Debenhams picks ex-House of Fraser boss Gifford as new chair

23 October 2019, 17:19 | Updated: 24 October 2019, 05:40

A former finance chief at House of Fraser (HoF) is to take on the chairmanship of Debenhams as Britain's biggest department store braces for a crucial Christmas trading period.

Sky News has learnt that Debenhams, which emerged earlier this year from a brief spell in administration, is close to naming Mark Gifford to the role.

Insiders said on Wednesday that an announcement about Mr Gifford's appointment as chairman of Celine Holdings, the holding company for Debenhams' retail operations, could come as soon as this week.

His arrival will add critical high street expertise to the business during a period in which it continues to fight for survival.

Mr Gifford spent more than a decade at HoF, leaving in 2015 to join the entertainment retailer Game Group as its chief financial officer.

He is now a board member at the company behind Ann Summers, the lingerie chain.

The new chairman's immediate task will be to assist Stefaan Vansteenkiste, the restructuring veteran who became Debenhams' chief executive during the summer, in ensuring a successful festive performance in challenging trading conditions.

Debenhams, which is now privately owned after a 15-year stint as a stock market-listed business, has endured a torrid 12 months.

Its holding company was forced into administration in the spring, and since emerging from insolvency proceedings has endured an anxious wait to implement a turnaround plan that will involve closing approximately 50 stores with the loss of thousands of jobs.

A legal challenge to Debenhams' Company Voluntary Arrangement, funded by Mike Ashley's Sports Direct International, was recently rejected.

Mr Ashley had fought a running battle with Debenhams, lodging a string of proposals that would have given him control of the business and allowed him to combine it with HoF, which he acquired out of administration last year.

In recent months, Mr Ashley has bemoaned the state of HoF and described its problems as "terminal".

Mr Gifford will effectively replace Terry Duddy, a former Argos and Homebase boss, who had been chairman of Debenhams plc.

In turn, Mr Duddy had been parachuted into the role earlier this year when Sports Direct voted his predecessor, Sir Ian Cheshire, off the board.

The arrival of Mr Gifford will come weeks after Debenhams confirmed that it had lined up £50m of additional financial support to see it through to the Christmas trading period.

The first tranche of Debenhams' store closures, which will see just over 20 outlets axed, is planned for early next year.

In total, the plan will lead to more than 4,000 jobs being lost, the latest in a grim toll of high street casualties.

Numerous chains have been forced to seek compromise agreements with creditors, the most prominent of which has been Sir Philip Green's Arcadia Group, the owner of TopShop.

Sports Direct recently took control of Jack Wills, the preppy fashion label, and Boohoo, the online-only retailer, acquired the Karen Millen and Coast brands, sparking fears for hundreds of jobs.

Both deals were implemented through pre-pack administrations.

Hedge funds including Goldentree Asset Management and Silver Point now own big stakes in Debenhams, and are said to be willing to be patient before launching a further attempt to sell the business.

Debenhams declined to comment on Wednesday.