Mothercare UK Ltd. History

Cherry Tree Road
Watford, Hertfordshire WD2 5SH

Telephone: (44) 1 923 33577
Fax: (44) 1 923 816733

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Storehouse PLC
Incorporated: 1972
Employees: 2,300
Sales: £306.2 million (1995 est.)
SICs: 5641 Retailer of Maternity Wear & Children's Apparel

Company History:

With more than 370 stores throughout Great Britain, Europe, and the Middle East and Asia, Mothercare UK Ltd. is Britain's largest retailer of clothing and accessories for mothers and their young children. Along with BHS (formerly British Home Stores), Mothercare is the second major component of the Storehouse PLC retail group. An independent operation until late 1981, this unique retailer's profits peaked in 1980 and only began to approach a full recovery in the mid-1990s.

Creation and Development

Mothercare founder Selim Zilkha was born and educated in the United States and served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Descended from an affluent banking family, Zilkha began to seek alternate business interests in Britain during the late 1950s. After touring France's Prenatal shops, he sought to import the concept of a one-stop maternity and infant store to Great Britain. Moving quickly, Zilkha assembled a group of investors to acquire the 10-store Lewis and Burrows nursery furniture chain. Zilkha converted a section of one of these stores to a "mother-to-be-and-baby department" and hired several buyers to choose merchandise. The experiment, which lost £180,000 over a two-year period, was later characterized as "a complete fiasco."

Zilkha sold the chain in 1960 but did not give up on the concept. Before the year was out, he acquired the 50-store W. J. Harris chain, which sold very traditional baby carriages and nursery furniture. He shuttered half the stores, changed the chain's name to Mothercare, and revamped its merchandise to offer "everything for the mother-to-be and her baby under five." This one-stop concept included modestly priced maternity apparel, infant and children's wear, furniture, strollers, and even baby food. Zilkha also hired Prenatal's M. Mazard as an adviser but was still unable to mirror the French chain's success.

In 1963, the frustrated banker-turned-retailer invited an acquaintance, Barney Goodman, to join him in the business. The move proved a catalyst for success. The partners split the corporate responsibilities with special concentration on personnel, merchandising and distribution. Their "systems-based" management scheme included the adoption of a computerized ordering and distribution system as early as 1964. This highly efficient centralized purchasing program helped give Mothercare more purchasing power than the independent boutiques that constituted most of its competition. These controls in turn allowed the budding chain to offer its goods at lower prices while maintaining high profit margins.

After going public in 1972, Mothercare enjoyed several years of growth and prosperity. Barty Phillips, author of Conran and the Habitat Story, characterized the company as "one of the very few British firms who have had the courage to go into Europe and the determination to make it work." International expansion started in 1968, when Mothercare launched its first location in Denmark. Over the course of the next nine years, it established operations in Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Austria, Holland, and Belgium. Mothercare acquired an American maternity apparel chain in 1976 and converted it to the British format the following year. The chain expanded from 139 stores to 417 by 1981, and pre-tax profits multiplied from £3 million in 1972 to £22.3 million in the fiscal year ended March 1980.

Merger with Habitat

The magic began to wear off in the early 1980s, however: pre-tax profits slid nearly 19 percent to £18.1 million in fiscal 1981. Several factors induced the decline. Although the American operation had expanded to nearly 200 stores by the early 1980s, it had yet to achieve consistent profitability. At the same time, Mothercare allowed its image to erode. Instead of going upmarket, the chain tried to compete on price with bargain outlets like Woolworth's, Boots and Littlewoods. Stores and merchandise were characterized as "dull" and "clinical." Gary Warnaby, writing for the International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management in 1993, also noted that "Selim Zilkha seemed to have lost interest in the company."

Whatever the causes, in 1981 Zilkha and Goodman sold their 423-store Mothercare chain to Habitat PLC, a 52-unit home furnishings chain founded by Terence Conran. The leveraged buy out cost tiny Habitat £50 million (US$239 million). Barney Goodman, who had moved to the United States to launch operations there, returned to Great Britain to help smooth the transition.

Although Habitat was only one-third the size of Mothercare, it had cultivated a much more upscale image. Both chains had originated in the early 1960s. Habitat's moderately-priced, own-design furniture was a British decorating phenomenon--Conran was even knighted "for services to British design and industry." The charismatic designer hoped to imbue Mothercare with Habitat's cachet while maintaining its much-heralded back-office strengths. Habitat, in turn, would use Mothercare's established operations in 10 countries as jumping-off points for its own internationalization. Over the ensuing 18 months, Conran undertook a gradual, subtle revamp of the Mothercare stores and merchandise that culminated in a mid-1983 relaunch featuring a new catalog and gala fashion show. Habitat/Mothercare's first year together appeared a success; profits of £19 million seemed to bode well for the coming decade.

Mothercare was the first in a series of acquisitions that expanded Habitat from a strictly British chain with about £67.2 million in annual revenues to an international retail empire with over £1 billion by 1986. Habitat/Mothercare PLC capped its growth spurt with the 1986 acquisition of British Home Stores, a troubled 130-unit department store chain. Conran hoped that he could do for British Home Stores what he had done for Mothercare: infuse the "dowdy" chain with Habitat's marketing and design savvy.

A new holding company, Storehouse PLC, was formed with Conran as chairman and CEO. Mothercare was one of seven chains in the group, which boasted more than six million square feet of selling space. Over the next three years, Storehouse attempted to reposition British Home Stores, but a serious retail downturn in the late 1980s thwarted the turnaround. By mid-1987, the conglomeration appeared to have failed so miserably that even Conran flirted with breaking up the retail group. The October 1987 stock market crash and two takeover attempts brought an end to Conran's career at Storehouse in 1988. Group pre-tax profits plunged from about £130 million in 1987 to £11.3 million in 1989.

Mothercare struggled unsuccessfully to regain its former glory during this turbulent period. A 1988 attempt to adopt barcode scanning backfired and resulted in what Marketing magazine's Suzanne Bidlake called "a stock replenishment and customer service fiasco." Competitors took advantage of the corporate confusion: by 1992, Britain's Adams chain had grown to within 14 stores of Mothercare's 254 domestic units, and department stores like Woolworth's, C&A, and Marks & Spencer expanded their maternity and children's offerings as well as their market shares. While the Storehouse subsidiary maintained dominant stakes in the British maternity wear and nursery equipment markets, it fell to third in infants' and children's wear by the end of 1992.

At the end of the 1980s, Storehouse executives decided to limit their efforts to Mothercare UK and British Home Stores (subsequently renamed BHS). Having spun off most of its smaller chains (including Habitat), Storehouse sold Mothercare Stores, Inc., the U.S. arm of its maternity chain, to American investment company Bain Capital Inc. in 1991. The £7.5 million (US$13.5 million) loss on the transaction contributed significantly to Mothercare's £3.9 million pre-tax loss on the fiscal year ended March 28, 1992.

Turnaround Gains Momentum in the Early 1990s

Backed by an economic upswing, Mothercare's turnaround proceeded gradually under the direction of a succession of CEOs over the ensuing years. Derek Lovelock replaced exiting chief Peter James in 1990. Lovelock emphasized international growth (excluding the United States) via franchising. In 1992, he hired marketing specialist Patricia Manning away from competitor Woolworth's in an effort to boost Mothercare's market share. Marketing strategies in the early 1990s included cross-brand promotions and point-of-sale displays.

Lovelock led the subsidiary until mid-year, when American Ann Iverson was hired away from Bonwit Teller. Iverson stepped up the pace of the reorganization, leading the first full-scale revamp of Mothercare's store concept in nearly 20 years. The new store layout featured a park-like setting complete with lampposts and talking trees. Many locations were enlarged, and the variety of products was scaled back. In 1993, Iverson told WWD's James Fallon that "In trying to offer everything, we offered too much." By the end of 1995, 127 of Mothercare's stores had been converted to the new format. A new advertising campaign featuring television, print, and outdoor media helped promote the changes.

Iverson's cost-cutting efforts, which included a reduction of middle management, began to bear fruit in the mid-1990s. In a press release summarizing the first six months of fiscal 1995 (ended October 14, 1995), Storehouse chairman Ian Hay Davidson called Mothercare's performance "particularly pleasing." Same store sales had increased two percent year-over-year, and pre-tax profits nearly doubled. The company expected to achieve a net of £17 million on the year, nearing its 1980 record of £22 million. In an apparent show of confidence, Storehouse announced its plan to acquire Boots Company PLC's Children's World for £62.5 million (US$95.8 million).

Although the chain had, in the words of Verdict Research's Hilary Monk, "lost a lot of credibility" over the course of its decade-long decline, a Mothercare executive asserted that "No one has such a strong brand name in kids as we do." It remained to be seen whether that trademark would regain its market dominance in the mid-1990s.

Further Reading:

  • Bidlake, Suzanne, "City Jitters Persist in Wake of Storehouse Loss," Marketing, June 8, 1989, p. 13.
  • ------, "Mothercare in Global Push," Marketing, February 8, 1990, p. 1
  • ------, "Rebirth for Mothercare?" Marketing, March 5, 1992, p. 2.
  • Fallon, James, "Bain Capital Acquires Mothercare for $11M," WWD, March 20, 1991, p. 12.
  • ------, "The Nurturing of Mothercare: A Fun Conception," WWD, February 16, 1993, p. 12.
  • Ferry, Jeffrey, "Broken by the Bottom Line," Forbes, November 1989, p. 180.
  • "Homing in on Mums," Marketing, March 15, 1990, p. 13.
  • Lebow, Joan, "Conran's Sibling Targets Moms and Kids," Crain's New York Business, November 17, 1986, p. 6.
  • Phillips, Barty, Conran and the Habitat Story, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984, pp. 108-116.
  • Robins, Gary, "Downsizing Trims Cost at Mothercare," Stores, October 1991, p. 28.
  • Robinson, Jeffrey, "A Touch of Class; It's Paid Off for Habitat-Mothercare," Barron's, December 3, 1984, pp. 68-69.
  • Smith, Geoffrey N., "Another Try," Forbes, August 11, 1986, p. 112.
  • "'Storehouse PLC' Born of UK Retailers' Merger," Daily News Record, January 8, 1986, p. 17.
  • Warnaby, Gary, "Storehouse," International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, May-June 1993, pp. 27-34.
  • Whelan, Sean, "Battered Storehouse Tightens Up Its Act," Marketing, December 8, 1988, pp. 13-16.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 17. St. James Press, 1997.