Pension watchdogs are scrutinising the collapse of Ralph & Russo, the upmarket British-based fashion brand which is now at the centre of a legal fight.
Sky News understands that The Pensions Regulator is examining the treatment of the company’s retirement scheme in the period before administrators were called in in March.
The status of the regulator’s work was unclear on Friday, although sources said its work had got under way recently.
Ralph & Russo, which was sold last week by its joint administrators to Retail Ecommerce Ventures (REV), a US-based investment vehicle, is best-known for having designed the Duchess of Sussex’s £56,000 engagement dress.
It collapsed after running out of cash, with the business failing to make a number of salary payments and staff pension contributions in the months prior to its insolvency.
The Pensions Regulator, which has a wide range of enforcement powers, said in a statement that it did not comment on “individual schemes or employers”.
“Where a company has become insolvent we will work with relevant third parties, such as insolvency practitioners, the Insolvency & Redundancy Payment Services and the pension scheme provider in our role to protect savers,” it added.
“We have no further comment.”
Administrators from Begbies Traynor and Quantuma have launched a High Court action against Tamara Ralph, the brand’s co-founder, alleging that she and business partner Michael Russo extracted substantial sums of money from the company.
In the particulars of claim, a legal document which sets out the basis of their case, the joint administrators alleged that from October 2020 until March this year, the company “failed to make any pension contributions to Aviva, the company’s pension trustee… notwithstanding the fact that employee contributions were deducted automatically from the employees’ monthly salary via the company’s payroll and PAYE mechanisms”.
The documents assert that “approximately £176,000 was appropriated and/or diverted from the company pension scheme”.
In a statement on Friday, a spokesman for Ms Ralph said that she “has not been involved in any wrongdoing”.
The spokesman added that “along with the company’s directors and c-suite [top executive] staff were advised to seek financial and legal advice prior to making any payments from Ralph & Russo”.
“Ms Ralph was off on maternity leave at the time but the directors followed the advice of their legal and financial advisors on all payments.
“One of the advisors dealing with the financial decisions was Andrew Andronikou of the firm Quantuma [who] subsequently became one of the joint administrators.
“The advice from Andrew and Quantuma was followed completely.”
Ms Ralph had previously denounced the claims against her in the court action as “misconceived and demonstrably false”.
A spokesman for the joint administrators said: “We have a statutory duty to investigate the affairs of the company, the conduct of the directors and any shadow directors and, in particular, in relation to the £60m invested into the company and spent by the founder directors at the expense of the pension regulator, HMRC, secured, preferential and unsecured creditors.
“We are continuing our enquiries in that regard.”
The rescue of R&R by REV – which was set up by Tai Lopez and Alex Mehr, two entrepreneurs – follows the injection of tens of millions of pounds in funding into Ralph & Russo from the likes of Candy Ventures, the vehicle of entrepreneur Nick Candy, and John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of the Phones 4U retail chain.
Tennor Holding, the owner of the La Perla lingerie brand and investment vehicle of financier Lars Windhorst, invested roughly £40m in return for a minority stake in Ralph & Russo in 2019 which valued it at approximately £175m.
The fashion house, which specializes in haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing and luxury goods, has notched a number of notable achievements during its brief history.
In 2014, it was the first British designer in nearly a century to be accredited by the French body which decides which fashion labels can officially be designated haute couture.
It sprang to global prominence in 2017 when Meghan Markle wore one of the designer’s dresses in her engagement photographs.
Ralph & Russo’s celebrity customers are also reported to include Beyonce, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Its average client spends £50,000 per transaction, and it has opened boutiques in Doha, Dubai and Monaco.
The company also operates from locations in London’s Mayfair and New York’s Fifth Avenue, befitting its internationally renowned designs.
Its journey into choppy legal and financial waters was partly triggered by the pandemic’s impact on its business, with a dearth of red carpet events – one of the mainstays of the haute couture industry – hitting demand for Ralph & Russo’s dresses.
Ratcliffe remains lead bidder despite inconclusive Manchester United board meeting
The Ineos billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe remains the leading candidate to buy Manchester United Football Club despite an inconclusive board meeting held late last week.
Sky News understands that directors of the Premier League club’s holding company met on Thursday to discuss the progress of its £5bn-plus auction.
Controlled by members of the Glazer family but also comprising a number of independent directors, the board was updated on the sale process by Raine, the merchant bank advising Manchester United.
A source close to the auction said the directors did not opt to enter into exclusive negotiations with either Ineos Sports or its principal rival, the Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al Thani.
Sir Jim is proposing to buy a majority stake in the Red Devils which would leave two of the Glazers involved, while Sheikh Jassim wants to buy the club outright.
The source said that Ineos remained the “leading” bidder despite a further, improved offer from the Nine Two Foundation – Sheikh Jassim’s bid vehicle – earlier this month.
Nevertheless, a further proposal remains possible, with a signed deal with either bidder said to be unlikely prior to United’s FA Cup Final against local rivals Manchester City next weekend.
Sir Jim’s takeover proposal includes ‘put and call’ arrangements that would allow him to buy the Glazers’ remaining shares after three years.
Ineos’s bid is said to value the whole of United at somewhere between £5bn and £5.5bn.
The Glazers have owned Manchester United since buying it for just under £800m in 2005 – an 18-year tenure marked by protests and a conspicuous dearth of trophies since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, its former manager.
The Red Devils did win their first trophy for six years by beating Newcastle United in this season’s Carabao Cup Final.
In addition to the two proposals which would trigger a change of control, the Glazers have also received at least four credible offers for minority stakes or financing investment in the club.
These include an offer from the giant American financial investor Carlyle, Elliott Management, the American hedge fund which until recently owned AC Milan, and Sixth Street, which recently bought a 25% stake in the long-term La Liga broadcasting rights to FC Barcelona.
These investors’ proposals would provide capital to allow United to revamp the ageing infrastructure of its Old Trafford home and Carrington training ground.
Sky News exclusively revealed last November the Glazer family’s plan to explore a strategic review of the club its members have controlled since 2005, kicking off a six-month battle to buy it.
At a valuation of £5bn or more – which is below the Glazers’ rumoured asking price – a sale of Manchester United would become the biggest sports club deal in history.
Part of the justification for such a valuation resides in potential future control of the club’s lucrative broadcast rights, according to bankers, alongside a belief that arguably the world’s most famous sports brand can be commercially exploited more effectively.
United’s New York-listed shares have gyrated wildly during the process amid mixed views about whether a sale of the club is likely.
On Friday, they closed down at $18.97, giving the club a market valuation of just under $3.1bn.
Fury at its participation in the ill-fated European Super League crystallised supporters’ desire for new owners to replace the Glazers, although any sale to state-affiliated Middle Eastern investors would – like Newcastle United’s Saudi-led takeover – not be without controversy.
Confirming the launch of the strategic review in November, Avram and Joel Glazer said: “The strength of Manchester United rests on the passion and loyalty of our global community of 1.1bn fans and followers.
“We will evaluate all options to ensure that we best serve our fans and that Manchester United maximizes the significant growth opportunities available to the club today and in the future.”
The Glazers listed a minority stake in the company in New York in 2012 but retained overwhelming control through a dual-class share structure which means they hold almost all voting rights.
A Manchester United spokesman declined to confirm that a board meeting had taken place.
Wealth manager St James’s Place kicks off hunt for new chief
The executive who presided over a bitter “cruises and cufflinks” row at one of Britain’s biggest wealth managers is preparing to step down.
Sky News has learnt that St James’s Place, the FTSE-100 group which oversees more than £150bn of client assets, has kicked off a search to replace Andrew Croft.
City sources said on Saturday that the company was working with Russell Reynolds Associates, the headhunter, on the search.
Mr Croft has worked for St James’s Place since 1993, and served as its finance chief between 2004 and 2017.
He took over as chief executive in 2018.
A source close to the company said there was “no rush” to find a new CEO, and hinted that a transition to a successor could take more than a year.
St James’s Place caters to affluent clients, with thousands of financial advisers known as partners at the firm managing £153bn in assets.
The company has faced questions about its recent performance, with Mr Croft describing recent quarterly net inflows as a “good” outcome but many analysts taking a different view.
It warned this year that it would miss a key expenses growth target.
In 2019, St James’s Place became embroiled in a row about partners’ pay and perks, with benefits including cruise holidays and jewellery awarded to high-performing partners.
The regime was scrapped following a review aimed at encouraging “the right behaviours” amid concerns that partners were effectively being incentivised to mis-sell to customers.
News of the prospective change in leadership at St James’s Place comes ahead of the introduction of a new consumer duty supervised by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Paul Manduca, the City grandee who chairs St James’s Place and previously led Prudential, will oversee the hunt for Mr Croft’s successor.
The company suffered a revolt this month at its annual meeting when more than 20% of shareholders voted against its remuneration report.
Mr Croft was paid a total package for last year of just over £3m, with some investors irritated that he received long-term awards linked to its depressed share price during the pandemic.
Partners at St James’s Place, which is based in Cirencester, are self-employed.
A St James’s Place spokesman said this weekend: “As part of long-term succession planning, the Board has regular dialogue with search firms to assess and monitor the market.
“This is in line with best practice corporate governance.”
Shares in St James’s Place closed on Friday up 7.5p at 1112.5p, giving the company a market value of £6.1bn.
The stock has slipped 11% during the last 12 months.
Chancellor comfortable with recession if it brings down inflation
Jeremy Hunt has told Sky News he is comfortable with Britain being plunged into recession if that’s what it takes to bring down inflation.
The chancellor said that he would fully support the Bank of England raising interest rates higher, potentially towards 5.5%, as it battled higher-than-expected prices.
Asked by Sky News whether he was “comfortable with the Bank of England doing whatever it takes to bring down inflation, even if that potentially would precipitate a recession”, he said: “Yes, because in the end, inflation is a source of instability.
“And if we want to have prosperity, to grow the economy, to reduce the risk of recession, we have to support the Bank of England in the difficult decisions that they take.
“I have to do something else, which is to make sure the decisions that I take as chancellor, very difficult decisions, to balance the books so that the markets, the world can see that Britain is a country that pays its way – all these things mean that monetary policy at the Bank of England (and) fiscal policy by the chancellor are aligned.”
The comments came after market expectations for the eventual peak of UK interest rates leapt dramatically, following higher-than-expected CPI inflation data this week.
While the anticipated peak for UK rates was a little above 4.75% last week, it lurched higher, to 5.5%, following Wednesday’s statistics. Save for the gyrations after the mini-budget last autumn, it was the biggest shift in interest rate expectations since 2008.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged in January that he would halve inflation this year, which in practice means bringing it down to just above 5% by the end of 2023. The Bank of England’s forecasts earlier this week suggested he would narrowly succeed.
Grocery inflation eases for second consecutive month
Government borrowing sharply higher than expected
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However, since the latest inflation data is significantly higher than the Bank’s forecast trajectory, the pledge may be missed.
But the prime minister also pledged to grow the economy. And while the International Monetary Fund said this week that the UK would avoid recession, economists believe it’s now plausible, given those higher interest rate expectations, that Britain instead sees gross domestic product contract for two quarters – the technical definition of a recession.
Mr Hunt added: “When the prime minister announced that it was his objective to halve inflation in January, there were some people who derided that, they said: ‘well it’s automatic, inflation is going to come down anyhow’.
“There’s nothing automatic about bringing down inflation, it is a big task, but we must deliver it and we will.
“It is not a trade-off between tackling inflation and recession. In the end, the only path to sustainable growth is to bring down inflation.”
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