Thousands of pensioners left facing an uncertain retirement by the collapse of Sir Philip Green’s high street empire are on the verge of a funding deal backed by one of Britain’s biggest insurers.
Sky News has learnt that the trustees of the Arcadia Group pension scheme are close to striking a binding deal with Aviva to guarantee its members’ incomes.
City sources said a formal agreement was likely within weeks, with Aviva understood to have seen off competition from rival insurance companies, including Pension Insurance Corporation (PIC).
If concluded, it would bring to an end negotiations about one of the UK’s most contentious corporate pension schemes.
The fate of Arcadia’s pensioners, comprising employees of prominent chains including Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Topshop, has been in the balance since Sir Philip was forced to put the group into administration in the autumn of 2020.
The retailer had been in financial trouble for some time, hurt by consumers’ switch to online shopping and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sir Philip was in negotiations with The Pensions Regulator for months before Arcadia’s collapse, and agreed to inject a substantial sum into the scheme.
His fraught discussions with the watchdog were precipitated by the political row which engulfed the tycoon in the aftermath of the collapse of BHS, the department store chain, in 2016.
A memorable select committee hearing with MPs that year saw the then billionaire castigated for his decision to offload BHS to Dominic Chappell, a now-imprisoned bankrupt, for just £1.
Along with wife Lady Tina, Sir Philip eventually committed more than £350m to boost payouts to BHS’s pension scheme members, but not without an ugly critique of his conduct by parliamentarians.
The precise structure of the deal between the Arcadia trustees and Aviva was unclear on Tuesday, but one insider said it was expected to involve members receiving full benefits – albeit potentially with more limited future increases than current inflation levels would justify.
Arcadia members are certain to receive superior payouts to those they would have got through the Pension Protection Fund lifeboat, which effectively guarantees benefits worth 90% of pension pots to unretired members.
The last public figure for Arcadia’s pension liabilities was in the order of £1bn, although the current figure was unclear.
Many retirement schemes have seen deficits shrink in recent months as interest rates have risen.
Aviva and a spokesperson for Arcadia’s pension trustees both declined to comment.
JD Sports cyber attack may have exposed millions of names, numbers and addresses
JD Sports is contacting customers who have been affected by a cyber attack that may have exposed their personal details.
The incident impacted 10 million people who placed orders between November 2018 and October 2020.
Customer names, delivery, billing, email addresses, phone numbers, and the last four digits of bank cards were potentially exposed.
It includes people who shopped at JD as well as the group’s Size, Millets, Blacks, Scotts, and MilletSport brands.
The sportswear company does not believe account passwords were accessed, and has assured people affected that their full payment card details were not held.
However, they are being warned to watch out for scam emails, calls, and texts.
In an email to customers, JD Sports said: “We take the protection of customer data extremely seriously and we are sorry this has happened.”
JD ‘working with cyber experts’
The company has said it is engaging with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office about the attack.
“We have taken the necessary immediate steps to investigate and respond to the incident, including working with leading cyber security experts,” the firm added.
Neil Greenhalgh, chief financial officer of JD, said: “We are continuing with a full review of our cyber security in partnership with external specialists following this incident.
“Protecting the data of our customers is an absolute priority for JD.”
What should customers be aware of?
Scam emails, calls, and texts will come from fraudsters purporting to represent JD Sports or its other brands.
Matt Hull, global head of threat intelligence at cyber security company NCC Group, told Sky News such communications are “generally not well put together”.
He advised that people should watch out for “things being misspelled, poor grammar, and odd formatting” as telltale signs that emails and texts might not be genuine.
“Quite often they will try to induce the individual to follow a link, go to a website, download a document, or provide more information that they would not expect,” he added.
UK’s most popular passwords revealed
For JD, the priority will be working out how the attackers got in and ensure they are not still in its network.
Companies worried about cyber attacks must make sure they have strong password policies in place, allow their customers to use multifactor authentication, and ensure their security systems are up-to-date.
Information of this type is also liable to ending up on criminal forums and marketplaces, Mr Hull warned.
“This type of data is really valuable,” he said.
“It can be sold, it can be reused for further criminal activity.”
The attack at JD comes just a few weeks after Royal Mail was targeted by a ransomware gang linked to Russia.
It left more than half a million parcels and letters stuck in limbo.
Last year, the National Cyber Security Centre warned cyber attacks were a “major challenge to businesses and public services in the UK”.
Paperchase on brink of collapse as hopes of solvent rescue fade
Paperchase, the high street stationery retailer, is close to collapsing into administration as hopes of a solvent rescue deal fade.
Sky News understands the chain’s parent company could appoint insolvency practitioners from Begbies Traynor as soon as Tuesday.
Paperchase’s shareholders remain in discussions with more than one potential buyer, although insiders said that a sale of the business was now focused on a pre-pack deal, which involves a company’s assets being sold immediately after it has fallen into administration.
It is unclear how many jobs or stores would be put at risk by an insolvency.
The latest development follows weeks of talks with prospective buyers, after PricewaterhouseCoopers was appointed to find new backers.
Sky News recently revealed that Paperchase had been put up for sale just four months after its most recent change of ownership.
The chain was taken over in August by Steve Curtis, an experienced retail investor who has been involved with Tie Rack and Jigsaw.
Retail Realisation, an industry advisory firm with which Mr Curtis and turnaround firm Rcapital are affiliated, was also involved in last summer’s deal.
Paperchase had previously been one of many retail casualties of COVID-19, having undergone a pre-pack administration in January 2021.
Other notable high street chains to collapse during the pandemic included Debenhams and the Dorothy Perkins-to-TopShop empire, Arcadia Group.
It trades from about 100 stores, and Mr Curtis was said at the time of the most recent takeover to be backing an existing management plan to grow that number to approximately 150 in the coming years.
Permira Credit, the previous owner, had invested in Paperchase’s digital offering as well as new shop openings and executive recruitment since its last brush with insolvency.
At that time, Paperchase employed nearly 1,300 people, and traded from more than 125 sites across the UK.
Its outlets included concessions at House of Fraser, Selfridges and a number of Next stores.
It was unclear on Monday how many stores and jobs might be put at risk by another administration process.
A Paperchase spokesman declined to comment.
Matchesfashion owner pumps in £60m to keep online retailer in shape
The private equity backer of Matchesfashion, the online upmarket fashion retailer, is pumping tens of millions of pounds of new funding into the business as it seeks a revival under its new management team.
Sky News has learnt that Apax Partners, the London-based buyout firm, has agreed to inject £60m into Matchesfashion, which sells brands including Gucci, Prada and Valentino.
The new capital will be split between £40m in equity and £20m in debt, with the latter element expected to be finalised in the short term.
In tandem with the extra funds, Matchesfashion is said to have secured covenant waivers and extensions with all of its lenders.
The additional financing underlines both the challenges that Apax has faced since acquiring Matchesfashion in 2017 and its confidence in new chief executive Nick Beighton’s turnaround plan.
Mr Beighton, the former ASOS boss, was appointed last summer, the latest in a string of CEOs to be hired by Apax during more than five years of ownership.
In a statement on Monday responding to an enquiry from Sky News, a spokeswoman for the company said: “Matchesfashion offers luxury brands an exclusive audience and our customers love the service we provide.
“Our trading performance has been very strong in recent months and we are well-positioned as a business, having significantly strengthened our top team.
“Now, with additional financial support from Apax Funds, we are well-placed to continue to drive our turnaround plan and deliver long-term commercial success.”
The business is already said to have seen positive results under Mr Beighton, with one source saying that order demand was up 15% year-on-year during the key pre-Christmas trading period.
This period also included Matchesfashion’s biggest-ever trading day, which was up 35% on the prior year, the source added.
Its performance is understood to have been especially robust in the Middle East.
Apax bought a controlling stake in Matchesfashion in a deal valued at about $1bn, but the investment has been beset by operational problems.
Mr Beighton was drafted in to replace Paolo De Cesare, who joined the company as chief executive just ten months earlier.
The former ASOS chief’s arrival made him the fourth boss of Matches in less than three years.
In November 2021, its accounts flagged “material uncertainty” over its future without an improvement in its trading performance.
Its fortunes resembled those of many online fashion retailers, which saw a COVID-inspired sales bounce evaporate.
Last week, Sky News revealed that ASOS had appointed Scott Millar, a senior financial restructuring executive, to join its finance team.
Mr Beighton spent more than a decade at ASOS, initially as chief financial officer before becoming CEO in 2015.
He helped grow the company from £178m in revenue and 150 people when he joined, to sales of £3.9bn and a workforce of 15,000, including warehouse staff, when he left.
Matches was founded at a single store in London in 1987, and now boasts 50 million visitors annually to its site.
Its closest rivals include Farfetch and Net-a-Porter.
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