If the high street is beginning to look like a horror movie, then Hilco could be cast as the vampire. The restructuring specialist has made millions by sucking up the assets of dying brands including Woolworths, Habitat and Borders.
Founder Paul McGowan, his partner Andrew Pepper and Hilco's US parent company shared a £97m dividend in 2011, on top of £22m the year before.
The business has thrived during the downturn, clearing stock from stores set for closure, winning advisory fees on the management of ailing chains, trading in the debt of distressed companies and restructuring them for sale.
Now HMV is firmly in Hilco's grip. Hilco bought HMV's £176m of debt last week for a reported £40m, giving it control over the retailer's future. Around half of HMV's 223 stores are expected to close while Hilco has the backing of major film and music companies to run a downsized chain. A buy-out deal is expected once property experts size up which stores could be sold off at a profit and which will remain part of HMV.
Hilco is also said to be interested in buying the Jessops brand and website after all the collapsed camera retailer's stores were closed.
Maureen Hinton at the retail market analyst Verdict said: "Hilco seems very good at getting the best out of struggling businesses because it's got good retail experience."
Administrators claimed it has a broad range of experts backed up by a strong capital base that allows them to buy up debt or stock or invest in extras, such as new IT systems, which can produce the best results.
McGowan, who set up Hilco's UK division in 2000 with the former Harrods boss Paul Taylor, has some operational credentials, having run the UK arm of womenswear retailer Leslie Fay in the early 1990s. He learned how to handle a retail closure the hard way when the US parent pulled out of the UK in 1996.
His right hand man Pepper was previously at Kroll, which handled the wind-down of MVC, the music and video retailer. That gave him an invaluable insight into the entertainment market and contacts with suppliers which continue to pay dividends.
The pair's strong track record in finding cash for debt holders has made Hilco first choice for retail administrators and enabled the British division to spread into Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Spain. Last year it was brought in to clear stock and close stores at Clinton Cards, JJB Sports and the Allders department store in Croydon. It also advised on the administration of the fashion chain Peacocks and the closure of Micro Anvika's electronics stores.
An investor who has worked closely with Hilco said a core skill was accurately valuing stock, partly because one of its bread-and-butter services is assessing stock for insurance purposes. It also buys up unwanted stock to sell on elsewhere. "It gives them a good feel for the market," he said.
But it's not all about wind-downs. Hilco's experience in operating retail businesses puts it ahead of rivals such as Gordon Brother and GA Europe. It has re-jigged and sold on businesses including Habitat, whose UK website and main stores were sold to Home Retail Group, the owner of Homebase for £24m, while stores in France, Germany and Spain were sold to the French furniture conglomerate Cafom for £9m.
Valco Capital Partners, Hilco's investment arm, has also been busy. It bought the pottery manufacturer Denby for £30m in 2009 and continues to run it, adding earthenware firm Burleigh in 2010 and Somerset-based Poole Pottery in 2011. Denby returned to profitability in 2011 as turnover rose 9% to £40.3m, according to accounts filed at Companies House.
More relevant to the 4,000 staff at HMV wondering about their futures is HMV Canada. Valco bought the 120-store chain in 2011 for £2m, renegotiated rents at unprofitable outlets and closed several stores. It is now profitable before interest, tax and depreciation charges, and looking to expand again.
The chain recorded an increase in sales of 1.4% over Christmas to C$65.4m (£41.4m) after it abandoned low-margin computer games and iPod docks in favour of more profitable T-shirts and coffee mugs branded with band names. One executive who has worked closely with ailing businesses said: "People think Hilco does a hatchet job, but they have traded HMV Canada and traded it well. They have won a lot of credibility because of that."
In Canada, HMV has benefited from a slower move to digital music and a different competitive environment. Its relative success suggests hope for the UK chain, but it's not clear how long a life the business may have. Major suppliers including music labels Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony have shown they are keen to support a high street store and a rival to the supermarkets and online giant Amazon. Nevertheless downloads are superceding CDs and DVDs at a rapid rate, and even physical products are easily posted to shoppers' homes. Hinton said: "Hilco is not really into reviving businesses but getting the best value out of them while they can. HMV and Jessops are clearly not going to last forever but Hilco are good at managing decline and exits."
She sees Hilco less as a vampire and more as a hospice nurse tending patients through their last days. Those last days may not always be comfortable for store staff. One banker points out Hilco will look at the assets of a retailer and often come up with a fresh angle.
At Allied Carpets, Hilco took on around 50 stores in 2009, closed about half and sold the rest on to a management buyout. The chain later fell into administration. Valco pulled out the lucrative insurance business by backing a separate management buyout. That business cut its losses from £653,080 in 2010 to £88,439 in 2011 while turnover remained steady at £16.4m.
Other retailers have passed through Hilco's hands only to limp into administration later on. Clothes chain Ethel Austin, home furnishings stores Texstyle World and menswear group Ciro Citterio all subsequently hit trouble, although their problems occurred some time after Hilco's involvement.
Valco also bought the Borders, the books and entertainment chain in 2009, only to close all its branches and put it into administration four months later. Valco reportedly took home £8m as it owned the secured debt, but publishers were left out of pocket.
Allders was also controversial. Hilco was part of a consortium that bought the retailer's debt at 26p in the pound. Following its first fall into administration in 2005, the consortium reportedly got back 90p in the pound. A very savvy deal, but it attracted controversy given the business's £15m pension fund deficit at the time of its collapse.
As HMV and Jessops staff wait to hear their fate, the shopworkers' union Usdaw says it hopes Hilco has "a business plan to secure the future of the brand and as many stores and jobs as possible".
It's still not clear if Hilco is planning to send in nurses or vampires.
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