Wesfarmers' two-year UK foray ends with sale of troubled home improvement chain

Key Points
  • Wesfarmers sells Homebase to Hilco for nominal sum of £1.
  • Bought firm in 2016 for A$700 mln, launched $700 million rebranding.
  • Wrote off the entire company in 2018.
  • Company splitting from Coles supermarkets to fund acquisitions.
A customer leaves a Homebase store, part of Home Retail Group Plc, in Sevenoaks, U.K., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. U.K. grocer J Sainsbury Plc plans to buy Walmart Inc.s Asda in a 7.3 billion-pound ($10 billion) deal that would transform the countrys supermarket industry and leave the U.S. retailer as the combined companys biggest shareholder. Our editors select the best archive images of the two supermarket chains.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Australian retail conglomerate Wesfarmers is selling U.K. home improvement chain Homebase for a nominal 1 pound ($1.34) just two years after buying it, ending an embarrassing offshore adventure that cost it $1 billion and sowing doubts about its future investments.

The owner of Australian No. 2 supermarket Coles, Kmart and Target said London-based turnaround specialist Hilco will buy its 255-store U.K. DIY chain. It did not disclose a price, but said the U.K. exit would bring an up to £230 million ($308 million) loss this year.

After paying A$700 million ($530 million) for Homebase in 2016 and then launching a $700 million rebranding, Wesfarmers took a $1 billion write off this year, admitting it bungled the takeover with basic errors like failing to stock its stores for the chilly U.K. winter.

Like several other Australian companies, Wesfarmers failed to replicate its domestic success in the UK by misjudging that market, and the failed deal raises questions about the company's new strategy of divesting Coles to pay for higher-growth investments.

"This and the exit from 80 percent of Coles is freeing up funding for the next big acquisition, but that really will have to be scrutinized very closely after this experience," said David Walker, an analyst at Clime Asset Management.

"I don't expect anyone will trust them over the next one unless it's such a simply obvious outstanding opportunity that it doesn't require scrutiny."

Wesfarmers shares were up nearly 1 percent in a flat overall market. The decision by a former Wesfarmers CEO to take the company's Australian home improvement business, Bunnings, offshore met broad investor support initially, given its long run of double-digit profit growth spurred by an explosion of home improvement television shows.

But the high brand recognition of Bunnings in Australia amounted to little in its new country, and soon Wesfarmers was reporting declining earnings contributions from renamed Homebase, before writing off the asset completely this year.

Wesfarmers made several "self-induced" blunders with Homebase, including dropping popular lines for kitchens and bathrooms and underestimating winter demand for a range of items from heaters to cleaning and storage, CEO Rob Scott said in February this year.

The UK market proved to be "very competitive (and) the macro and the retail conditions in the UK are quite challenging", Scott, who took the role a year after the Homebase purchase, said on a media call on Friday.

Asked how investors could trust Wesfarmers with future acquisitions, Scott said he hoped "the action that we've taken today demonstrates the capability of our team to act decisively and diligently to make the right capital allocation decisions."