UK Merger Deals Heat Up

LONDON — A pair of U.K. investors are using the economic downturn to go on a shopping spree.

Last week, retail entrepreneur Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council and owner of U.K. label Jaeger, and Belinda Earl (also of Jaeger) struck up a partnership with shoe designer Beatrix Ong by investing an undisclosed amount in her brand. A few days earlier, industry veteran Robert Bensoussan, former CEO of Jimmy Choo, led a buyout of U.K. footwear retailer LK Bennett.

Bensoussan’s investment firm, Sirius Equity, worked with Phoenix Equity Partners to snap up a majority stake in LK Bennett for an estimated 100 million pounds, or $198 million at current exchange. LK Bennett, which was founded in 1990, operates 55 standalone stores and 34 shop-in-shops, mostly in the U.K.

“We like retail, and LK Bennett is an interesting opportunity,” said Bensoussan. “It’s a highly profitable company, and we believe we can bring value in terms of product development and international development.”

Bensoussan plans to look at the U.K. and Europe for expansion first, but also hinted the concept could be taken into other areas. “The U.S. is in the cards, and the Middle East or Asia, but not before mid-2009.”

As part of the transaction, Bensoussan will join LK Bennett as chairman. Founder Linda Bennett will remain as a nonexecutive director and a substantial shareholder in the business.

Looking ahead, Bensoussan said he is eyeing new opportunities, but declined to reveal specific targets. “I can’t tell you what I have in mind next. As you can imagine, I don’t want too many people waking up. I’m always interested in footwear, but the focus is more retail.”

Separately, Tillman was upbeat about his partnership with Ong, who launched her label in 2002 after leaving her post as design assistant at Jimmy Choo. “We want to support her financially and help her expand,” said Tillman. “I love Beatrix’s product, as does Belinda, and we decided this was a nonconflicting business. Ultimately, we will expand luxury items under the Beatrix Ong name, with New York an interesting option for a flagship store.”

Ong opened her first namesake store in the tony London neighborhood of Primrose Hill in 2004. However, she said investors started to take notice when she opened her Central London location in Burlington Arcade last November and moved her production from Spain to Florence, Italy.

“I’ve effectively been running my business alone for the last six years,” said Ong. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but now with the perfect partners, I will be able to take the business to the next level, and with more support, hit the U.S. hard.” Ong sells to about 40 boutiques globally as well as Shopbop.com.

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