Can this man save our high streets?

The turnover of shops on Britain’s high streets chart the rise and fall of retail empires as once popular brands and their owners fall out of fashion.

The 2016 collapse of BHS shocked the foundations of Sir Philip Green’s retail empire and the mooted sale of his Topshop to Burton group Arcadia would bring the final curtain down on a near 20-year reign as king of the high street. But as one billionaire Philip fades into the background, another is hoving into view.

Retail entrepreneur Philip Day is yet to become a household name but the owner of more than a dozen retail brands, including Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Peacocks, is quietly buying up swathes of the high street, with troubled electronics retailer Maplin the latest chain on his shopping list.

The scale of Day’s growing empire is set out in the most recent accounts for the group’s parent company Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group. The sprawling group now has 1,113 stores and concessions and employs more than 24,000 people. Its sales topped £592m and generated profits of nearly £84m in the year to February 2017.

Day got his big break in 2001, when he was part of the £49m private equity backed takeover of staid middle-aged knitwear emporium the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. The following year he bought out co-investors Rutland in a £69m deal backed by HBOS giving him his first retail Monopoly piece.

One corporate financier who has been involved in selling Day several companies said he had still not actually met the businessman. “He doesn’t get involved with deals; you do the negotiating with people from his office. He’s not like Mike Ashley, who turns up to all the meetings.”

In the early years Day made a series of small acquisitions including the homewares chain Ponden Mill and the golf clothing brand ProQuip, best known for dressing Ryder Cup players . The 52 year-old’s first big move came in 2012 when he acquired budget fashion chain Peacocks.

“Edinburgh Woollen Mill has never been a growth story, it has always been steady, steady, steady, delivering good profits and producing cash,” says another corporate financier who has encountered Day. Although Peacocks was the biggest brand in sales terms, Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s stores were more profitable per square foot.

The group uses company money to finance its acquisitions rather than big borrowings. Since repaying HBOS in 2005 it has been debt free. Day prefers to buy rather than rent the properties he occupies.

The painful high street restructuring triggered by changing shopping habits is serving up a stream of potential deals for turnaround investors, as older brands, with large store estates, buckle in tough trading conditions. Day bought Austin Reed in 2016 and Jaeger in 2017. Earlier this month he rescued bust suitmaker Berwin & Berwin, which included the Paul Costelloe and Lambretta brands, saving 800 jobs.

Whereas Green is often snapped with celebrity friends such as Kate Moss or on the deck of his superyacht, Lionheart, Day’s private life has remained private. Married to wife Debra for more than 20 years, the Day family still own plenty of baubles including Edmond Castle, a Tudor-style country house near Brampton in Cumbria and a vineyard in Valencia.

Day, who grew up on a Stockport council estate, has amassed an estimated £1.1bn fortune. His eclectic portfolio includes the Scottish Deer Centre in Fife, where the attractions include 14 species of deer and a branch of Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and an anaerobic digester in Penrith, Cumbria.

The group is keen to be viewed as a job creator, a patriarchal approach shaped by Day’s youth when his parents and their friends struggled to find jobs. He left school at 16 and skipped university to pursue a business career. His conservative stewardship extends to the company’s pension scheme where there is a policy to ensure any deficit is never more than 5% of profits.

“We tend to avoid comparisons with other people and companies because we like to think of ourselves as trying to do something new and different,” said a group spokesman. “We recognise the high street is going through a difficult period and we’re trying to create a genuinely new company that gives customers choice on the high street.”

In 2014 Day swapped the Cumbrian rain for Dubai sunshine. The company says the relocation is not for tax purposes but to personally manage an increasingly complex global sourcing operation. Day’s background is in manufacturing, having started his career with stints at clothing suppliers Coats Viyella and Wensum.

In the UK Day’s key lieutenants are Stephen Simpson, the group operations director, and John Herring, a former Dresdner Kleinwort Benson banker, who is the non-executive chairman. With an eye on the long term, the handover to the next generation has already begun with two of Day’s three children now working for the family firm.

Last year, in the manner of Harry Selfridge, Day gave his name to a new department store venture. The first branch of Days, housed in a former BHS outlet in Carmarthen, Wales, brought clothing brands like Peacocks, Austin Reed, Country Casuals and Jaeger under one roof for the first time. At 25,000 sq ft – the size of a high street supermarket – the outlets are aimed at shoppers who don’t want to schlep around vast department stores. Two more Days are planned in Bedford and Crawley but the openings are running behind schedule.

“As we’re a private family business, we’d rather take the time to get things right, than get them done quickly,” the spokesman says. “We have the flexibility to take our time – and we do not chase short-term results or profits. We’re not in a rush because we’re trying to build something that will last generations into the future.”