Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green by Oliver Shah – review

All mouth and dodgy trousers … how the king of high street retail became the unacceptable face of capitalism

As Sir Philip Green climbed the steps of his private jet last week to fly to London from his Arizona weight-loss facility after completing his self-declared attempt to shed nine pounds, a particular detail troubled me.

Forget for a moment the allegations of racism, sexual harassment and bullying the 66-year-old billionaire retail magnate this year tried to suppress with non‑disclosure agreements. Green has rejected claims of abusive behaviour and insisted “there was never any intent to be offensive”. Ignore, too, that Labour peer Peter Hain last month used parliamentary privilege to get around a legal injunction and identify the Arcadia boss whom MPs accused of “corporate raiding” and “asset-stripping” as the man behind those allegations.

Set aside briefly that Burton’s ex-brand director Wesley Taylor, who is black, had walked out after a row with Green. He alleged Green used racially abusive language on numerous occasions. The matter was settled out of court. Green denied making racist remarks. Overlook what his biographer Oliver Shah claims Green once said to a female buyer: “You’re absolutely fucking useless. I should throw you out of the window but you’re so fat you’d probably bounce back in again.”

No, the detail that struck me was Sir Philip’s jeans. Was this really the one-time most fearsome predator in the retail jungle, the former king of the British high street who invited Kate Moss to design clothes for Topshop, and who launched Beyoncé’s Ivy Park range of athleisure? Was this the guy who so effectively wooed prime ministers that he was knighted by Tony Blair and made a special adviser by David Cameron? Green’s mullet has long been bad enough, but what were those things at the other end of his body? Jeans with freshly pressed creases?

Green has never understood jeans. In the early 1980s he was running a shop called Bond Street Bandit and had a brainwave. Fiftysomething railway heiress Gloria Vanderbilt had made a killing from lending her name to a range of super skinny jeans. Perhaps Green could do the same with Joan Collins. He got 1m pairs of Collins-endorsed jeans made on the cheap in Hong Kong and planned to sell them at £16.95 each. Only one problem. The 49-year-old actor wasn’t the right person to woo teen punters. Joan Collins Jeans flopped.

Thereafter, as Shah’s book details, Green concentrated on what he was good at: buying up ailing retail businesses, stripping their assets, paying himself and his family vast dividends, funnelling the money into accounts in the tax haven Monaco, before offloading the stripped carcass on to some sucker.

In 2000, for example, he bought British Home Stores for £200m and briefly oversaw a rise in the struggling department store’s fortunes. The resulting rise in pre-tax profits enabled the Green family to pay themselves nearly £420m from BHS in the early noughties. “Considering he had risked no money of his own, it wasn’t bad,” Shah notes.

Pranksters rename Green’s £100m superyacht the BHS Destroyer in 2016.
Pranksters rename Green’s £100m superyacht the BHS Destroyer in 2016. Photograph: Lee Nelson/PA

At the time, though, the Guardian’s financial editor Paul Murphy was among journalists who studied BHS’s finances and questioned its valuation. Green, typically, went on the offensive with proto-Trumpian bluster, saying of Murphy: “He can’t read English. Mind you, he is a fucking Irishman.” The Guardian published the racist rant on the front page, prompting Green to do that rare thing, apologise – to the Irish.

No matter. Green’s personal wealth seemed to be going from strength to strength. In 2005, Taveta, the parent company of his Arcadia group that included BHS, Topshop, Top Man, Burton, Wallis and Miss Selfridge, paid a record dividend of £1.3bn – even though the dividend was bankrolled effectively by loans of around £1bn. Effectively, the Green family was paying itself dividends far in excess of company profits, as the House of Commons BHS select committee argued in 2016. By the end of the decade, though, there were no profits for BHS to declare. BHS’s profits collapsed from £38.5m in 2007 to a crushing loss of £62.1m in 2009, after which it never made a profit again. The global credit crunch was one factor; another was Green’s digital witlessness (for years his secretary would print out his emails) at a time when online retailing was poised to destroy the high street.

And yet Green held on to BHS, anxious about having to foot the multimillion pound bill for its catastrophically underperforming pension fund. In 2015 he offloaded the chain for £1 to a professionally inept and personally greedy two-time bankrupt called Dominic Chappell. The frontman of Retail Acquisitions siphoned off what remained of BHS’s millions – buying boats and sports cars with the proceeds – before a year later, on the very day of the announcement that BHS was going into administration, heading off for a well-earned Bahamas holiday, while his former employees became unemployment statistics. BHS’s fate under Retail Acquisitions was sealed weeks earlier when Green called in a £35m loan to Chappell.

We don’t know yet if the sexual harassment allegations will stick, although he categorically denies them, nor whether Nancy Dell’Olio’s claim that he once offered her £1m to spend the night with him is true. What we do know is that Green has been bad for some women. In 2016, for instance, he and his wife, Tina, took receipt of a 295ft yacht complete with gym and helipad for £100m from an Italian yard whose biggest boat previously was one they’d built for Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. While they sailed the Mediterranean, BHS staff, overwhelmingly women, many of whom had subsisted on £7 an hour, contemplated the irony that Tina’s new Chanel handbag was worth as much as their £2,000 redundancy payouts. Women at the South Shields branch, lives ruined by their ex‑boss’s virtuosity at the game of moral hazard, held up a sign saying “Fuck Phil Green” while other BHS workers petitioned him to sell his yachts (he has more than one) and pay the pensions.

Phillip Green in 1980.
Phillip Green in 1980. Photograph: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

Shah, the Sunday Times business editor, starts his book with Green threatening to chuck him out of the window, and recalls throughout how he menaced rivals with threats of visits from tasty geezers from south of the river. Only 299 pages later does Shah allow him to back-pedal on his threats. “If I had any boys in south London, they’d have been around to see you long before now,” Green tells Shah in one of their last conversations. Typical Green: all mouth and dodgy trousers.

How did a middle-class Jewish boy become a reviled shark with a runaway foul mouth nicknamed Sir Shifty who even the Daily Mail thinks should be stripped of his knighthood? Born in Croydon 1952, he was the second child of mother Alma (described by Shah as “hard and unemotional”) and father Simon (“depressive and lugubrious”) and attended Carmel College, the now-defunct private school once known as the Jewish Eton. Simon Green, an opiate-addicted businessman who repaired electrical goods and rented TVs, died when Philip was 12, and so his mother, whom Shah comes perilously close to presenting as the villain of the piece, proved a decisive influence. Philip got his first job aged 16, in a wholesale shoe-importing business run by a family friend, thanks to his mother, Alma, a tough woman with a business portfolio that included Britain’s first coin-operated laundrette and self-service petrol station plus buy-to-let homes in the Croydon area.

By the early 1970s Green was a job buyer, astutely picking up excess stock from badly run retailers and selling it on to independent stores or market stall holders. He was, from the first, looking out for the underperformers to take down so he could make his fortune. During his years on the rise, his hero was the financier Charles Clore, whose Lithuanian ancestors had fled pogroms to settle in London’s East End, and who became the pioneer of the hostile takeover in Britain. Above his desk, Green had a signed picture of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko with the slogan “Greed is good”, savvy enough to appreciate the irony that the point of Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street was to argue that greed was bad. And shameless enough, too.

But is Green merely greedy? Shah concludes not: he approvingly cites Clore’s biographer: “If there is one common trait in every entrepreneur it is that he’s a thoroughly insecure animal whose main drive is vanity and whose main passion is a worship for prestige.” Hence, perhaps, Green’s fetish for big yachts, which looks like compensation for some shortcoming, be it psychic or physical. Hence too his three-day 50th birthday party in Cyprus at which Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Earth Wind and Fire performed and where he received gifts including a solid gold Monopoly game from Asprey, a red Ferrari Spider and a Harley Davidson with licence plate PG50. On the third day of those anniversary revels, togas were supplied to all – enabling Green to disport himself as Emperor Nero.

Business journalist Alex Brummer wrote in the Jewish Chronicle a couple of years ago that Green’s behaviour had “cast a pall over the reputation of the ethics of Jews in business”. Is there antisemitism behind some attacks on Green? Doubtless. Jews were hated in Germany before the war, argued Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, because they were made projections of what non-Jews wanted to be. Jews, antisemites supposed, had “happiness without power, wages without work, a home without frontiers, religion without myth”. Something similarly unfair, I suspect, explains why Green is such a hate figure: if there’s one thing the antisemitic have-nots can’t abide, after all, it’s the have-yachts, especially if they’re Jews revelling in their wealth.

But Green’s scapegoating for me resembles how Harvey Weinstein sometimes gets treated as if he invented sexual predation, rather than being a particularly gaudy exponent of something to which patriarchal societies have long been prone. To name Green as the unacceptable face of capitalism, as a Commons report did two years ago, is to obscure the truth that ugliness is endemic to the system: short-termism and business predation did not start with Sir Philip – nor will they end with him.

Beyond Hain’s charges and renewed calls for the knighthood to be stripped, Green now faces another difficulty. Stores in his Arcadia portfolio such as Wallis and Evans have long performed badly, but now Topshop, the one-time jewel in Green’s crown, Shah reports, is in trouble. Online retailers such as Asos and Boohoo have made inroads into its customer base, while H&M and Primark have outperformed his firm on the High Street. Green’s business nous, if that’s what it was, now looks unfit for purpose.

What should he do? Find a younger, savvier version of himself to buy Arcadia, strip the meat and offload the bones on to someone else. And then? Dust off that toga and play a latter-day Nero all over again, kicking back on his superyacht while what’s left of his empire, as it soon must, turns to ashes.

• Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street by Oliver Shah (Portfolio Penguin, £18.99). To order a copy for £16.71, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street by Oliver Shah – review
A damning account of Green’s rise and fall reveals the hubris of the Topshop tycoon who charmed the rich and powerful

Tim Adams

02, Jul, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Philip Roth by Blake Bailey review – how a literary giant treated women
An impressive, complex biography of the celebrated American writer, packed with anecdotes and jokes, inevitably details his shocking attitude towards women

Blake Morrison

24, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Magician by Colm Tóibín review – inside the mind of Thomas Mann
This compelling fictionalised biography explores the life and times of the exiled German Nobel winner, exquisitely balancing the intimate and momentous

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

17, Sep, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre review – the astonishing story of a cold war superspy
The double life of a KGB insider recruited by MI6 features microfilm, Soviet secrets and a daring escape

Luke Harding

19, Sep, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Theresa May by Rosa Prince review – the anti-Cameron, Brexit PM
There is not much that’s intriguing about the determined May, apart from her class-based reaction against her predecessor’s gilded clique

Rafael Behr

16, Feb, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee review – an exceptional biography
An astute study of the dazzlingly clever playwright, which details the parties and famous friends, but also identifies the emotions that drive much of his work

Stefan Collini

01, Oct, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years and Oscar’s Ghost review – Wilde after prison
Nicholas Frankel’s book together with Laura Lee’s study of Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s legacy chart a tragic relationship that is also one of the most fascinating gay love stories

Colm Tóibín

15, Nov, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming review – twists right to the end
Kidnapping and a community’s silence ... the story of the disappearance of the author’s mother, aged three, is a highly skilful uncovering of family secrets

Blake Morrison

26, Jun, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal review – a superb, sensitive account
From Proust and Parisian riches to the horror of the Holocaust ... this companion study to The Hare With Amber Eyes is the skilfully told story of a family’s collection of art objects

Nicholas Wroe

15, Apr, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Familiar Stranger by Stuart Hall review – from Jamaica to the New Left and Thatcherism
This posthumous memoir by the renowned cultural theorist hinges on his journey from the West Indies to the ‘mother country’

Colin Grant

31, Mar, 2017 @6:30 AM