The Best and Worst of the £1 Empires
It can’t be nice to build a business empire only to see it eventually sell for less than the price of a small coffee. All the blood sweat and tears, the sleepless nights, the passion and the endless negotiations in the pursuit of building your very own Rome, only to see it collapse in on itself and waste away to nothing. In business however, it happens.
For some businesses such as Woolworths in the UK, when the administrators come in, it normally means the end of the road. Woolworths was founded in 1909, and was no stranger to recession. It had survived the Great Depression and both world wars but could not attract a buyer to save the company even with a price tag of just £1.
Some businesses are lucky enough to attract a takeover but even this can have mixed results. In many cases, investors and buyers are lured in by the price tag of £1 for what is often a vast empire. The £1 sum does not represent the value of the ailing business, but is symbolic and an important part of the takeover contract. It shows that some consideration has been paid and the value itself could be any amount theoretically. It is almost as if the value of a £1 is fashionable, or a victor’s medal designated to only the most humiliating of take overs. As James Stonebridge of Norton Rose puts it “it’s the glue which binds the contract.” James also describes how “It used to be called 'peppercorn' - which was the nominal consideration for which a sale went through, which could be one pound, five pounds or whatever change someone had in their pocket."
The result of such a sale can have varying effects. For some the £1 buyout has been a saving grace, for others it has served only to delay the inevitable. For this article, we are going to look at 7 empires bought for £1 and where these empires are today.
In 1964 MFI was founded as Mullard Furniture Industries. It was at one time, the largest fitted furniture business in the UK. The firm was once worth £1bn but in 2006 sold to Henry Jackson and his firm Merchant Equity Partners (MEP) for £1. For the privilege of being bought for £1, MFI also paid a dowry to MEP of approximately £200 million to take the ailing retail arm of the company of their hands.
So did the takeover help MFI rebuild to previous highs? In short, not even close. Within two years of the takeover MFI had crashed further with debts of £145 million, having failed to overcome the numerous problems with customer service and brand image. MFI became an abbreviation for many an insulting nickname including ‘made for idiots.’
In 2008 the company was sold on again, and within months ceased trading as administrators failed to secure a buyer. The brand was eventually salvaged from administrators for £250,000 in 2009 by private equity firm Walker Capital and re-launched in 2011, as an on-line only firm.
The Independent News paper
In 2010, UK broadsheet The Independent was sold to Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who was also the owner of the London Evening Standard. The sale also included the Sunday edition of the newspaper, The Independent On Sunday. The previous owner, Irish company Independent News & Media decided to let the paper go for £1 which was the price of one copy of the daily edition of the newspaper. As a sweetener for the deal, INM agreed to pay Lebedev's company Independent Print Limited (IPL) £9.25m over 10 months.
Historically, The Independent had struggled to develop a wide enough audience to generate worthwhile profits which only became worse with the increasing web market and free online competitive news sources. The recession added to these woes as with a decline in advertising revenue the writing on the wall became clear.
While the future of The Independent may have looked ominous, the new owner may well have been the best chance the company had for a revival. Lebedev, a former KGB agent, had previously bought the Evening Standard, also for £1, and had managed to increase the readership of that publication sharply by giving it away free.
Lebedev made several changes to the format of The Independent, changing the look from a traditional broadsheet style to a more compact version. The new look was much like a tabloid only with content actually worthwhile. In 2010 a new edition called The i was also released.
As of July 2012 the paper had returned to a daily circulation of 83,619 and the Sunday edition selling 118,759 copies. The Independent has survived its winter, and Lebedev has succeeded so far in turning around the fortunes of a company that at one time was valued no greater than £1.
The story of comet is a sad one, having been one of the UK high streets most recognisable brands for the best part of half a century. Comet was founded as a business charging radio batteries in 1933. The first store was later opened in Hull in 1968. Since then, the company was bought by Kingfisher in 1984 who transformed the company into one of the kings of the high street.
In 2003 Kesa Electricals demerged from Kingfisher and Comet went with it. The company was eventually sold for £1 in 2011 to private equity group OpCapita having failed to provide a strong defence and strategy against some of its emerging cheaper competitors such as Amazon. OpCapita were also given £50 million on top of the 248 stores and all the stock from Kesa as part of the deal to take the 78 year old Comet chain off their hands. At the same time, OpCapita purchased the Insurance arm of the Comet business for £1.
French boss of Kesa, Thierry Falque-Pierrotin described that the losses of Comet had become such a drain that to hold onto the brand would have put the whole parent company at risk.
Strangely enough, the founder of OpCapita was Henry Jackson, who had been at the heart of the MFI takeover years earlier. Jackson drew a lot of attention toward his business practices in the press, as he seemed to be making a habit out of purchasing companies in this way for £1, sending them into administration but still making a profit in the process.
This is exactly what happened only 13 months after the OpCapita takeover where Comet was pushed into administration. Despite Jackson turning a profit from the company, the collapse cost the UK government £49.4 million in redundancy payments.
There was no silver lining and no saving grace for Comet. The last stores closed early in 2013 having found no buyer for the brand and what was left for the high street was a clear message that no one is safe.
Who would have thought that the Chelsea FC we know today, was once in a very fragile financial position? Today, Chelsea is more famed for being a team that ‘buys’ success from the very deep pockets of billionaire club owner Roman Abramovich. However, in the 1980’s the story for Chelsea was quite different.
In the early 1980’s, Chelsea was in a dark place. They had undergone an ambitious redevelopment of Stamford Bridge and had to sell off some of their star players essentially to pay the bill. This left them out of contention, and they ended up being relegated. The team also suffered bad press and attention through the association of their notorious hooligan element the Chelsea Headhunters.
In 1982 the club grounds, Stamford Bridge had been sold to property developers and the club faced losing their home. It was at this time that the club was sold for £1 to Ken Bates. The club’s debts of £1.4 million were also taken on board by Bates as part of the purchase. What was he thinking? There is a saying, if you want to go from being a billionaire to a millionaire buy a football club.
Now, talk about a turn around. Chelsea didn’t really do much in the years that followed. They popped up and down from the first division, then premiership and won very few items of silverware, but they did secure themselves financially. In June 2003, Bates sold Chelsea to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for £140 million which was a massive improvement on the £1 value of 1982. Abramovich brought deep pockets and a huge transfer balance.
In April 2012 Chelsea FC was ranked by Forbes Magazine as the seventh most valuable football club in the world, at £473 million and is more powerful a business empire than at any other period of its existence.
Want to know how to bring a bank to its knees? Hire Nick Leeson.
Barings Bank was the oldest merchant bank in London, founded in 1762 as the John and Francis Baring Company. Like Woolworths, Barings survivied the Great Depression and both World Wars, but it could not survive rogue trader Nick Leeson and in 1995 their empire came crashing down around them.
Leeson’s rogue trading, through speculative investing and futures, lost Barings in the ball park of £827 million. His losses through really poor trading decisions became uncontrollable. The bank could not absorb the loss and collapsed. It was bought for £1 by the Dutch financial group, ING and no longer exists in its own right.
Plus Stock Exchange (PLUS-SX)
So we’ve seen a bank, a football club and a couple of high street giants with a price tag of £1, but would you believe that there has also been a Stock Exchange sold at the same price?
The Plus Stock Exchange manages the listings of about 140 companies including Shepherd Neame and Arsenal FC. The combined market worth is in the region of £2.3 billion. However, on 14th May 2012 parent company Plus Market Group (PMG) was in a position to close its exchange as it could not find a buyer for the business. This threatened to leave their listed businesses without a home for their shares.
However, much to the relief of the listed companies and of those holding shares in these companies, on 18th may 2012 a buyer was found in Icap who were offered the business for £1 on a debt free cash free basis. PLUS-SX exits today under the rule of Icap, who operate a number of trading exchanges.
It’s not just the UK that have seen empires and businesses sold for a measly buck. In August 2010 The Washington Post Company sold off the Newsweek publication for $1.
Published in New York from 1933 to 2012, it was the second-largest news weekly magazine in the U.S.A. In July 2012 the total circulation was 1,527,156. Newsweek was published globally in 12 different editions, and also in four English editions.
Newsweek was popular, but struggled through the recession and could not turn a profit. It was sold on to Stereo Tycoon Sidney Harman who had agreed to absorb Newsweek's financial problems as part of the acquisition.
A few months after the acquisition in November 2010, Newsweek merged with the news and opinion website The Daily Beast and on October 18, 2012, it was announced that Newsweek would cease print publication with the final print issued on December 31, 2012. The magazine exists now in an all-digital format called Newsweek Global with its first digital-only issue published on January 4, 2013.