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Who Is Selfridges’ New Thai Owner?

Thailand’s Central Group has partnered with Austria’s Signa Holding to acquire Selfridges Group in one of the UK’s biggest retail deals in years.
Central Group CEO, Tos Chirathivat is pictured in the landmark luxury Central Embassy Mall in Bangkok.
Central Group CEO, Tos Chirathivat is pictured in the landmark luxury Central Embassy Mall in Bangkok. (Peter Charlesworth)
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Selfridges Group has been acquired by a consortium led by Central Group, Thailand’s largest retailer, ending months of speculation with a deal that was clinched days before Christmas.

The deal brings together Central Group and Austrian real estate investment firm Signa Holding in a 50-50 partnership to acquire the UK-based department store group. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it was previously reported that the dynasty behind the department store, the Weston family, had received a £4 billion ($5.66 billion) offer.

Earlier this month, Central Retail Corporation, the listed retail subsidiary of Central Group, denied it was involved in talks with Selfridges, leading to speculation that the buyer was instead its parent company or a business entity associated with it.

Bangkok-based Central Group, which owns an extensive portfolio of upmarket malls and shopping centres across Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian countries, has been expanding in Europe for the last decade. Signa Holding is an Innsbruck-based property owner and real estate developer with a focus on Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

By virtue of the deal, Selfridges Group is now part of the combined, complementary luxury department store portfolio held by Central Group and Signa Holding, which includes Italy’s La Rinascente chain, Illum in Denmark, Globus in Switzerland and the KaDeWe Group in Germany. According to a statement issued by the two buyers, annual turnover for the combined portfolio was €5 billion ($5.66 billion at current exchange rates) in 2019.

The pair’s deal for Selfridges is their biggest to date. The Selfridges Group portfolio now comprises 18 department stores, including Selfridges locations in London, Manchester and Birmingham, De Bijenkorf stores in the Netherlands, Brown Thomas and Arnotts stores in Ireland, and their associated e-commerce platforms. Canadian department store chain Holt Renfrew, which was part of the Selfridges Group portfolio prior to the acquisition, will remain with the Weston family.

The takeover marks a new chapter for Selfridges, whose London flagship was founded in 1908. Since being acquired by the Weston family in 2003, Selfridges has secured a reputation for being one of retail’s most innovative players. Though it has been severely tested by the collapse in international tourism brought on by the pandemic, Selfridges remains a highly prized asset for a player like Central Group seeking a crown jewel for its European portfolio.

A Family Business

At the heart of Central Group’s story is the Chirathivat family. Though the clan currently ranks fourth in Forbes’ list of Thailand’s wealthiest with a net worth estimated at $11.6 billion, their company started small, when Tiang Chirathivat arrived from the Chinese province of Hainan to a nation then called Siam, and decided to set up a shop in Bangkok in 1927, calling it Keng Seng Lee.

In 1957, Tiang’s son Samrit expanded on his father’s legacy by opening Thailand’s first department store, in Bangkok’s Wang Burapha neighbourhood.

Today, the business is overseen by the youngest of Samrit’s eight children, Tos Chirathivat, the group’s chief executive and the driving force behind its continued international expansion since taking the reins in 2013. Older brother Prin Chirathivat is the group’s deputy CEO and sister Yuwadee Chirathivat is executive director of the publicly-listed Central Retail Corporation arm of the company.

In all, according to Dr Natenapha Wailerdsak of Thammasat University’s business school in Bangkok, dozens of family members are now involved in the business, including members of the fourth generation. The interests of more than 150 members of the family are overseen by a 12-seat family council that advocates for the needs of family members, but is not involved in the running of Central Group.

Though Thailand boasts other major retail and real estate developers, including Siam Piwat and The Mall Group, Wailerdsak says there is little dispute about Central Group’s position. “In Thailand, it’s the biggest,” she said.

Indeed, with four million square metres of net leasable area, 60 malls, 2,400 retail stores, 1,000 food outlets and 48 hotels, it’s easy to see the imprint Central Group has made on the business landscape of its homeland and the wider region.

In recent years, it has looked to update its business model, extending its reach to e-commerce via a $500 million joint venture signed with China’s JD.com in 2017. Central Group has also been a major backer of Southeast Asian delivery unicorn, Grab, and has its own fintech division.

In February 2020, Central Group listed a subsidiary overseeing its retail holdings in Thailand, Vietnam and Italy on the Thai stock exchange. Central Retail Corporation raised more than 78 billion Thai baht ($2.5 billion) in Thailand’s largest ever IPO. It’s current market capitalisation sits just above 199 billion Thai baht ($5.8 billion).

According to Wailerdsak, the listing marked the beginning of a new era in which the family could step back from being so actively involved in managing every element of the business. Another indication of this was the appointment of Yol Phokasub, the former head of Siam Commercial Bank, as Central Retail Corporation’s chief executive. It is Phokasub, says Wailerdsak, rather than any executive from within the family, who has increasingly become the public face for Central since the IPO in Thailand.

“I think this means they are thinking about how to move from being a family business to a professional corporation in the future,” she said. “[CEO] Tos Chirathivat is very respected. He is very well known and he knows the Thai retail business very well. Central Group is expanding internationally because of him and its future will depend a lot on who will succeed him, though we don’t know who that will be [in the future],” Wailerdsak said.

As the Central Group CEO alludes in his post-acquisition comments, a large part of that mission in the short term, will involve gearing up for the return of international tourism, especially long-haul Asian tourism halted by the pandemic, that will provide a boost to all of its European businesses in years to come.

“It is a privilege to be acquiring Selfridges Group, including the flagship Oxford Street store, which has been at the centre of London’s most famous shopping street for over 100 years. As family businesses, Central and Signa will focus on delivering exceptional and inclusive store and digital experiences for both local residents and overseas visitors alike, to ensure we can give all the stores in Selfridges Group a bright future for the next 100 years,” Tos Chirathivat said in a statement.

Alannah Weston, Chairman of Selfridges Group, said: “The acquisition of Selfridges Group by Central and Signa is testament to the successful realisation of my father’s vision for an iconic group of beautiful, truly experiential, department stores... I am proud to pass the baton to the new owners who are family businesses that take a long-term view.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 4 January 2022 to reflect further reporting.



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