Hudson’s Bay Co. executive chairman Richard Baker plans an online turnaround at Canada’s oldest retailer after he won shareholder approval on Thursday to take the unprofitable department store chain private.
HBC is trying to sharpen the digital focus at its eponymous brand at a time when it and other department store chains are quickly losing business due to the growth of e-commerce.
The retailer will soon roll out new technology in an attempt to make it easier for customers to shop online and pick up their purchases at the company’s 89 namesake stores across the country, Mr. Baker said Thursday in an interview.
“Whether they buy online and return to a store, or buy online and pick up from a store, we have that convenience factor that no one else has in Canada,” he said.
Alex Arifuzzaman, founder of retail real estate adviser InterStratics Consultants Inc., said HBC is moving in the right direction but said every retailer is focused on online shopping.
“It sounds like they are doing the basic things that are being done in industry. That is fine for today," Mr. Arifuzzaman said. “But what about in 10 years? The Bay needs to find what it wants to be and what it wants to do. What does it want to be? They need to figure out something more transformational for the long term.”
Mr. Baker said he is also looking at “redevelopment opportunities" for HBC’s properties and ways to “mix uses within some of our buildings" – a move that some dissident shareholders pushed HBC to do when the company’s stock price plunged.
Transforming HBC will be easier now that it’s private. “Being a public company was very difficult because we had to react to shareholders’ desires for bottom-line results on a quarterly basis," Mr. Baker said.
At HBC’s special shareholder meeting Thursday morning, 98.3 per cent of all votes cast approved of the deal to be taken private at $11 per share.
Mr. Baker had to sweeten his formal proposal to $11 per share from $10.30 to win over the company’s largest dissident shareholder, Catalyst Capital Group.
Because Mr. Baker and his allies controlled 57 per cent of the stock, the deal required backing from the majority of the remaining shares. HBC won that vote with 94.5-per-cent approval.
This is the second time the executive chairman will run HBC as a private company. Mr. Baker, a private-equity real estate investor from Connecticut, bought HBC after the death of former owner and U.S. investor Jerry Zucker in 2008. Mr. Baker took HBC public in 2012 at $17 a share.
He was initially praised for his vision after he had the foresight to off-load the business’s Zellers discount stores to Target Corp., sold the main HBC property in Toronto to real estate company Cadillac Fairview and invested heavily in upgrading HBC stores and going digital.
By 2015, the stock neared $30 per share. But, as the company underperformed, the stock fell to as low as $6.22 last year.
“It’s a tough environment, and we have a lot to do. But we’re optimistic about the work ahead of us," Mr. Baker said.
The executive chairman said there were no hard feelings after dissident shareholders called for his removal and Catalyst mounted an aggressive campaign to extract more value. “We have a thick skin. Now it’s all smiles. Everyone’s very happy. I’ve gotten nothing but nice notes from everyone involved,” Mr. Baker said.
After the going-private proposal was unveiled last summer, Catalyst acquired a 17.5-per-cent stake in HBC. Catalyst accused Mr. Baker and HBC of grossly undervaluing the shares, shoddy disclosure and not acting in the interests of all shareholders. It filed a complaint with the Ontario Securities Commission, which eventually ordered HBC to postpone the meeting so shareholders could get more detailed bid documents.
Mr. Baker called the process “messy there for a while,” and said the dissident shareholders were not long-term investors and did not understand HBC’s business plan for the future.
“Their job was to come in, and have sharp elbows and try to drive greater value. I think they did whatever they thought they should do in order to squeeze us to pay more. I don’t have any hard feelings towards that. I understand that,” he said.
Catalyst managing director Gabriel de Alba said in an e-mailed statement that his company is "pleased to have created an outcome that benefited all of the minority shareholders.”
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.