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COVID-19: Lidl is latest to repay business rates relief – but M&S says it has no plans to give back £80m | Business News

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COVID-19: Lidl is latest to repay business rates relief - but M&S says it has no plans to give back £80m | Business News

The pot of business rates relief money that major retailers have offered to return to taxpayers has risen to almost £2bn.

The milestone was reached on Friday when discount grocery chain Lidl confirmed it was to hand back a benefit of over £100m from the one-year holiday – granted to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in March to help them through the coronavirus pandemic.

Seven other brands have now followed Tesco’s lead in giving up the cash as they were allowed to stay open throughout the crisis and have benefited from a surge in sales as a result.

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Tesco boss seeks rates shake-up after £585m repayment

Lidl UK said it had “brought forward” its plans to return more than £100m.

Its chief executive, Christian Hartnagel, said: “The business rates relief that was provided to us, and the rest of the supermarket sector, came with a lot of responsibility that we took extremely seriously.

“We’ve been considering this for some time and we are now in a position to confirm that we will be refunding this money as we believe it is the right thing to do.

“We feel confident that the business is well positioned to navigate and adapt to any further challenges brought by COVID-19.”

Tesco was first to reveal the gesture on Wednesday – saying it would return a total of £585m in business rates relief to the Treasury and devolved administrations.

It was later joined by Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, B&M and Pets at Home.

Pets at home store
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The pet specialist is handing back almost £30m after it was able to operate normally during the crisis

A clutch of business interest groups have demanded the proceeds are used to support jobs in the hospitality sector which remains in the grip of tight restrictions.

Sky News revealed on Thursday how the Co-op was coming under pressure to join its grocery competitors and pledge its £70m benefit to the total.

The chain has said it will make a decision early next year, citing high costs, while the owner of Waitrose, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), appears to have ruled it out saying proceeds have been invested in its operations.

Marks and Spencer said it had no plans to give back more than £80m it had received.

Like the JLP, its business is split between a grocery and department store-style offering – the latter of which has been hammered by restrictions governing the operation of non-essential retail.

This week has seen the collapse of three big names – Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, Debenhams and Bonmarche.

Each of the fashion-led businesses is continuing to trade, for now, in the crucial Christmas season for the sector as buyers are sought.

However, 26,500 jobs are hanging in the balance.

Commenting on the business rates repayments, a Treasury spokesperson told Sky News: “We’ve been clear throughout the pandemic that businesses should use our support appropriately, and we welcome any decision to repay support where it is no longer needed.

“As with other support schemes, any funds returned will support the ongoing efforts to protect people’s jobs and incomes.”

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Boohoo Group set to acquire collapsed Debenhams department store chain | Business News

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Boohoo Group set to acquire collapsed Debenhams department store chain | Business News

Online fashion retailer Boohoo Group is set to acquire troubled department store chain Debenhams.

The cut-price deal will result in the closure of Debenhams’ remaining stores, according to a report in the Financial Times which has been confirmed by Sky News.

The purchase price is expected to be about £50m, the newspaper said.

Both companies declined to comment.

It comes just days after Debenhams administrators FRP Advisory said they were still in talks with “a number of third parties regarding the sale of all or parts of the business”.

At the time, they announced that six stores would not reopen, including the flagship Oxford Street shop in central London.

The 242-year-old department store started a liquidation process last month after failing to secure a last-minute rescue sale.

Debenhams has been in administration since April last year but its problems pre-date the coronavirus crisis that has hurt so many high street retailers.

For much of its history, Debenhams was highly profitable and was an established anchor tenant on many UK high streets and shopping centres.

In the 1950s, Debenhams had 110 stores, making it the country’s largest department store group.

It listed on the London stock market for the third time in 2006, following a spell in private equity ownership that proved lucrative for CVC Capital Partners and TPG but which left its balance sheet saddled with what proved to be unsustainable debts.

And while customers increasingly moved their shopping online, Debenhams was opening new stores as recently as 2017 and its large physical presence came with high costs – rising rents, business rates and maintenance.

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Hollywood Bowl faces being skittled by investors in pay row | Business News

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Hollywood Bowl faces being skittled by investors in pay row | Business News

The boardroom pay chief at Hollywood Bowl is facing a shareholder backlash this week after the company decided to ignore the coronavirus crisis in its decision about incentive payouts to top executives.

Sky News has learnt that Hollywood Bowl has been trying to appease top investors in recent days in order to prevent an embarrassing revolt at its annual general meeting on Friday.

Institutions have been angered by the tenpin bowling operator’s move to assess executives’ performance under a long-term incentive scheme until February, rather than September, 2020.

Like other leisure groups, Hollywood Bowl was forced to close its 64 UK sites – which also trade under the AMF and Puttstars mini-golf brands – for much of last year because of the pandemic.

The company’s decision to move the goalposts in relation to its LTIP has, however, infuriated investors which supported the company by injecting nearly £11m in a share placing last year.

Hollywood Bowl also received taxpayer funding through the furlough scheme, while shareholders were hit by the suspension of its dividend.

The change to the share scheme performance period meant that targets were met in full, paying out 81% of the maximum on a pro rata basis.

If the plan was assessed across the originally planned period concluding in September, it would not have paid out at all.

Hollywood Bowl’s decision to “exercise discretion” by shortening the performance period risks inflaming tensions around boardroom pay, with companies such as the publisher Future and cinema operator Cineworld also in the line of fire.

The tenpin bowling group’s shares have slumped by nearly a third over the last year, leaving it with a market capitalisation of just over £320m.

Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), an influential proxy adviser, has recommended that shareholders vote against both Hollywood Bowl’s remuneration report and the re-election of non-executive director Claire Tiney, who chairs the pay committee.

“While shareholders will note that awards will be subject to a two year holding period and continuous employment, they may question whether such payments are appropriate, given the company’s circumstances, the government help received, furloughing 98.6% of staff (it will be noted that unlike the case in other companies, the directors did not reduce their salaries to reflect reductions for the furloughed staff, but deferred a portion of their salaries until October 2020) and suspending dividends,” ISS said.

“It may therefore be questioned how the payment of awards to directors is commensurate with experience of other stakeholders.”

In a statement, a Hollywood Bowl spokeswoman said its board had “received external advice to ensure that its remuneration policy strikes the right balance between the interests of shareholders and the ability to incentivise and retain senior management, which is undoubtedly in the best interests of all of our stakeholders”.

“The board’s new holding conditions on the LTIPs vesting further align management to shareholder interests while recognising that management comfortably exceeded the challenging EPS targets set in 2017 prior to the pandemic, and the significant shareholder value created by since IPO.

“No new LTIP targets are being set until the board has greater visibility on outlook.”

A source close to the company said its management had delivered a £1.4m profit for the financial year despite the nationwide lockdowns and COVID-19 operating restrictions.

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Asos emerges as surprise frontrunner to clinch TopShop crown | Business News

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Asos emerges as surprise frontrunner to clinch TopShop crown | Business News

Asos, the online fashion retailer, has emerged as the surprise frontrunner to buy TopShop from the administrators to Sir Philip Green’s former high street empire.

Sky News has learnt that Asos has moved into pole position to buy the brand for more than £250m, days after a consortium led by Next withdrew from the race.

If successful, it may renew fears for the future of most of TopShop’s workforce, given Asos’s status as a pure-play digital retailer.

Asos is not holding any talks about buying TopShop stores, according to insiders, although it is also keen to acquire Arcadia’s Miss Selfridge brand alongside TopShop and TopMan.

A source close to Asos cautioned on Saturday night that a deal had not been struck and that there was no certainty that an agreement would be reached to acquire one of Britain’s best-known clothing brands.

Asos is competing against rivals including Boohoo; the American retailer Authentic Brands Group, which is working in tandem with JD Sports Fashion; and Shein, a Chinese fashion group.

Asda, which is itself in the process of being taken over by the petrol stations giant EG Group and private equity firm TDR Capital, is also said to have been among the bidders during the process.

A deal could be struck by the end of the month, although a person close to another bidder warned that the situation remained “fluid” and could yet result in another outcome than an acquisition by Asos.

Other parties remain in talks with Deloitte, although none are said to have the logic that Asos possesses because of its existing wholesale relationship with TopShop and the strategic importance of its growing presence in the US market.

Earlier this week, Next and its partner, Davidson Kempner Capital Management, a US investment firm, pulled out of the sale process, citing the elevated price expectations of Arcadia Group’s administrator, Deloitte.

A separate process is being run by Deloitte, which was appointed as administrator to Arcadia in November, for the group’s other brands.

Up to 13,000 jobs are at risk from Arcadia’s collapse, with brands including Evans, Wallis and Outfit seen as less likely to attract bidders.

The demise of Sir Philip’s empire follows the failure of retailers such as Cath Kidston, Oasis and Warehouse and Debenhams as the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the financial pain being experienced across the British high street.

It is Arcadia’s appointment of administrators that is likely to emerge as the most enduring symbol of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Sir Philip bought the high street group in 2002 for £850m, and just three years later paid what remains one of the largest-ever dividends – £1.2bn – to Arcadia’s registered owner, Lady Christina.

For years, he was feted as a high street colossus, advising David Cameron on public sector waste during his period as prime minister.

In 2012, he sold a 25% stake in TopShop’s immediate holding company to Leonard Green & Partners, a private equity firm, valuing the fashion chain at £2bn.

Sir Philip was later to buy it back for just $1.

Asos and Deloitte declined to comment on Saturday night.

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