January 11, 2019 / 2:45 PM / 3 months ago

New Debenhams chairman seeks investor consensus as shares slide again

LONDON (Reuters) - Shares in Debenhams DEB.L, the British department store chain that is fighting for survival, plunged as much as 22 percent on Friday as its new interim chairman began the task of trying to find a consensus among investors on the way forward.

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk past a window display at the Debenhams department store on Oxford Street in London, Britain December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo

On Thursday, two major Debenhams shareholders - Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct (SPD.L) and Middle Eastern investor Landmark Group - forced Chief Executive Sergio Bucher off the board and Chairman Ian Cheshire out of the company following a drop in Christmas sales.

Terry Duddy, Debenhams’ senior independent director, was appointed interim chairman, and said he would meet with shareholders to understand their concerns.

Duddy, a former CEO of Home Retail Group, wasted no time, meeting Ashley informally in London on Thursday evening, a spokesman for Debenhams said.

Sports Direct is Debenhams’ biggest investor with a 29.7 percent stake but its plan for the department store chain is unclear. It did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

In September, Sports Direct ruled out a takeover bid, shortly after an outgoing director said the board had discussed combining Debenhams with the House of Fraser chain that Sports Direct bought out of administration in August for 90 million pounds ($115 million).

Debenhams has a program to close 50 of its underperforming UK stores over three to five years.

However, Ashley wants Debenhams to move faster. He told Sky News last month he believed Debenhams should carry out a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) restructuring to close stores. CVAs require the approval of landlords and creditors.

Also in December, Debenhams declined the offer of a 40 million pound interest-free loan from Ashley, saying conditions attached to it could affect the interests of other stakeholders.

Debenhams has net debt of 286 million pounds and debt facilities of 520 million pounds. Its equity market value as of Thursday’s close was just 59.3 million pounds.

A key focus for Duddy will be refinancing Debenhams’ existing banking facilities. The firm needs to pass a banking covenant test next month.

“We believe all options are being considered - maybe different types of lenders and/or an equity rights issue,” said analysts at Jefferies.

The highly unusual situation of Bucher remaining as CEO but not being on the company board will also be problematic for Debenhams.

“It is not tenable for the CEO not to be on the board. The danger now is that Mike (Ashley) is allowed, in all the confusion, to buy the company on the cheap,” said independent retail analyst Nick Bubb.

Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Mark Potter

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