David Cameron’s castrated stint as prime minister will be remembered for indefensible judgment calls. The pattern was set very soon after he came to power in August 2010 when he appointed Philip Green in a special capacity to review public sector efficiency. In hindsight, it appears the equivalent of bringing in Vlad the Impaler to advise on prison reform.
The appointment came not so long after the Topshop billionaire had made headlines with his 55th birthday celebrations on a private island in the Maldives, with live performances by George Michael and Jennifer Lopez in the shadow of an enormous, specially carved granite Buddha, to which the tycoon, in his Bermudas, boasted a passing resemblance. Green’s wife, Tina – the beneficiary of a £1.2bn dividend from Green’s Arcadia group, the largest one-off payout in British corporate history – ordered 3,000 bottles of champagne for the event, which racked up a total cost of roughly £20m.
Despite the prime minister’s curious desire to hear the tax exile’s considered thoughts on parsimony, it turned out, to no one’s surprise, that report writing was not Green’s forte. He delivered to the Cabinet Office a single PowerPoint presentation detailing, among other things, how they could centralise the buying of stationery and use video conferencing to cut down on travel costs. In protest at Green’s appointment, meanwhile, activists from UK Uncut superglued themselves to Topshop windows on Oxford Street. When Green’s role in government was cut short, he grumbled how his public service had put him out of pocket in glaziers’ bills.
Green had spent a lifetime ruthlessly trying to avoid being on the wrong end of any deal. The ways in which he was able to do so, as detailed in Oliver Shah’s detailed and entertaining dismantling of the “king of the high street”, often say as much about the sea as about the shark. Before his name became a byword – “Sir Shifty”, as the Daily Mail had it – for enriching himself while his employees’ pension scheme was hollowed out, Green’s empire had a long run of almost unquestioned growth.
His trick was always to convince bankers and backers and politicians that he could deliver more benefits to them than even those he trousered. No one in recent British corporate life has been a more effective exponent of the quid pro quo – or in Green’s case, the 10 million quid pro quo. There is an irony, not lost on Shah, the city editor of the Sunday Times, that a good deal of Green’s personal mythology was the work of his predecessors at the paper, in particular Jeff Randall, the former business editor, who Private Eye came to characterise as Green’s personal Boswell.
Randall met Green in the early 1990s when, after a series of rickety deals in the London rag trade, the “Bond Street bandit” was building a stake in a failing clothing manufacturer called Amber Day. Having found the brash and indiscreet trader an invaluable source of stories, Randall, Shah reports, “began to call Green every Friday” for tip-offs, at the same time talking up in his business pages the “blockbusting moves” of Amber Day’s “hyperactive boss”. The relationship did so much to create Green’s uncompromising “barrow-boy” persona that when he thought about writing an autobiography the working title he apparently came up with was “Lucky 5766”, the digits being the extension number of the Sunday Times’s business editor.
There is some rough justice in the fact that the paper that did so much to promote Green’s path to the top of its rich list was the same one – through Shah’s eventual exposé of the scandal around Green’s sale of BHS to the “serial bankrupt and fantasist” Dominic Chappell for £1 – that has also expedited a relative slide down it. Green wrongly assumed that his dealings with Shah, then a 32-year-old reporter, would represent business as usual. On their first meeting, he opened up his contacts book to the journalist: “Young Oliver, call me if you need anything, OK?” “I felt a ritual had been performed,” Shah recalls. “Like so many of my Sunday Times predecessors, I had received Green’s blessing and taken his shilling.”
Shah, whose book comes garlanded with threats advising against publication from its reluctant subject, makes the case that Green was a creation first of his parents, then of his times. In contrast to the self-made character that Green has promoted, he was in many ways born to the life he has led. Both his parents were the children of bankrupts and his mother, in particular, was steeled to avoid that fate herself. Simon Green had a business renting out TV sets; his wife, the formidable Alma, opened London’s first coin-operated launderette, then its first self-service garage, going on to build a buy-to-let property portfolio. The family lived in a big house off Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, and Philip was sent to board at Carmel, “the Jewish Eton”. When Simon Green died prematurely of a heart attack having become addicted to prescription painkillers, Philip became the focus of his mother’s acquisitive ambition. He left school with no O-levels but with a close understanding of the stock market and an irrepressible chutzpah.
Over three decades, he used that personality, and a business toughness first learned from Alma and nurtured by his wife, to take advantage of two economic trends: the credit card bonanza that fuelled a retail boom, and the exponential rise in commercial property values around the turn of the millennium. Leveraging friendships with get-rich-quick bankers at Goldman Sachs and HBOS, and developing an instinct for what consumers, particularly young women coming to Topshop, wanted – affordability and choice – he became for a while the alpha male of the great British addiction: shopping.
Shah punctuates his account of this rise with detail of Green’s behaviour toward employees and rivals, characterised by a personal arms race of expletives. Hardly anyone seems to have stood up either to his blunt charm offences or to his unhinged rages – though his nemesis, Sir Stuart Rose, who fought off Green’s attempts to take over Marks & Spencer in 2004 (and the man himself when he grabbed him by the lapels in the M&S car park), had a determined go.
The hubris that enabled his rise also inevitably presaged his fall. The shameful knighthood (Tony Blair described Green’s charitable works as the efforts of “the person who thought up the dream and dreamt the dream into reality”) and the billions fuelled his belief that he could do no wrong. The half-billion-pound pension black hole he left behind at BHS was no doubt the most scandalous of his failings, damage made inevitable by his inability to see change. When the online retailer Asos was in its infancy, Green passed up several opportunities to buy it, Shah reports. By the time Green realised what he was up against, the branded high street he did much to create was closing down around him. “Almost everything he touched turned to dust,” Shah concludes, “and the riches accrued by his family stand in stark contrast to the redundancy packages collected by his employees.” Monaco can keep him.
• Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street by Oliver Shah is published by Portfolio Penguin (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99