Firm’s grim outlook testament to difficulty of building a truly international brand.

The outlook looks grim for kids clothing retailer Pumpkin Patch. After postponing its annual result at the last minute on Friday and admitting it was in talks with its bank, the company's value has sunk to previously unimaginable lows.

It grew from small beginnings in 1990, as founder Sally Synott tapped into a lucrative new niche in the children's clothing market. She and her team created a fresh, funky brand that delivered on price.

Pumpkin Patch listed in 2004 and by 2007 was one of the brightest stars on the New Zealand sharemarket. It was a growth stock with plenty of hope and belief tied to its rapidly rising value.

It expanded into Australia, the United States and Britain after taking the New Zealand children's clothing market by storm. Its shares peaked at $4.95, giving it a market capitalisation of more than $830 million, in early 2007.

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At one point, when excitement about its growth prospects was at fever pitch, analysts were tipping it could top a billion in market capitalisation - a feat that was estimated to require the roll-out of about 400 US stores and 200 in Britain.

That now seems a long way away after Friday's dismal performance saw it end the day valued at less than $17 million.

It must be devastating to watch for those - including Synott - who have put so much sweat and toil into building the brand over the years.

Pumpkin Patch overextended itself by expanding rapidly right into the global downturn which destroyed consumer confidence in Britain and the United States at the end of the last decade. It was not alone in getting caught by the Global Financial Crisis, and it would be unfair to say it has been mismanaged. But it has certainly never recovered.

Big department stores like The Warehouse and Farmers have become smarter about their buying. They now stock children's clothing that might be cheap and mass-produced but looks cool and funky.

By the time the effects of the GFC had passed, retailing was facing massive structural shifts to which Pumpkin Patch hasn't managed to adapt.

As well as the direct competition that online shopping brings, the web has also increased pressure on big players to get better at meeting customer needs and faster at keeping up with trends.

So big department stores like The Warehouse and Farmers have become smarter about their buying. They now stock children's clothing that might be cheap and mass-produced but looks cool and funky.

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At the other end of the market, Pumpkin Patch has lost its brand cachet. Boutique players dealing in organic, handmade babywear have become the go-to brands for baby showers and birthdays.

Pumpkin Patch seems to have been caught in the middle.

In hindsight it should have sold out to a bigger rival while it had the chance. Now it faces the possibility of a forced sale.

It is not yet clear how close to the wire Pumpkin Patch is with its bank - ANZ.

As at the half-year the company was carrying debt of about $52 million.

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But however bad that debt-to-equity ratio was looking on Friday morning, it was 31 per cent worse by the end of the day.

The meltdown was so bad you'd have to wonder why the company didn't ask to put its shares on a trading halt until the situation with the bank was clarified and the results were ready for release.

ANZ has been supportive and it stuck by the company as it warned it might breach banking covenants over Christmas last year.

In finance-speak the words "talking to the bank" are ominous. It suggests banker patience is running out and ANZ may now be looking to cut its losses.

There was talk of a buyout earlier this year but the proposed deal may have come too late. Talks were abandoned in June.

Since then both the chief executive and chief financial officer have announced their departure - not a good sign.

In finance-speak the words "talking to the bank" are ominous.

Former Pumpkin Patch chief executive Di Humphries
Former Pumpkin Patch chief executive Di Humphries

They usually mean the bank is doing the talking, specifically about exactly how it is going to get its money back.

It suggests banker patience is running out and ANZ may now be looking to cut its losses.

That could mean calling in receivers to realise the asset value of the company or it could mean the bank effectively takes control of the company in a debt-for-equity swap.

Perhaps management will be able to buy some more time by convincing the bank that its turnaround strategy is working, or perhaps a new bargain-hunting buyer will emerge.

But without clear leadership at the top this is going to be difficult.

For staff, long-term shareholders and the many New Zealanders who have followed the company's rise and fall over the past decade the current situation really is a shame.

Building true global brands remains the holy grail for New Zealand business.

The Pumpkin Patch story is a reminder of just how tough a challenge that can be.