March 14, 2019 / 11:58 AM / 12 days ago

UK's Debenhams pays lip service to Mike Ashley loan offer

LONDON (Reuters) - Debenhams will consider a 150 million pound ($199 million) loan offer from dissident shareholder Sports Direct, it said on Thursday while indicating that Mike Ashley’s latest push for control of the struggling British department store group is unlikely to fly.

FILE PHOTO: A new Debenhams department store in a shopping centre in Watford, Britain, September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Ashley’s Sports Direct, Debenhams’ biggest shareholder with close to a 30 percent stake, made its unsecured loan offer late on Wednesday with conditions that include the appointment of Ashley as chief executive.

Debenhams, which has issued a string of profit warnings and lost 87 percent of its market value over the past year, said the offer would require both the consent of existing lenders and bondholders as well as “material amendments” to existing facilities.

“Nevertheless, the board will give careful consideration to the proposal and will engage with Sports Direct and other stakeholders regarding its feasibility in the interests of all parties,” it said.

The loan would be interest-free if Debenhams agreed to give Sports Direct another 5 percent of its equity without the normal obligation to make a full takeover bid. Without the equity, the loan would bear interest at 3 percent.

Debenhams rejected a 40 million pound loan offer from Ashley in December.

His latest offer came as Debenhams works on a major restructuring that analysts expect to include a share issue and acceleration of its store closure plans. On Monday it said it was in advanced talks with lenders for additional loans of 150 million pounds.

Shares in Debenhams were up 2.4 percent at 3.27 pence at 1129 GMT, valuing the business at 38.5 million pounds. Its net debt at Jan. 5 was 286 million pounds.

COUP ATTEMPT

Analysts played down the chances of Ashley’s latest maneuver being successful.

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said of Debenhams’ response: “Tactically, that might well be the right way to respond, but Debenhams would have to be desperate to take the plan seriously.”

Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous and unorthodox businessmen and owner of the Newcastle United soccer club, last week launched a coup to take charge of Debenhams, seeking a shareholder meeting to remove most of its board and install himself in an executive role. He said he would step back from the top job at Sports Direct to do so.

On Wednesday Sports Direct also stepped up its criticism of Debenhams’ management, publishing a letter it sent to the company on March 4, the day before the department stores group’s latest profit warning, accusing it of making misleading public statements.

Sports Direct said that Debenhams’ Jan. 10 statement to the stock exchange was “at best impossibly optimistic or at worst deliberately misleading”.

Debenhams said it rejected Sports Direct’s complaints, describing them as unfounded and self-serving.

Sports Direct’s shares, 61 percent of which are owned by Ashley, were up 2.5 percent in morning trade.

Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Mark Potter and David Goodman

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