Hobbs sale looks unlikely as finance director departs


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The Independent Online

The finance director of Hobbs is leaving the fashion retailer, dampening speculation that the private-equity-backed chain will be put up for sale in the near future.

Loraine Woodhouse is joining the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), the group behind the eponymous department store and Waitrose, as corporate finance director in October.

Hobbs, whose chief executive is Nicky Dulieu, hired advisers at the accountancy firm PwC last year, which set tongues wagging about whether it was being prepared for a £200m-plus sale in early 2014.

While it is unclear how much, if any, equity Ms Woodhouse held in Hobbs, finance directors typically get a handsome payout when companies are sold and her exit suggests she did not see such a scenario materialising for some time. Hobbs competes with chains such as Marks & Spencer, Jaeger, Phase Eight and LK Bennett, with speculation also linking the latter to a possible auction process next year.

Ms Woodhouse will report to Helen Weir, the finance director of JLP, and will help shape the group’s financial, insurance and pension investment strategy. London-listed 3i acquired Hobbs for £111m in 2004 from Barclays Private Equity, in a deal financed by about £75m of debt.

The retailer, which also owns the NW3 and Hobbs Invitation fashion labels, posted a 1.3 per cent rise in underlying earnings to £15.2m over the year to 26 January 2013, on increased sales of £125.1m. Hobbs got a further boost this summer when the heavily pregnant Duchess of Cambridge wore a £169 mac.

Having turned around its performance, the fashion chain plans to launch in China, with an initial opening planned for Hong Kong.

In June, Ms Dulieu said: “China has now come higher up the agenda. We are understanding what the appeal is in China. Entry luxury has huge appeal with the rising middle class and it feels like the best possible time for our brand coupled with a refresh.”

Hobbs, which already delivers to more than 50 countries, is also rolling out dedicated, local-language websites overseas, including in Germany.

Separately, Paul Sweetenham, the former chief executive of the failed fashion chain Republic, is joining the Italian footwear giant Bata next month. Mr Sweetenham, who has also been the head of TK Maxx in Europe, is taking up the role of European president at Bata.

Founded in 1894, Bata has more than 30,000 staff, 5,000 retail stores, and a presence in over 70 countries.