Arnotts shareholder yearns for Liberty

Both Fitzwilliam Finance and Apollo Investment want to gain control of Dublin department store

Despite the fact that its owner is no longer directly involved, the stakes are high for Dublin department store Brown Thomas in the ongoing talks between the two rival shareholder blocs at its crosstown counterpart, Arnotts.

It is possible Brown Thomas could find itself with an even more direct rival on its hands across the Liffey.

Fitzwilliam Finance, owned by the developer Noel Smyth and previously backed by BT owner Galen Weston, controls 50 per cent of the old lady of Henry Street, with Apollo Investment, a New York-based fund, holding the other half, after they bought Arnotts' debts from Ulster Bank and IBRC respectively. Smyth now has a new partner and the opposing blocs want to gain full control by buying the other out. Management, on the other hand, just want the stand-off to end so they can focus on running the store.

Rumours swirled around the industry this week that Fitzwilliam might stand aside in favour of Apollo, which, as a purely financial investor, needs to get the situation sorted so it can work on getting a return to cover its financing costs.


According to a few well-placed spies around Henry Street, no agreement has been reached yet, but both sides are in deep, ongoing discussions. “It could still go either way,” said one.

Fitzwilliam, if it gains control, sees Arnotts continuing as a good, upper mid-range department store. In other words, they’d never make it as posh as BT south of the Liffey. That would never do.

Word is, however, that Apollo takes a different view. The fund apparently wants to model Arnotts on Liberty, the grand old London department store off Regent Street that is owned by BlueGem private equity.

If BT devotees think their temple is posh, they should get a load of Liberty. Housed in a mock tudor building, its hallowed walls are dotted with shields bearing the family crests of William Shakespeare and Henry VIII’s six wives. Smaller than Arnott’s, it’s like a Harrod’s that has shrunk in the wash.

To a bemused local, it would appear unlikely that anybody would attempt to ape the high-end Liberty concept in the heart of Dublin’s earthy north city centre. You’d need a zip wire into Henry Street from Ballsbridge, for a start.

But stranger things have probably happened. If it did, it could be a threat to the hegemony of BT as the city centre’s premier store.

There are surely a few twists left in this story yet.