Advisers to Debenhams have asked prospective bidders to table offers for the business on Tuesday as they seek to salvage a future for the 242 year-old department store chain.
Sky News understands that Lazard, the investment bank running the sale process, wants interested parties to submit bids by 5pm.
The deadline comes as Debenhams’ administrator, FRP Advisory, seeks to conclude a sale of the business by the end of this month, or prepare for alternative options that could entail thousands more job losses.
Debenhams employs about 12,000 people in the UK, having collapsed into administration in April, when the coronavirus lockdown brought high street retailers’ revenues to a grinding halt.
Last month, Sky News revealed that FRP had lined up Hilco Capital, a specialist in winding down troubled retailers, to oversee a liquidation of Debenhams if none of the alternative options bears fruit.
Sources said the chain was being marketed by Lazard under the codename Project Ariana, and includes assets outside the UK other than Magasin du Nord, its Danish subsidiary.
As well as more than 120 UK stores, Debenhams trades from 45 sites in 17 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia under various franchise agreements.
Information circulated among potential buyers outlines an “illustrative scenario” under which half of Debenhams’ UK estate would be liquidated, leaving it with 60 stores, with the business potentially recording profit of up to £90m in the year ending February 2022.
In recent weeks, Debenhams has begun fighting an attempt to increase its business rates bill in Swansea, which it describes as a “test case” that will determine the group’s future.
A spokesman for the department store chain said last month: “Debenhams is trading strongly, with 124 stores reopened and a healthy cash position.
“As a result, and as previously stated, the administrators of Debenhams Retail Ltd have initiated a process to assess ways for the business to exit its protective administration.
“The administrators have appointed advisers to help them assess the full range of possible outcomes which include the current owners retaining the business, potential new joint venture arrangements (with existing and potential new investors) or a sale to a third party.”
The company declined to comment specifically on Tuesday’s 5pm deadline for offers.
Sources insist that Debenhams has performed ahead of expectations since the bulk of its stores were able to reopen in June and does not need to borrow money for the foreseeable future.
Hilco, which briefly acquired the Oasis and Warehouse brands after they collapsed into administration earlier this year, also worked with Debenhams on the permanent closure of 18 stores this year.
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The drawing up of contingency plans for Debenhams’ liquidation represents another turbulent chapter for a business which traces its roots to 1778.
It initially fell into administration in the spring of last year after a bitter public battle with the Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley, whose Frasers Group had become its biggest shareholder.
Mr Ashley is said by retail sources to be contemplating a bid for Debenhams, but with a view to closing the majority of its outlets.
For much of its history, Debenhams was highly profitable, becoming an established anchor tenant on many high streets and in shopping centres around the UK.
It relisted on the London stock market in 2006 following a spell in private equity ownership that proved lucrative for CVC Capital Partners and TPG but which left its balance sheet saddled with what proved to be unsustainable debts.
After its first spell in administration, Debenhams launched a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) to secure agreement for store closures and rent cuts.
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