LONDON — Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group has hiked its stake in Mulberry to 37 percent, and now has until Dec. 17 to make a full-blown offer for the British brand, or walk away.
On Thursday, Frasers confirmed that it was mulling a cash offer for Mulberry, which was founded by Roger Saul in Somerset, England, in 1971, and which is majority owned by the Singaporean billionaire Christina Ong, who holds a 56 percent stake.
Frasers said in a statement to the London Stock Exchange that it acquired the stake from the now defunct Kaupthing bank for 1.50 pounds a share. Frasers Group, formerly known as Sports Direct International, began amassing its stake in Mulberry earlier this year.
Earlier this month, it increased the stake to 29.65 percent, from the 12.54 percent it had acquired in February.
The company said it is “reserving its right” to make a voluntary offer for Mulberry and noted that the Dec. 17 deadline can be extended with the consent of the Takeover Panel. The company said that any voluntary offer to Mulberry shareholders would be made in cash, although there is no certainty that a voluntary offer will be made.
Under normal circumstances, Frasers would have to have launched a mandatory cash offer for the brand after hitting the 30 percent threshold of ownership, but the company has been given a dispensation due to the fact that Mulberry has a single, controlling shareholder in Ong’s company, Challice Ltd.
Ong is also the owner of the Club 21 luxury retail company and of Como Hotels and Resorts, and she owns properties on London’s Bond Street.
The remainder of the Mulberry shares are quoted on the London Stock Exchange, and were trading at 1.99 pounds at 3 p.m. London time, up 5 percent on the news.
A spokeswoman for Mulberry declined to comment on Frasers’ latest move. Industry sources said the shares are undervalued, so it’s doubtful that Ong would sell her stake now. Ong, who was already a sizable shareholder in Mulberry, took control of the company in 2003 following a spat with Saul that saw him ousted as chairman and chief executive officer of the brand.
In addition to Frasers, Ashley owns the British retailers Sports Direct, Lilywhites, the House of Fraser department store chain, and fashion retailer Flannels and Jack Wills. Ashley specializes in buying stakes in distressed companies, or companies such as Mulberry, which sell through his retail chains. Ashley also part-owns the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.
Earlier this month, Michael Murray, Frasers Group head of elevation, said the company was “proud to show our commitment to this growing relationship between Mulberry and the Frasers Group by increasing our investment in this iconic British brand. We have been working with Mulberry for a number of years in House of Fraser, and are looking forward to launching Mulberry into Flannels.”
As reported, Mulberry has recently emerged from a period of major restructuring, having laid off about 25 percent of its staff and making the decision not to renew its ready-to-wear and footwear licenses with Onward Luxury Group.
Mulberry has also waved goodbye to its creative director Johnny Coca, who left the company, as planned, in March. Coca has since joined Louis Vuitton.
“We’ve had a full reorganization of the business, and we’re on a good track. We’re confident about the future,” said ceo Thierry Andretta in a telephone interview last month.
Andretta also said Mulberry, which saw sales and profits tumble in fiscal 2020 due to already shaky U.K. sales and the onset of COVID-19, has begun to see a small ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
Trading since the start of the current financial period, which started at the end of of March, was ahead of expectations, with group revenue down 29 percent year-over-year between March 29 and Sept. 26.
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