(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Maverick retailer Mike Ashley likes a flutter at the casino. With his punt on a stake in upmarket handbag maker Mulberry Group Plc, the British billionaire can’t lose.
Ashley’s Frasers Group Plc, formerly Sports Direct, said late Monday that it had acquired a 12.5% interest in Mulberry, maker of the iconic Bayswater bag. Ashley, who owns 63% of Frasers, has long dabbled with investments in rivals. Some, such as a holding in JD Sports Fashion Plc, paid off handsomely. But a 30% stake in Debenhams Plc was wiped out when the U.K. department store chain was taken over by its lenders last year.
The interest in Mulberry has all the hallmarks of a winner. First, Ashley has likely picked it up on the cheap. Frasers did not disclose the cost. But at Monday’s close, the stake would be worth about 19 million pounds ($24.7 million).
Shares in Mulberry have never really recovered from a botched strategy around five years ago, when Bruno Guillon, a former Hermes manager who was chief executive officer at the time, tried to take the leather goods and apparel company upmarket, alienating many of its core customers. New CEO Thierry Andretta and designer Johnny Coca, who joined from Celine, have since returned the brand to its accessible luxury heartland. But the shares remain about 85% off of their 2012 peak.
Second, there’s clear strategic logic for Ashley to work more closely with Mulberry. The idea of transforming House of Fraser into the “Harrods of the high street” has been widely mocked because of the department store’s poor performance following its purchase in August 2018. But Ashley clearly wants to take the chain more upmarket. It’s likely to end up as a smaller, more high quality estate.
Mulberry is currently in 19 House of Fraser stores, where it trades well. It is also available at Flannels, Ashley’s boutique that sells the likes of Canada Goose and Balenciaga, which is still flying.
But there is another reason why Ashley’s interest in Mulberry might pay off. The quintessentially British brand has long been seen as a takeover target. Consolidation in luxury is intensifying, with LVMH’s $16.5 billion purchase of Tiffany & Co and speculation swirling around Moncler SpA and Prada SpA. While it can’t be ruled out that Ashley will lift his interest further, a big luxury group could also make a move for Mulberry.It is tightly held, so any predator would have to convince the Ong family, which owns 56%, to sell. That may not be easy given that the value of its stake has fallen over recent years. But it may be worth trying given that quality assets are rare, especially those without a big stake held by the families that founded the companies. Longer term, there’s also the possibility that Burberry Group Plc, if its turnaround works, could be interested as part of any future efforts to turn itself into a British luxury conglomerate.
In the event of any approach, Ashley not only stands to gain financially, but secures a seat at the table when it comes to this strategically important brand.
Conversely, there’s nothing to stop Ashley filling his luxury shopping bag elsewhere. For example Burberry, still in the midst of its turnaround right now, commands a large selling area in Flannels’ new flagship store on Oxford Street for its street wear and rejunvenated accessories.
Mulberry might not be this billionaire’s last bling bet.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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