In October 2007, while Sir Philip Green was still riding high on the High Street, he threw a ninetieth birthday party for his mother, Alma, at the Four Seasons hotel on Park Lane – although he belatedly realised it was actually her 89th.
But no matter. Guests to the Four Seasons included the then stars of the business world: Goldman Sachs banker, Mike Sherwood, the former Sunday Times business editor, Will Lewis, Robert Tchenguiz and Richard Caring to name a few.
The Canadian crooner- Paul Anka- was flown in from Los Angeles to sing for Alma, who joined Anka on stage to end the evening, singing ’My Way’ together.
Before that finale, Green gave a speech to his mother, who is said to have starved both Philip and his sister of affection, saying how ‘very, very lucky’ he had been ‘that my mother was an entrepreneurial businesswoman. (My italics – Alma owned launderettes, self-service petrol stations and many properties and liked to gamble at the Les Ambassadeurs casino, also on Park Lane) That was a great start for me, and I’m pleased to say, Mum, I put it to good use.”
During the evening Green’s two children, Chloe and Brandon, also sung her praises, in a song they had written in her honour. This is how it went: “Hello, Grandma. It’s you we should be thankin’, for what Dad’s been bankin’. It’s ‘cos of you that we don’t have to work.”
As Green might say, “What the f…!”. I don’t know about you but reading that last line – ‘It’s cos of you that we don’t have to work’ – left me flabbergasted by its impudence.
Whether the song was written tongue in cheek or not – I doubt they would have the cheek – it gives a glimpse into the minds of spoiled brats living inherited wealth, money taken by Green from BHS and paid to his wife in dividends into her offshore account in Monaco. And it was legit.
This story of Alma’s party is just one of many brilliantly researched vignettes about Green and his family in a sensational new book, Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street by Oliver Shah, the new business editor of the Sunday Times.
In party terms, Alma’s soiree was pretty low key compared to the celebrity love-in fests organised by Green’s wife, Tina, for his big number birthdays, known as PG50, PG55 and PG60 in hotels from Cyprus to Mexico. Think Simon Cowell, Carling and his cronies in Roman togas, jokes about cocaine Charlie in the air, Sylvester Stallone giving birthday greetings and Tom Jones crooning to Green to get the bigger picture.
But it’s precisely these tiny, delicious details, that make Shah’s book about Green so gripping, a page-turner of a thriller which is all the more shocking because most of us know – or know of – the characters involved in his story. Tony Blair makes an entrance, as does Lord Rose of M&S – a stores group that Green came close to buying twice – the ambitious young banker, Robin Saunders, the notorious banker, Peter Cummings of HBOS, who fuelled so many of Green’s deals, Scottish wheeler-dealer, Sir Tom Hunter, the secretive Barclays brothers and Lord Myners.
As Shah puts it, the billionaire businessman, once hailed as one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs, had Prime Ministers and supermodels on speed dial. The book reads as though it is on speed too: there are moments when Shah’s narrative runs like a frantic James Bond script interspersed with moments of Shakespearian farce. There are times you have to prick yourself to remember that Green’s wheeling and dealing is not fiction but what actually took place behind the closed doors of the High Street.
No wonder the book, only published this week, has already made the top 30 in the Amazon best-seller charts.
You know the outline story. In March 2015, Green sold BHS for a £1 to Retail Acquisitions, a new company owned by Dominic Chappell, a flaky and serial bankrupt who had no business going near a corner shop let alone BHS. Or, as one of his previous colleagues said, ‘he couldn’t run a penny machine in a toilet door.’ Like Green, Chappell liked to spend BHS company money on yachts, cars, helicopters and fancy holidays.
But what the con-man Chappell didn’t have was Green’s skill for trading or trading assets. Just a year or so later, BHS was put into administration with 11,000 jobs lost, debts of £1.3bn and a pensions deficit of £571m, leaving 20,000 people with their pensions at risk.
After tortuous negotiations, a joint parliamentary select committee inquiry and months of scorn from the media and public alike, Green finally stumped up and gave £363m to the Pensions Regulator. Once the self-styled King of the High Street, Green had, just about, saved his bacon. For now.
What intrigues me most about this tale is the way that Green keeps coming back to banter with Shah, even when the then young Sunday Times retail correspondent is giving him a hard time, breaking endless stories about his disintegrating empire week by week: stories that Green keeps denying and threatening to sue but never does. It’s the oddest relationship. Most of Shah’s recorded conversations are full of expletives and explosive eruptions and even death threats from Green, yet the two still keep on talking. It’s almost as though Green – who once had close relations with former ST business editors and their reporters- needed Shah to vent his own anger.
This may come across as cod psychology but you do wonder whether there isn’t a shade of Stockholm Syndrome evident in their relations; where the victim, in this case Green, can’t stop talking or trying to defend himself to his torturer and nemesis – Shah. Did Green realise deep down that, despite his canny retailing nous, he had maybe f…up?
Did he know that the pension disaster unfolding at BHS – which he had been warned about for years by his trustees and others involved – had to come out into the open, allowing him to fess up and pay his dues?
Who knows. But it’s odd that the ST tormentor and his prey – or was it priest and confessor – continued to talk and trade insults despite their relations descending into a “state of war”.
What next for Green? Well, he’s still in a position of great influence on the High Street but must tread carefully. Nearly every retailer is suffering because of the migration of sales online, rising business rates and lower consumer demand. Strangely for one with such a sharp retail eye, Green never fully understood the power of online selling, turning down several offers to become involved in Asos.
Through Arcadia, Green still owns 2,000 shops with the TopShop, Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins and Evans brands and employs 30,000 staff. This time the pensions deficit is £1bn. Will Green allow Arcadia to implode, as he did with BHS, or will he sell in time?
Shah warns that if Green continues to ignore reality, BHS’s collapse could be merely the opening act in a far greater tragedy.
If you want to learn more, Oliver Shah will be talking to Maggie Pagano about his book at 6.30pm on July 4th at a venue in central London. Tickets are £20 and include a signed copy of the book. See here for more details: https://reaction.life/events/