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McPherson plots value empire

Elaine McPherson, the saviour of Ethel Austin and former chief executive of MK One, has emerged as the mystery buyer of homewares chain Au Naturale and has reunited her former MK One management team to help build a value supergroup.

McPherson has already rescued 284 Ethel Austin stores and added 46 Au Naturale stores to her portfolio last week.

McPherson is understood to be building a specialist value company and is considering relaunching homeware in the Ethel Austin stores. Historically, this was a category that performed well for the business, which went into administration earlier this year.

McPherson is also understood to have reassembled her former MK One management team including finance director David Thompson and retail operations director John Ferguson to help lead the venture, which to date has saved about 2,500 jobs at Ethel Austin and 550 jobs at Au Naturale.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the trio successfully grew MK One to reach sales of £139 million with EBITDA hitting £14.8m in 2004. They subsequently sold the business to Icelandic investment group Baugur for £44m in 2004.

Sources told Drapers that Mark Brafman, who was a director of MK One prior to McPherson taking over in the mid-1990s, could also join the new team.

Brafman himself was linked to a rescue of a 110 MK One stores this week. The chain appointed administrators Deloitte on Wednesday. It is unclear whether the 110 shops could be added to the Ethel Austin and Au Naturale empire.

McPherson is close to retail mogul Sir Philip Green, and her strength and experience lies in her product and buying skills. Industry sources said that with her former management team on board they were confident she could restore the value specialists to their former glory.

McPherson said: “Au Naturale was a very profitable business and has fantastic potential. I’m preparing a strategy to ensure the business is again a strong and successful retail brand. Ethel Austin formerly sold homewares as part of its range so I’m actively exploring putting fresh product lines from Au Naturale into Ethel Austin outlets.”

Hilco bought MK One from Baugur for £1 last month, angering suppliers.

MK One suppliers were opposed to the administration this week, claiming they were still owed millions of pounds by the firm and that Hilco had traded the business for cash with stock that had not been paid for.

Hilco declined to comment.

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