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Sep 19, 2012

Go Harvey, go Harvey Norman offshore? Don't bet on it

So Harvey Norman wants to commit commercial suicide by moving offshore? It's unlikely CEO Katie Page really meant what she said.

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So Harvey Norman wants to commit commercial suicide by moving offshore? Let it. Katie Page, the Harvey Norman CEO and wife of chairman Gerry Harvey, was quoted in reports this morning as saying:

“They [other retailers] can actually be setting up in Hong Kong — anywhere in Asia now actually, Hong Kong is the favoured place. There’s lots of advisers of going around, speaking to thousands of retailers at the moment, saying, ‘Just set up the company in Hong Kong and ship into this country’. ‘How un-Australian is that?”

Asked whether Harvey Norman would do that, Page said: ”Let’s just take it step by step. I think that is just the worst thing an Australian company could do. It could solve a lot of problems but, you know, if Harvey Norman did that, everybody else would follow. And that’s wrong.”

She’s wrong there. “Everybody” would not follow. Coles, Bunnings, Woolies, David Jones, Just Group, for example, would stay here, as would other legacy retailers. The local business operations are geared to Australia. They have long-term rents, leases or ownership in a few cases (especially Harvey Norman). That means they have to remain here and keep restructuring to keep selling. They might source more and more from offshore (that’s been happening for for 40 years) or they might dabble with offshore online businesses that becomes part of what Harvey Norman and others call an “Omni Channel”.

Every retailer has something similar. But they anchored in Australia, with the wrong sorts of bricks and mortar threatening to crush them.

And no Australian retailer has so much bricks and mortar as Harvey Norman. More than half the company’s $4 billion in Australian assets is made up of bricks-and-mortar retailing (with some other property) Harvey Norman would be group most damaged by a move offshore and into the online world of selling. It would be a kind of commercial suicide.

Even the mighty Walmart and Tesco, plus Carrefour of France, the world’s top three retailers have had mixed success. Some wins, but some big failures offshore. Harvey Norman has an appalling record offshore as well with poorly performing operations in New Zealand, Ireland and Slovenia and an indifferent operation in Singapore. So threatening to move offshore would seem to be the last thing the company would threaten to do. In fact Harvey Norman’s threat would see the most damage occurring to its franchisees and property businesses, with shareholders, who include Harvey and Page, last in the firing line.

A look at the Harvey Norman results for 2011-12 shows the company’s problem. It is not a retailer, it is a property owner with retail franchises and some company owned stores piggybacking on those properties.

If the company moves offshore, the impact will hurt its own sales in Australia through its franchisees and company-owned operations. Every sale done offshore will take sales from Australian stores, thereby lowering its own profits and revenues, especially those vital profit earnings and fees from the 700 or more franchisees.

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