I cannot do better than restate the long article by a contributing columnist to Progressive Greetings, who says as follows:
To Cardsharp’s mind, the Paperchase story shows how integrity can degenerate over a period of time to crony capitalism. However it was not always thus.
Paperchase’s roots go back to 1968, when two idealistic art students, Judith Cash and Eddie Pond brought to life their shared dream of bringing high class quality stationery to the masses. The company went on to become part of WHSmith in 1985, before being acquired in a management buy-out in 1990s for £1 million led by Timothy Melgund and Robert Warden.
In the noughties, American book store owners, Borders acquired a considerable stake in the chain, which enabled Paperchase to expand its portfolio considerably in the UK and in the US where it set up many concessions within Borders stores.
Cardsharp recalls this was the golden age of Paperchase. Under the inspiring leadership of its ceo and later chairman, Timothy Melgund and his business partner and product maestro Robert Warden the stores were alive with innovation in both gift stationery and greeting cards, always aiming to find and support new creative talent. The company’s management and buying team reflected Timothy’s character – passionate and determined, but at the same time gentle and fair-minded.
Cardsharp recalls Paperchase had to overcome some huge obstacles but managed to survive and prosper. In 2010 it was unwittingly embroiled in a plagiarism case that led to unwelcome publicity. And worse still in 2009, its major shareholder Borders went bust, meaning that Paperchase not only lost its distribution in the US, but in the concessions it had in Borders’ UK stores. Timothy and his team managed to negotiate another management buy-out, this time with private equity company, Primary Capital Partners as the backers. This enabled Paperchase to expand to 130 retail outlets by 2013 and also grow in the Middle East and Europe. Profits were healthy for a few years, helped by the expansion of its own brand products.
While some of these own brand products lost some of their lustre over the years, in their heyday, they were the envy of many, with its notebooks becoming akin to fashion accessories.
Looking back though the warning signs were there when Primary seemed to be taking rather large ‘management fees’, even when the profits were not there. It meant that Paperchase was not in a good place when Covid hit in March 2020.
So, in January 2021, the company filed for administration and was bought by a hugely rich and successful private equity group Primera Capital who had just made shed loads of cash with its investment in Dr. Martens footwear. But surprise, surprise, rather than using some of this cash to bail Paperchase out, most creditors received a pittance in the pound and the new business was ring fenced by setting up a new legal entity called Aspen Phoenix Newco.
Many creditors were furious, even more so when all the Christmas stock they had supplied the previous year and had not been paid for, appeared in Paperchase stores around the country boosting the new owner’s profits.
Primary did not hang around for long.
In August last year, after tidying up nicely no doubt, they sold it on to a private investment firm led by a certain Steve Curtis. Curtis beat off interest from Hilco, another of those corporate bottom feeders who fuel themselves off retail misfortunes.
What Curtis’ motives were for buying Paperchase remains unclear, but it was certainly not for the long term. Having traded through the golden retail period for card retailers, ie the run up to Christmas, shockingly the retailer once again went into administration at the end of January this year. This time in a left-flank move Tesco swooped in and bought the brand and a few other assets, no doubt for a song.
As PG went to press, the administrators were squeezing out the last few sales from the public before closing the whole retail operation.
What a sad end for a business which for so many years was a shining example of the UK greeting card retailing at its best, aspirational, inspirational and the place for publishers’ cards to be seen.
It ends a rather gloomy state of affairs.
Even if some of the Paperchase sites are clinched by some decent operators, as seems likely, they are not all going to live on as greeting card retail locations.
Cardsharp does not claim to offer any answers. All he is pretty sure of, is that Primera, Primary and Curtis certainly didn’t end up bankrupt by all these shenanigans!
Many blameless creative suppliers are seriously hurting as many publishers and suppliers are out of pocket for a third time in just over two years due to Paperchase.
Over 800 retail jobs have been lost and the debts to unsecured creditors, many of them small to medium sized creative businesses. The damage is appalling – £20 million from its first period in administration and no one yet knows how much from this final demise.
The whole sorry shoddy and shameful debacle of Paperchase in the last few years leaves the most revolting taste. So much for the so-called Free Market in the 2020s.
Quite frankly to Cardsharp’s nose, the whole thing stinks.