Rise and fall of Icelander who went on huge spending binge

Jon Asgeir Johannesson, the chairman of Baugur, opened the first Bonus supermarket in Reykjavik in 1989. During the following two decades, he created Baugur and built a sprawling retail empire though a binge of acquisitions and share purchases. At the turn of last year, it owned or held stakes in about 10 per cent of the UK high street, its tentacles enveloping retailers including Iceland, the frozen food specialist, Hamleys, the toy retailer, and House of Fraser, the department store.

Yesterday Baugur filed for bankruptcy protection in Iceland, in effect bringing to an end the Viking invasion of the UK high street. Speculation had always been rife about the fragility of Baugur's financial foundations, but few could have predicted it would come to such a calamitous end. Nick Bubb, an analyst with Pali International, said: "People always thought that Baugur was a pack of cards that would collapse, and eventuallythey were proved right."

So what went wrong?

Baugur's pain can be largely attributed to the Icelandic banking crisis, but the retail investment group also dug its own grave with a deeply flawed strategy. For instance, it hugely overpaid for weak retail chains; bought stakes in some of the high street's most precariously balanced retailers, including Woolworths; created an unwieldy portfolio of unrelated brands; and, perhaps most significantly, loaded up its companies with too much debt. Bryan Roberts, the global research director at Planet Retail, said: "I did not see the rationale for Hamleys and Iceland being in the same stable. I struggled to see the logic of some of [Baugur's] acquisitions."

No doubt some of Baugur's investments, notably Iceland and House of Fraser, were wise moves, but too often it laid hefty bets on the wrong horse. For example, its listed investments read like a who's who of the UK high street's travails. Baugur's strategy was to buy stakes in fashion-related retailers in order to gain influence over their strategy. It bought shareholdings in Debenhams, French Connection, Woolworths and Moss Bros, and although it sold its stake in Moss Bros last year it has lost its shirt on all these listed investments. Mr Bubb says: "They had some big punts on retail recovery stock that did not recover – Woolworths and French Connection to name a few."

Its record among privately held retailers is not great either. In 2004, Baugur bought the 177-store discount fashion chain Mk One for £55m, which included debt of £11m. Baugur vowed to turn the company into a powerhouse, but it was flattened by Primark. In May 2008, Mk One fell into administration.

Similarly, in 2005 Baugur paid £21.4m for Whittard of Chelsea, the coffee and tea specialist. It vowed to expand the chain and deliver economies of scale with its stable's health-snack retailer, Julian Graves. But it sold Julian Graves to rival Holland & Barrett in September 2008, and just before Christmas Whittard of Chelsea was bought out of pre-pack administration by a private-equity backed consortium.

Once again, Baugur lost most, if not all, of its investment in Whittard, which was one of the first of its chains to be hit by the Icelandic banking crisis.

With private companies, Baugur's strategy was not to acquire a retailer outright, but to become the dominant shareholder in a consortium that purchased a chain. The investment group always said its plan was to let a retailer's management team get on with the day-to-day running of the business. Bosses at the Baugur-backed companies tended to speak to Gunnar Sigurdsson, Baugur's chief executive, every week.

But any micro-problems with weak chains it suffered were mere tremors compared to the Icelandic banking earthquake that started to shake the country in the autumn. Mr Roberts said: "[Baugur's demise] is about the financial crisis and Icelandic banks – it has little to do with trading on the high street."

Problems first began to emerge in October 2008 with the nationalisation of Glitnir, whose biggest investor, Stodir, subsequently filed for administration. Stodir was controlled by Mr Johannesson. This was followed by the collapse of Landsbanki and Kaupthing, which were both lenders to Baugur and oiled the wheels of some of its deals.

From October, Baugur – through its PR machine – mounted a rearguard action, denying that it was in trouble. In October, Mr Sigurdsson said: "We have no plans to place our UK business into administration." Baugur and the management of its respective retail chains always asserted that the day-to-day operations of its UK retail companies were separate from the investor's shareholdings. However, credit insurers became frightened by the situation in Iceland and withdrew cover on most of Baugur's chains, which put pressure on its working capital and ability to purchase stock. The dynamics for Baugur of servicing its debt also worsened.

While the future of the Baugur-backed retail chains is unclear, the dream for its top brass and their opulent lifestyles appears to be coming to an end. It emerged at the weekend that Baugur is to close its head office in Reykjavik, while staff at its London office are also expected to leave in the spring.

The personal finances of Mr Johannesson are unclear, but he is unlikely to be attending retail charity dinners in the near future, where he previously used to splash the cash. Like many victims of the credit crunch, Baugur's fall from grace has been brutal and swift. Only last August, it joined Malcolm Walker, the chief executive of Iceland, the frozen food retailer, in making an offer to buy Woolworths' retail division for around £50m. At the time it claimed it had enough finances to do a deal. But it did not come off and two months later its Icelandic banking chickens started to come home to roost. Mr Bubb says: "They were Viking marauders who borrowed too much money and got it wrong."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Customer Relations Officer

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Jemma Gent: Project Coordinator

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Jemma Gent: In this role you will report to the Head of...

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable