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Ashley and The Entertainer toy with Hamleys takeover

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The Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley and The Entertainer, a privately owned toy chain, are among a pack of suitors scenting a Christmas bargain by lodging their interest in a takeover of Hamleys.

Sky News has learnt that the retailers have told advisers to C.banner International, the current owner of the world’s most famous toy shop, that they are considering bids for the business.

Smyths, the Irish toy chain, is also said to have expressed an initial interest in making an offer.

Formal bids for Hamleys are not due until after Christmas, reflecting the importance of the festive trading season to the company’s fortunes.

Sources said on Friday that Mr Ashley was unlikely to be a frontrunner to acquire Hamleys unless he could secure a deal at a knockdown price.

This week, he warned that November had been the worst on record for the high street, predicted a flurry of retail bankruptcies, and berated Debenhams – in which Sports Direct is the largest shareholder – for refusing to accept the offer of a £40m loan.

Hong Kong-listed C.banner, which paid about £100m for Hamleys three years ago, is said to want about £90m for the company, which reported a multimillion pound annual loss in October.

If a deal does take place, it would be Hamleys’ fourth change of ownership in 15 years following a succession of largely failed attempts by a range of international shareholders to expand the renowned brand globally.

One insider said that the strategic review had prompted expressions of interest in buying Hamleys from around the world.

A sale of Hamleys would follow a torrid year for Britain’s retail industry, with dozens of collapses and corporate restructurings involving names such as Carpetright, Maplin, Mothercare, New Look, Poundworld and Toys R Us.

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley
Image:
Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley

Hamleys’ business comprises 129 stores globally, of which roughly 100 are operated under franchise.

Founded ‎in 1760, Hamleys is one of the most famous retailing names in the world, having occupied its current site on London’s Regent Street since 1881.

It was launched as Noah’s Ark by William Hamley, who stocked his store with items such as tin soldiers, wooden horses and rag dolls.

In 2003, the company was taken off the London stock market by Baugur Group, the Icelandic‎ investor which snapped up a string of big high street names in the decade before the financial crisis.

Baugur paid £47.4m for Hamleys, which was then sold in 2012 for £60m to Groupe Ludendo, a French company, by the winding-up committee of the failed Icelandic bank Landsbanki.

C.banner’s takeover of the business in 2015 was timed to coincide with a state visit to the UK by the country’s president, Xi Jinping, and was described by both countries as a ‎sign of deepening economic ties.

Since then, Hamleys has opened a 115,000 sq ft store in Beijing in a ceremony overseen by Britain’s ambassador to China.

The retailer now has a presence in countries including Germany, India, Russia and Ukraine.

Its international growth has not translated into a stellar financial performance, however.

In October, Hamleys Global Holdings, its ultimate parent company, reported a pre-tax loss of £12m for 2017, citing “market pressures including currency effects”.

The accounts added that trading was on an improving trajectory, with 2.7% UK like-for-like sales growth in the first eight months of 2018.

They also said that Hamleys was “on track to return to net profitability in the next 12 months”.

Vermilion Partners, a corporate finance firm with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and London, is overseeing discussions with potential bidders.

Hamleys and The Entertainer declined to comment, while Sports Direct did not respond to a request for comment.

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