October 29, 2020

by Heather McIlvaine

As PAS Group’s second biggest shareholder, Larry Kestelman believes the company already knows the changes it needs to make to compete in the current retail environment – cut costs, rev up online, revitalise stagnant brands – it just has to execute these changes more quickly. He’s betting that going private will give PAS Group the freedom it needs to do so.

“In the current environment, agility and quick decisions, being opportunistic when you need to be, is key,” Kestelman said. “In a lot of cases, public companies are not best suited for that – budgets are set 12 months out, guidance is given to shareholders. A private entity [can] act on opportunities when they come and be very nimble”

On Tuesday PAS Group announced that Queens Lane Capital, the private equity arm of Kestelman’s LK Group, had entered into binding documentation to acquire it through a deed of company arrangement. The deal would see the fashion retailer delist from the ASX and appoint a new board, but retain CEO Eric Morris and the rest of the management team to run the company with input from Kestelman’s cohort. 

The entrepreneur, who founded the telco and utilities provider Dodo and owns the National Basketball League, in addition to several successful property companies, told Inside Retail the retailer’s existing turnaround plan was solid, but Covid-19 had thrown a spanner in the works. PAS Group entered voluntary administration in May even though it was solvent, because market conditions had made it impossible to restructure.   

“A lot of work has already been done,” Kestelman said. “I don’t need to revolutionise everything from scratch.”

If it ain’t broke

PAS Group currently operates 166 retail stores across its Review, Black Pepper, Yarra Trail, Marco Polo and Breakaway brands (it sold the loss-making Jets to Seafolly in August). It also holds licenses to popular international brands, including Everlast, Lonsdale and Disney through its Designworks division, which supplies Kmart, Rebel, David Jones and other retailers with a range of apparel, footwear and sports products. 

There are no plans to shrink the store network any further under Kestelman’s ownership, provided the company is able to negotiate viable rental agreements with its landlords. And Designworks isn’t gearing up for a major direct-to-consumer (D2C) play, despite the continued shift away from wholesale in the retail industry.

“We’ll look at the D2C opportunity, but we’re more focused on supporting our retail partners with white-label products and solutions,” he said. “The strength and expertise of Designworks is in design, sourcing, logistics…we want to be the backend engine that delivers that.” 

That’s not to say Kestelman won’t be making a few changes. He described a rigorous approach to cutting out unnecessary costs and turning the narrow-margin business into a “lean, mean, fighting machine”. At the same time, he’s looking to grow both Designworks and the retail business aggressively. 

“If you look at brands like Review, Black Pepper, Yarra Trail and, under license, Everlast and Lonsdale, they are amazing brands, but the company lost its mojo in being aggressive marketers,” he said. “We’ll be bringing a sense of aggression towards growth, and pushing these brands back to where they belong.” 

For Designworks, that means bringing on new license holders and growing the licenses it already has. For retail brands like Review, that means understanding its customers better and serving them the way they want to be served (read: more investment in online and omnichannel). 

“PAS Group’s turnover is more than $200 million,” Kestelman pointed out. “There’s demand for its product.” 

But he also admitted the company can’t afford to be complacent, otherwise it could face its own “Kodak moment”. 

“We need to evolve and earn our rightful place. It’s either evolve or die,” he said.

A fresh perspective

Kestelman believes he’s the right man to help PAS Group evolve because of – not in spite of – the fact that he doesn’t have hands-on experience running a retail business. 

“I always like coming in a little bit from the outside. People tend to do the same thing over and over because it’s just been done that way forever,” he said. 

“We know enough about retail and consumer to be a little dangerous, but we’ll question everything. Why are things being done the way they’ve been done?” 

PAS Group’s Morris stands firmly behind Kestelman, describing him as one of the best entrepreneurs and marketers he’s come across. 

“This is giving us a great opportunity to really grow and put some capital behind the business,” Morris told Inside Retail

While the deal is yet to be approved, Kestelman said his company has effective control of Designworks and is working with the administrators to have a strong say in what happens on the retail side of the business. The transaction is not expected to be approved until early next year. 

“With Covid and everything else, it’s not going to be easy, but the thousand people who are employed by PAS Group deserve for us to give it a red hot go to revitalise the brand,” Kestelman said.