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Borders knitwear firm on brink of collapse

Dawson International, once the doyen of the Scottish textile industry, is facing difficult times.

HOME SPUN: Dawson International's Barrie knitwear business, based in Hawick, designs for some of the world's top fashion houses.
HOME SPUN: Dawson International's Barrie knitwear business, based in Hawick, designs for some of the world's top fashion houses.

The company is on the brink of administration after failing to plug a huge hole in its final salary pension scheme

Some 200 workers at the 140-year-old firm's Barrie knitwear business, which designs and knits cashmere for some of the world's top fashion houses from its base in Hawick in the Borders now face an uncertain future after its shares were suspended.

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The firm, which employed 12,000 workers at the height of its success, once owned many of Scotland's best-known and loved labels, including Pringle, Todd and Duncan and Ballantyne.

Barrie would be an attractive target for a rival business, at home or more likely overseas, if administrators were to put it up for sale.

The crisis has been brewing for several years, but came to a head when long-running negotiations with the pensions regulator hit the buffers last month.

Dawson is a tiny trading company with an unusually large liability for the pensions of its former employees and is in a similar situation to British Airways, which has been described as a pension scheme with an airline attached.

The Herald revealed a year ago that the Dawson scheme had just 56 active members, yet was responsible for the pensions of 4300 people, including 905 in the US, of whom 2339 were retired and 1905 working for other firms.

The company had hoped to persuade the regulator that those liabilities could be transferred, at a price, to the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), set up in 2005 as an insurance safety net for retirees whose companies go bust. However, the regulator has only allowed a handful of companies to offload their pension responsibilities and then continue trading. Dawson has sold off two of its three remaining businesses in the past three years, enabling it to make an undisclosed cash offer to the PPF, which in other cases has also taken a 33% stake in the ongoing business to enable it to benefit from any future upside.

The pension fund trustees have to be sure that the company had the resources to pay down the deficit, currently £17 million, over time.

The regulator, however, decided that the full cost of insuring all Dawson's liabilities was in the region of £100m, and that the company's offer was inadequate. The company's directors and its major shareholder protested that once an agreement had been made, more cash could have been raised and contributed, and that pushing the businesses into administration would end up being more costly to the taxpayer.

The trustees have been forced to issue a demand for payment, forcing the directors to request the group's shares to be suspended while they review the finances.

The pension scheme is likely to end up in the PPF, which will mean a 10% cut in pensions for most retirees, an executive pension ceiling of £34,050 a year, and no inflation protection for any contributions made before April 1997.

Frank McBrine, 71, worked as an accountant for J&D McGeorge for 22 years, until 1992 when he retired early on health grounds. His pension is part of the Dawson International fund and he is concerned and uncertain about what the future holds for him financially.

He said he did not think the company's negotiation with the regulator had helped matters.

He added: "Why weren't the members of the pension fund advised by Dawson that they were taking these steps? I didn't know anything about it until I saw it on Ceefax and in the papers."

Mr McBrine, a father-of-three from Dumfries, said: "It is quite a harrowing time for a lot of people now. The impact on me personally is rather unclear.

"I was concerned that Dawson approached the Pension Protection Fund, and were rejected. I was under the impression that the trustees, if they found they could no longer support the pensions they had to pay, would have made the application to the PPF, rather than the company. I understood that even if the Government didn't like doing it, they would then have had to undertake paying the pensions."

However, he said he was no longer sure that that was the case. Mr McBrine added: "Are they obliged to do so? That is something that is unclear now."

He added: "I think the company should have taken some steps earlier. They must have had some inkling of what was required.

"When they sold Pringle and Ballantyne's, two reputable worldwide companies, I would have thought some of that money would go into the pension fund. I don't know how they've got into the situation they are in now.

"In the last 20 years, what have they done with all the money?"

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