US group to sue Hinchliffe

Facia suitor seeks damages as SFO sifts vanloads of seized papers
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The Independent Online
Texas American Group is planning to sue Sheffield businessman Stephen Hinchliffe for losses and damages for alleged misrepresentation over an abortive attempt to take over his Facia retail empire just before it collapsed two months ago.

TAG, which is quoted on New York's Nasdaq stock exchange, says it incurred $750,000 (pounds 484,000) costs in assessing the deal. It also claims it had binding contracts, based on warranted profit figures from Facia, which allegedly turned out to be complete fiction.

"We are taking legal advice regarding our position," TAG chief executive Bill Grosvenor confirmed this weekend, declining to comment in detail. It is understood, however, that action is also being considered against others, including Mr Hinchliffe's advisers during the deal.

The move comes after the Serious Fraud Office launched an investigation last Thursday into the collapse of Facia in June, which has left creditors nursing debts of pounds 60m so far.

SFO officers, led by assistant director Gordon Dickinson, together with South Yorkshire police, raided five premises in Sheffield and London, seizing vanloads of documents at Facia's mansion headquarters and the homes of Mr Hinchliffe and his long-time associate, Christopher Harrison.

Mr Hinchliffe, sources say, was in bed in his Eaton Row residence in London's plush Belgravia and watched in pyjamas and socks as police executed the search warrants.

At his Sheffield home, officers apparently even confiscated his wife's address book. No arrest warrants were issued and the SFO this weekend is sifting through the boxes of documents.

Mr Hinchliffe and Mr Harrison are already facing disqualification by the Department of Trade and Industry over the failure of tennis court maker En-Tout-Cas in 1993, one of a series of crashes that have dogged their careers. Both did not return calls last week.

The SFO inquiry is not the flamboyant Sheffield entrepreneur's first brush with the police. In 1991, he was arrested and later released without charge by West Midland police over an allegedly improper property deal.

Facia, which included Sock Shop and the Salisbury's luggage chain, collapsed owing pounds 30m to banks and suppliers on the basis of initial estimates. It also owes another pounds 29.9m to retail giant Sears, which sold Mr Hinchliffe Saxone, Freeman Hardy Willis and Curtess shoes shops in a dizzy bout of deal-making by the Yorkshire businessman over the last two years.

At the time of the collapse, with 850 shops, Facia was the country's second largest private retailer after Littlewoods.

On Tuesday, at London's Glaziers Hall, receiver KPMG will present hundreds of creditors with a fuller picture of their losses.

So far, they have managed to sell most of the shops, including the Red or Dead, Contessa and Oakland chains. The proceeds will repay Facia's secured lenders, including Israel's United Mizrahi Bank, Midland and the Bank of Scotland, which are owed around pounds 8m. However, other creditors are unlikely to be repaid anywhere near in full.

KPMG has also been investigating allegations of trading while insolvent, a criminal offence, and the suspected disappearance of millions of pounds of payments made to Facia by sellers in return for taking over the loss- making shops.

In addition, the receiver has been seeking to recover at least pounds 2.5m of loans on favourable terms to Mr Hinchliffe's private companies. The businessman is understood to have charged huge expenses to Facia as well as some pounds 2m of "finder's fees" for identifying acquisitions. In all, claims against Mr Hinchliffe may total pounds 20m, sources say.

Facia's directors have yet to provide a statutory statement of affairs, as required by law with 21 days of the collapse.

This weekend Buchler Phillips, the accountant advising Mr Hinchliffe, said it was hoping to present the statement on Tuesday. "We have to meet the deadline. We don't intend to be late," partner Lee Manning said.