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UK retailer BHS close to collapse with 11,000 jobs at risk

High street retailer British Home Stores (BHS) is filing for administration Monday April 25, 2016, threatening almost 11,000 jobs.
Julian Herbert | Getty Images
High street retailer British Home Stores (BHS) is filing for administration Monday April 25, 2016, threatening almost 11,000 jobs.

British department stores group BHS was placed into administration on Monday, putting the 88-year-old retailer in danger of disappearing from the high street and placing 11,000 jobs at risk.

Once a mainstay of the British high street, BHS has been in decline for years, unable to keep up with demand for fast fashion, online sales and improved customer services.

BHS employs about 8,000 people, while a further 3,000 contractors work with the company's 164 stores. Going into administration, a form of creditor protection, means it is Britain's most high-profile retail casualty since Phones4U in 2014 and Woolworths in 2008.

It could also increase scrutiny of BHS's former owner Philip Green, the billionaire retail boss who sold the firm for one pound last year to a collection of little known investors called Retail Acquisitions. He bought it for 200 million pounds in 2000.

With a pension deficit of 571 million pounds ($828 million), the pensions regulator is investigating whether BHS's previous owners sought to avoid their obligations.

"The group will continue to trade as usual whilst the administrators seek to sell it as a going concern," said Philip Duffy and Benjamin Wiles, managing directors of restructuring firm Duff & Phelps who have been appointed joint administrators.

Analysts see little prospect of a buyer emerging for the whole of BHS, given the difficulty Green had in finding suitors.

They say the most likely scenario is that BHS's assets will be sold off piecemeal and a source close to the administration process said more than 30 expressions of interest for various parts of the business had already been received.

Ultimately, analysts think it likely that the BHS name, like Woolworths before it, will depart from Britain's shopping districts.

"Serious questions"

BHS had in March won the support of its creditors for a rescue plan that gave it big cuts to its rent bill.

However, saddled with over 1 billion pounds of debt, including the pension deficit, BHS failed to raise the additional funds it required, particularly from planned asset sales, to meet all its contractual payments, prompting the administration process.

The regulator has said it now wants to investigate how the pension scheme was run. BHS had been engaged in a 23-year recovery plan to pay down the deficit, a plan that has been criticised by pension consultants for being too long.

"Let us see what conclusions the regulator comes to ... If there's any suggestions of impropriety we will come after people," Business Minister Anna Soubry told parliament.

Angela Eagle, business spokeswoman for the opposition Labor party, said Green had "serious questions to answer".

"BHS staff and the public will understandably want to know whether the former owner ... will have to pay his fair share of the liabilities which accrued during his stewardship."

Green could not be immediately reached for comment.

Independent pensions consultant John Ralfe said BHS represents a crucial test case for the Pension Regulator.

"The regulator will want to lay down a marker and make it absolutely clear that you can't sell a subsidiary with a pension deficit for a pound and for that not to have any consequences," he said.

The scheme is now in the hands of the industry levy funded Pension Protection Fund (PPF). With a surplus of 3.6 billion pounds the PPF can afford to take on the BHS scheme but such a move can lead to members losing a proportion of their income.

The pension scheme of Woolworths, the variety store retailer, also had recourse to the fund in 2012.

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