits leapt 11-fold in five years, by which time Wilkes had become the largest beer- mat manufacturer in the world.

Wilkes' success eventually attracted the unwanted attentions of a predator in the form of Petrocon, a rival engineering group.

A bitter takeover battle ensued. Mr Hinchliffe was pilloried by Petrocon's advisers for what appeared to be his extravagant lifestyle at Wilkes's expense. In particular, questions were raised about his use of a company helicopter and the cost of the baronial corporate headquarters at Beauchief Hall outside Sheffield. It came complete with deer park, peacocks and four gardeners.

But Mr Hinchliffe had already left James Wilkes under a cloud - and with a pounds 533,000 pay-off - by the time Petrocon's hostile bid failed in 1992. He had been formally arrested as part of a fraud investigation into a property deal at a separate company.

He was never charged, consistently denied any wrong-doing, and later cleared his name. But within a week of leaving Wilkes, he was forced to stand down as chairman of another publicly quoted company, computer services group Lynx Holdings, after a boardroom coup. Again he received handsome compensation.

The controversy over his arrest clearly left its mark on Mr Hinchliffe. He feels he was set up by rivals in the close-knit, largely family-run Sheffield business establishment who resented his high profile and ostentatious lifestyle.

Others draw a slightly different conclusion. "It indicates some of those property deals were close to the line, " says Keith Butterick, editor of the business magazine Finance North. "He has stepped on a lot of people's toes."

For several years a chastened Hinchliffe seemed to go to ground, resurfacing in 1994 to launch Facia after finally selling his stake in Wilkes when it was bought by Suter, the diversified engineering group.

Even today, despite the considerable interest aroused by the flurry of takeover activity at Facia, Stephen Hinchliffe remains a difficult man to pin down. The Independent on Sunday's latest request for an interview was turned down last week because he was said to have flu. He countered an earlier approach with the riposte: "What do you want to interview me for?"

And he has proved equally elusive in answering persistent questions about how much he has spent building up Facia from scratch or how its spectacular growth was funded.

The spending spree started 18 months ago when the Scottish fund manager Murray Johnstone backed the pounds 3.2m acquisition of Salisburys, the loss- making luggage, handbags and accessories store, from the struggling Signet (formerly Ratners) group. Other niche retail chains were added at the rate of almost one a month, including Sock Shop, the fashion chain Red or Dead, lingerie specialist Contessa, menswear group Oakland and jeweller Torq.

His latest deal, five months ago, brought up to 250 Freeman Hardy & Willis shoe-shops into the Facia stable from the department store operator Sears, for an undisclosed sum. Mr. Hinchliffe has indicated the string of deals were financed from a mixture of the company's resources and short-term loans from unnamed backers. But the almost total lack of published information makes these claims impossible to verify.

City analysts and business rivals alike are perplexed as to why Mr Hinchliffe is so keen to expand on the high street when trading conditions are so tough

and the clear trend is towards out-of-town shopping centres.

His strategy is to buy to well-known brand names in prime town-centre locations which he thinks are underperforming and therefore undervalued. Shops are being revamped, merchandise updated and warehousing centralised.

Next month a new 65,000sq ft headquarters in Fulham, west London, is due to open. The site will have a showcase high street featuring all the shops in the Facia fold.

But critics remain unclear exactly what Facia is bringing to the party and Mr Hinchliffe faces an uphill task convincing the many doubters. "There is a high degree of scepticism among other retailers about who he is and what he is trying to do," says John Richards, retail analyst at NatWest Securities. "The businesses acquired were not making money, the trading en- vironment has remained difficult and it is not quite clear what has been done to improve their performance. There is a feeling it will all end in tears."

The main concern centres on Facia's ambitious strategy of expanding aggressively through buying loss-making and largely unrelated businesses, while keeping a grip on financial controls and gaining the operational synergies required to produce decent returns.

This aggressive formula proved the undoing of other high street names such as Ratners and - under previous management - Next and Storehouse. "There is no history of other retailers achieving what Facia is trying to do," argues NatWest's Mr Richards. "It's not a compulsive story."

Mr McDonald is also at a loss to explain what Mr Hinchliffe is up to. "I understand he is buying businesses that are thought to be old dinosaurs. If the big boys can't make it pay, how can he? We all give away the bad parts of our businesses and leave someone else holding the rubbish. He's obviously taking on some horrendous leases, but maybe he will prune out the bad ones."

Not content with bedding down the existing stores, Mr Hinchliffe plans to push ahead by clinching even more deals. "He's not going to stop here," says a Facia insider. "There are other things he is looking at. It won't be a chain that will cost him too much money. He's a pretty shrewd negotiator."

Speculation has centred on his interest in buying another womenswear chain, and talks may resume with Sears over its Wallis subsidiary, which analysts believe is earmarked for disposal.

Whatever deal Mr Hinchliffe lands, not even the filing of Facia's first set of accounts at Companies House later this year will appease his critics. He reportedly said they will show a substantial profit but last week he seemed to be back-tracking even on that claim. "It will be interesting to see some numbers," says Mr Richards. "But the company is moving and developing so rapidly it will be difficult for them to be meaningful."

Perhaps the only way Mr Hinchliffe can bridge the credibility gap is to open up the books by floating Facia on the stock market. It is certainly a long-term goal. "He has this intense desire to prove himself to the City after what they did to him at Lynx Holdings and James Wilkes," says Mr Butterick.

What sort of reception he will receive from investors, should that day ever come to pass, remains to be seen.

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