Hobbs brothers settle feud in own fashion

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The reclusive family who run one of Britain's most fashionable women's clothing chains are now at war.

Yoram and Ronnie Anselm, the brains behind the upmarket Hobbs shops, were once so close that colleagues and rivals dubbed them "The Siamese Twins". But, behind the scenes, they have been enmeshed in a multi-million legal fight over claims of misusing the company funds.

The case involving the reclusive family - so secretive that no pictures of the brothers are known to exist - has centred on allegations that Ronnie Anselm misappropriated some £4m from the company.

And last week, in Court 52 at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, the bitter feud finally went before a judge.

One one side was Yoram Anselm, the founder of Hobbs; on the other was Ronnie, the man said to be the financial wizard of the firm. The two brothers who were once said never to go anywhere without each other hardly gave the other a glance.

It was all a very long way from the heady days of the fast-track expansion of the Hobbs empire. The company was founded in 1981. It was built on the classic designs of Yoram's wife, Marilyn Anselm, coupled with the business nous of the Israeli-born brothers, and it went from strength to strength.

For well-heeled women Hobbs became the by-word in understated, elegant fashion, and by the early 1990s it had replaced Laura Ashley as the shop of choice for a whole generation of affluent shoppers. By last year the firm had 37 stores up and down the country, and a turnover of £35m.

Despite their wealth the brothers kept a low-profile, rarely appearing in public. Throughout the trade they were known as a close-knit family who valued their privacy. But for five years a feud has been simmering between the pair and late last week it was finally made public in the courts.

Last Wednesday, the two sides lined up, flanked by barristers, solicitors and hundreds and hundreds of files. Ronnie and Yoram sat on opposite sides of the courtroom, staring straight ahead and unwilling to risk even the exchange of a sidewards glance.

Ronnie stood accused of "systematically manipulating" Hobbs' financial affairs over a period of about 10 years up until 1994 when the Anselms claimed they began to spot discrepancies. In one writ seen by the Independent on Sunday, Ronnie was accused of stashing the money in a personal account in Jersey - a charge he vehemently denies.

Neither brother will speak publicly. On the eve of the trial Yoram and his wife issued a curt, printed statement claiming that Ronnie had "betrayed" them.

Ronnie and Yoram, both born in Israel, came to the UK in the late 1960s. Ronnie, two years younger than his brother, studied law at London University and qualified as a solicitor in 1971.

He provided the legal and financial advice for Hobbs from its origins in 1981 when it opened its first store in South Molton Street, in London's West End. Marilyn, horse-mad and the essence of an English lady, chose the name Hobbs because it was also the name of her favourite manufacturer of horse boxes.

Ronnie became a partner at a small legal practice, Saunders Bearman Anselm, but his closeness to Hobbs was clear. He even set up his legal office in Hobbs' headquarters in Gloucester Avenue - one of the properties on which he was accused of altering the lease in order, according to the writ, to line his own pocket with £188,000.

In 1984, Yoram and Marilyn moved out of London, setting up home in affluent Berkshire with their two daughters, Aimie and Kate, both of whom work for Hobbs. At this point, according to a writ lodged in 1998, Ronnie, who remained in London, was given increasing power so that he "substantially controlled all the business and financial affairs and administration".

For 10 years, Ronnie enjoyed financial control, culminating in his demand for a share in Hobbs for his son Marcus. In June 1994, over lunch at a London restaurant, Yoram agreed to Ronnie's demands and a deed was drawn up giving Ronnie what he wanted.

But according to one writ, the deed was stacked to Ronnie's advantage. It marked the beginning of the end of their relationship. Very quickly their brotherly love turned to fraternal hatred, leading to accusations and counter-accusations which dragged on for five years amid escalating legal bills.

At 6.10pm on Thursday night, they finally achieved a settlement. Its details remain confidential but Yoram's barrister made clear on Friday that "all allegations made in the course of the trial by both sides have been withdrawn".

"Ronnie has been very badly treated," said Philip Saunders, a close friend and colleague. "He and Yoram were like Siamese twins. They went everywhere together. When this all happened nobody was more shocked than I. I really thought they were joined at the hip."

On Friday Ronnie sloped out of court to his home in the remarkably named street Crooked Usage, in north London. His brother and sister-in-law had stayed at their luxurious country home. The brothers may have settled the case, but the rift may never heal.