Mike Ashley revealed the House of Fraser chain he bought earlier this year could be merged with Debenhams as he batted off criticism from MPs and insisted: “It’s not my fault the high street is dying.”
The Sports Direct tycoon told a Commons select committee that he was “not Father Christmas” as he was questioned about how many stores could be kept open.
But he did say that he was attempting the “godlike” feat of saving 80% of them while also offering policymakers a prescription to save the wider retail sector.
The businessman later revealed, in an exclusive interview with Sky’s Ian King, that HoF could be joined with rival Debenhams – a company in which he already has a significant stake.
“They could merge, and in my opinion they should at least work very closely together,” Mr Ashley said.
Mr Ashley’s takeover of the 169-year-old House of Fraser chain saved it from administration but has still left the future of thousands of staff in doubt as the billionaire tycoon seeks to slash store rents, in many cases by around half, to keep them afloat.
Suppliers, pensioners, and customers have also been left out of pocket after the pre-pack administration process meant it was left free of liabilities for its new owners.
Mr Ashley told Sky News that “over half” of House of Fraser stores would have to close if looked at from a short-term financial point of view but that there was hope that “things will happen to save the high street”.
He added: “There’s only so much we can do. Everybody has to dig in and help.”
Speaking to MPs earlier, Mr Ashley bristled at attempts to present him as a villain as he also batted off controversy about zero-hours contracts – which he said many workers prefer.
“I’m not sitting in my office stroking a white cat,” he told MPs on the housing, communities and local government select committee.
The tycoon argued that the retail sector was on its knees, offering a bleak picture of the future if radical action was not taken – and laying the blame for the gloom squarely on the rise of online retail.
Pressed on whether he would try to keep all 59 House of Fraser stores open, he angrily responded that he had “never, never, never” pledged to do that and indicated that while he was trying to keep open as many as he could, it would be impossible to retain all of them.
“What person could keep 59 stores open, besides God?” he said. “Even keeping 80% of stores open would be a god-like performance.”
Mr Ashley insisted that House of Fraser would have to change to survive, ditching “prehistoric” business practices and changing store opening hours.
He refused to offer assurances on the future of the chain to MPs who he said were “trying to showboat” and intimated that it would have to employ fewer people.
“I’m not Father Christmas, I’m actually a very fair guy,” says Mr Ashley.
He went on to offer his bleak thoughts on the state of the high street, suggesting that it was dying and in some cases already dead, comparing it to a person lying at the bottom of a swimming pool.
“It’s not my fault the high street is dying… It’s very very simple, the internet is killing the high street.
“The question is, what to do about it. The mainstream high streets are already dead.”
Mr Ashley – who was appearing before the committee to talk about the struggling retail sector – suggested an online sales tax for retailers selling more than 20% online.
That would motivate companies to keep bricks-and-mortar stores open and help them compete with web-only giants such as Amazon, he argued.
The colourful appearance, lasting more than an hour, was summed up by committee chairman Clive Betts.
He told Mr Ashley: “You’ve told us that you’re not a pantomime villain, you’re not Father Christmas.
“I think you’ve still left us to decide whether you’re the wicked uncle or the fairy godmother and time will no doubt tell.”