Noni B builds on a bumper year

Australia’s women’s apparel industry has been something of a no-go zone for private equity, although there was some interest in Specialty Fashion Group brands earlier this year.

A private equity offer to the board of the publicly listed Specialty Fashion Group did not proceed, but an offer from another suitor with finance industry credentials did materialise.

Noni B acquired five retail brands from Specialty Fashion Group for $31 million last July in a transaction that has stabilised the struggling retailer, which now retains only the City Chic brand. Noni B has been controlled by Alceon Group since 2014 after a $16 million takeover offer.

Controlled by its founders, the Kindl family, Noni B was losing money before the investment company bought in at 44 cents a share.

Listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, Noni B has seen its share price jump to more than $3.30 in the four years since in response to a remarkable turnaround under Alceon Group direction.

For the 2018 financial year, Noni B posted a 4.5 per cent lift in comparable store sales, with the like-for-like figure running at 6 per cent in the second half. Total revenue for fiscal 2018 was $372.4 million, up 17.6 per cent on the previous year, boosted by 27 new stores, the like-for like-sales growth, new accessories ranges and a full year of sales from the Pretty Girl retail brands, which were acquired from James Packer in August 2016 for about $75 million.

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Noni B had annual sales of around $100 million when the Alceon Group took control but they have jumped to close to $372.4 million
in the latest financial year.

The Packer deal added the Pretty Girl, Table Eight, Rockmans, BeMe and W.Lane brands to Noni B and expanded the store network to around 600 outlets.

Noni B CEO Scott Evans faces a tougher challenge with the five new retail brands than with the Packer portfolio, but he believes they
will be trading profitably within two years. The acquisition again builds scale, with sales now expected to jump from the $372 million posted in 2018 to around $1 billion.

The store network for Noni B has now ballooned to around 1400, making it one of the biggest retail tenants in Australia as well as the
largest specialty fashion retailer.

Alceon Group, which retains a direct 36 per cent shareholding in Noni B, and the management team led by Evans have a lot on their plate in integrating and reinvigorating the chains acquired from Specialty Fashion Group, but there is also a tantalising new opportunity in the wings.

Naomi Milgrom is keen to divest her Sussan, Suzanne Grae and Sportsgirl chains which could well interest Noni B, although the price would be much greater than they have outlaid to date on acquisitions.

Another retailer that is now under the watchful eye of a finance executive is Oroton, the upmarket bags and accessories chain. Oroton collapsed into administration in November 2017 after heavy losses on the Gap stores it operated under licence from the US-based owner, compounded by high debt and flagging sales in its own branded stores.

Founded 80 years ago, the chain was listed on the ASX when it called in Deloitte Restructuring Services as administrators. The chain had 62 stores and posted a $14.3 million loss for the 2017 financial year, $11.3 million of which was attributed to the failed Gap venture.

Oroton survived with loans from fund manager Will Vicars, a director of the chain with an 18 per cent shareholding. When Deloitte was unable to find a buyer or an investor prepared to provide a new capital injection, Vicars offered to buy it for $25 million.

The chain currently has annual sales of around $90 million and has reduced stress on the business through a renegotiation of leases with landlords.

Vicars believes he can double or possibly triple sales to between $200 million and $300 million in the next five years, developing the
digital sales platform as well as stores.

Sophie Holt, who crafted Country Road’s design direction, is now working on Oroton’s product design, and Vicars is pursuing a rebuild of the premium brand with a new marketing and advertising strategy, convinced the retailer is a strong retail brand with good future prospects.



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