Chair of Warehouse Group defends claiming wage subsidy, laying off hundreds of staff

The chair of The Warehouse Group has defended the company's decisions to claim $67.8 million through the government's wage subsidy scheme and to lay off hundreds of staff and cut back hours for others.

The Group, which owns the Noel Leeming, Torpedo7 and Warehouse Stationery brands, has today released its results, confirming a full-year profit of $44.5 million.

The figure was released last week as a preview to the stock exchange and showed without the subsidy the company would have made a loss of $4.3m.

The company has been criticised by unions, the government and during the election campaign for restructuring and redundancies while getting the subsidy.

As early as June the prime minister said she was "angry" at the company pushing on with the restructuring while receiving the wage subsidy.

However, Joan Withers said the receipt of the subsidy was crucial to the Group maintaining its workforce during the lockdown period, during which employees were paid their full wages.

"On average the wage subsidy equated to around 55 percent of our normal wage and salary expense over the period to which the subsidy applied."

"The Group has been through two significant restructuring processes which were in place well before COVID-19... These changes, although difficult for all involved, were necessary for the Group to continue to meet the needs of customers."

The restructures cost the company $44.2m.

Year-on-year retail sales for The Warehouse and Warehouse Stationery stores were flat, although both saw massive boosts for online and click and collect sales.

Sales for Noel Leeming and Torpedo 7 were up about 10 percent the year earlier with the companies also benefiting from an online surge.

On an adjusted basis - the 2020 financial year included an extra week - group sales were up 1.5 percent, with a 55.2 percent rise in online sales and a doubling in the number of click and collect sales.

Online sales make up just over 11 percent of the Group's total sales.

During the initial lockdown, 1.25 million online orders were placed during alert levels 2, 3 and 4.

As at 14 October net cash was approximately $80m.

The company said sales for the first nine weeks of the current financial year sales were up 6 percent on the same time last year.

"There has been a gradual reduction in the elevation of sales since the end of the first lockdown, as pent up demand and the impact of wage subsidy and mortgage holidays subside. There appears to be some benefit to retail spending due to the reduction of alternative spending options, in particular the ability to travel. How long these remain is uncertain."

That uncertainty was behind the company's decision not to pay a final dividend, however said depending on trading it hoped to return a dividend this year.