Neville Kahn

Deloitte’s Neville Kahn has led the administration of Woolworths, Mosaic and Enron Europe — to name a just few.


Neville Kahn has put over 3,000 stores into administration in four months

Neville Kahn has put over 3,000 stores into administration in four months

By his own admission, Neville Kahn has probably made more people redundant in the past few months than anyone else. It’s his job. As global head of reorganisation services at accountancy firm Deloitte, Mr Kahn has led the administration of some of the recession’s most high-profile casualties, including Woolworths, Waterford Wedgwood and Barratts Shoes — the trading subsidiary of Michael Ziff’s Stylo plc.

More recently, he presided over the administration of the Mosaic group, which sold its four brands — Coast, Oasis, Warehouse and Karen Millen — to Aurora Fashions. As for Mosaic’s other labels, the Shoe Studio was sold to Daniel Rubin’s rival shoe chain Dune, while no buyer has been found for Principles.

In the past three and a half months, around 3,450 stores and concession outlets have been placed in administration under Mr Kahn’s authority. It is unsurprising then that Mr Kahn, who has worked in restructuring for 20 years, is the busiest he has ever been.

Struggling companies call on Mr Kahn to help reshape their businesses and help them become cash productive. But if it is inevitable that the firm has to go into administration, then Mr Kahn’s aim is to maximise the value for the creditors, not the shareholders. He will then try to sell the business as a going concern.

“The first thing we do,” he says “is identify the best bits of the business and keep them trading and cut out the bad bits.

“It’s a bit like going to the doctor. Sometimes you have to cut out the bad bits so the bigger, healthier bit survives. It’s then pretty inevitable that we have to make some job cuts, maybe close down certain divisions — effectively making what you can survive.”

Mr Kahn says such firms are likely to have a key trait in common: cash-flow problems, which involve having a lot of debt. However, he adds that each firm has its own unique story to tell.

He explains: “The Woolworths story is different from others because there were two businesses; the retail arm, which had been struggling for many years, and the distribution arm, which had a huge working capital requirement that was eating cash.”

He adds: “Woolworths is a classic example of a retailer that had lost touch with its core customer base.

“Waterford Wedgewood has been trying to restructure itself as a business for the past five years and had a very supportive equity, but those who had been putting the money in felt that it was the end of the road.” Mr Kahn’s team has exchanged contracts to sell the firm to a US private equity company. “You would expect that while the business will survive, more and more of the production is going to low-cost units outside of the UK.”

Stylo? “In this case, there was a management team who recognised the difficulties relatively early and tried very hard to find a solution. A CVA [Company Voluntary Arrangement] was attempted, which was an effort to change the deal with the landlords and pay the suppliers in full over time, but that was voted down.”

And, more recently, Mosaic? “The Mosaic group was a classic situation of a good business laden with too much debt and some underperforming sites.

The directors sought a solution with its shareholders and bankers but were not able to implement it without the use of an administration. Shortly after being appointed as administrators, we sold the Coast, Oasis, Warehouse, Karen Millen businesses to a new vehicle majority-owned by the bank, saving over 8,000 jobs. We were also able to sell the Shoe Studio business to Dune. Unfortunately the Principles business is in the process of being closed.”

Other high-profile cases Mr Kahn has been involved with include Land of Leather, Enron Europe Limited and Claims Direct. He expects more casualties to come.

“With the recession as it is, it’s inevitable that we are going to be busy for the next 18 months to two years.” And not just in retail — Mr Kahn adds that the sector is merely the first domino to fall when a slump strikes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “There are some retailers doing quite well out there,” says Mr Kahn. “They are the ones that are closest to their customers, delivering the product the customers want at the right price.”

He points out that 70 per cent of Deloitte’s work concerns distressed businesses that do not end up insolvent.

How can companies survive the slump? “Clearly, you have to be focused on cash and take some hard decisions. Often, the sooner you take them the better. You shouldn’t put your head in the sand.” He acknowledges this can be particularly tough for those with family businesses.

“In 1995, the non-executive director of a nice Yiddisher business put his head about the parapet. He could see that the family business was going the wrong way. He confronted the difficulties and explained them to the bank and that business turned around — and sold years later for many millions of pounds.

“If it had been left to fester for another six months, it probably would have gone bust.”

Mr Kahn joined Deloitte in 2001. He had pursued an accountancy career on his father’s wishes. He joined Coopers & Lybrand, which later merged with Price Waterhouse to form PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he spent close to 20 years, cutting his teeth in restructuring and insolvency. He left to join Deloitte, where is he is a partner.

Outside the office, Mr Kahn, who lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London, is active in the community. Co-chair of Norwood’s Distressed Investing Dinner, he is also on the audit committee of Jewish Care. An avid supporter of Jewish education and faith schools, he is a treasurer and governor of nearby Kerem School, which his two older children attended. His youngest is still there.

“It’s very nice sometimes to be able to relegate work to second place and do something for the community. At the end of the day, the charity is far more important than the work I am doing.”

He also learns with the Chabad Jewish Home Network. “To be able to step out, turn your phone off and concentrate on something worthwhile is a good respite.”

On Woolworths:

"The Woolworths story is different from others because there were two businesses; the retail arm, which had been struggling for many years, and the distribution arm, which had a huge working capital requirement that was eating cash.

"Woolworths is a classic example of a retailer that had lost touch with its core customer base."

On Stylo

"In this case, there was a management team who recognised the difficulties relatively early and tried very hard to find a solution.

"A CVA [Company Voluntary Arrangement] was attempted, which was an effort to change the deal with the landlords and to pay the suppliers in full over time — but that was voted down."

On Mosaic

"This was a classic case of a good business with too much debt and some underperforming sites. The directors sought a solution with shareholders and bankers but were not able to implement it without an administration. We sold the Coast, Oasis, Warehouse, Karen Millen businesses to a new vehicle majority-owned by the bank, saving over 8000 jobs."

    Last updated: 3:27pm, April 7 2009