Profile: Scottish retail tycoon Sir Tom Hunter

As a case study in washing your dirty linen in public, the Gadget Shop trial takes some beating, says The Independent.

The court case, which concluded this week, was “one of the finest examples of City mudslinging in years”. Packed with accounts of drunken rows in night-club lavatories, foul-mouthed board meetings and savage accusations of sharp practice, this tale of business-relationships-turned-sour had it all, including an impressive cast of feisty multi-millionaire retail entrepreneurs, the most prominent and the richest of whom is Scottish tycoon Sir Tom Hunter.

Who’s the liar?

When Hunter and his partner Chris Gorman (currently appearing in the Channel 4 TV show Make Me A Million) took a majority stake in the Gadget Shop chain in 2002, they seemed to complete a management dream team. Their co-owners (with a 40% stake) were Freeserve founder Peter Wilkinson and UBS banking hotshot, Jon Wood. But within months, the two camps were at war.

The basis of the £100m claim brought by Wilkinson and Wood is that a plan to merge the Gadget Shop with retail chain Birthdays in 2003 was scuppered by Hunter at the 11th hour, says the FT. Hunter then took the chain for himself and Gorman through his private equity group West Coast Partners because (they claim) the “other side wouldn’t agree to the deal”. Essentially, as the judge concluded, the case boils down to who is lying.

Trainer king

Estimated to be worth some £800m, Hunter, 44, is a paid-up member of the “retail rat pack”. The son of a grocer from the Ayrshire mining village of New Cumnock, Hunter saw his father’s business crash after the 1984 miners’ strike, teaching him the value of self-reliance, says The Guardian. After studying economics and marketing at Strathclyde University, he borrowed £10,000 and sold trainers from the back of a van. By 1989 he had his first shop, Shoe Division, and within six years his group, renamed Sports Division, was turning over £36m.

But the deal that propelled Hunter into the big time was the reverse takeover of Olympus Sports in 1995 – facilitated by Philip Green. Three years later, he sold the business to JJB Sports for £300m. And it’s money he isn’t shy of spending. Like his friend Green, he’s “not afraid to splash the cash”, says The Sunday Times. One example: he hired Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang for his 40th birthday party in Monaco.

Damascene conversion

Hunter’s subsequent emergence in the private-equity arena with West Coast Capital hasn’t been without its dips, says The Sunday Telegraph. But after several unsuccessful attempts to acquire a “trophy” retail asset – he lost out in battles for Selfridges and House of Fraser – the £3bn fund has focused on the commercial property market.

And thanks to a 5% stake in Green’s Bhs, yielding £20m-plus in dividend cheques, he’s not short of loose change. A leading light in the Make Poverty History campaign, Hunter describes his commitment to philanthropy as a “Damascene conversion”, says The Guardian. He recently hit the headlines after donating £55m to Bill Clinton’s Africa initiative, earning a presidential bear-hug in the process. Shortly before the Gadget trial, he was knighted for services to philanthropy and enterprise.

It can’t have been easy for this pillar of respectability to sit through the mud-slinging of the recent court case, says The Sunday Times. Sir Tom is said to be “sanguine” about the outcome, but given it may take the judge a month to decide the verdict, he faces an anxious few weeks.

A 21st-century capitalist with street cred

Despite his long-standing personal and business relationship with Philip Green, Sir Tom Hunter is nevertheless annoyed that he is often judged as an entrepreneur “in the shadow” of the Arcadia and Bhs boss, says the FT. “We have been very lucky together and I have learnt a huge amount from Philip,” says Hunter. But “I am not trying to catch up – we have a different approach”.

That might be so, says The Independent. But the Gadget Shop case certainly still “demonstrates just how small a world the high street is”: Hunter’s QC, Lord Grabiner, is also chairman of Green’s stores group Bhs.

“Direct, plain-speaking” and with a reputation for Scottish prudence, Sir Tom looks “every inch the 21st-century capitalist: lean, fit-looking and a touch piratical”, says The Guardian – though his street cred (he wears a Make Poverty History wrist-band) is somewhat compromised by the Barry Manilow record propped against the wall of his office.

He claims to be able to “smell a bullshitter or someone who’s a hanger-on at 30 paces”. His earliest role model was Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, says The Scotsman. During the early 1990s, he even made a pilgrimage to Walton’s home town of Bentonville, Arkansas, and sought a meeting with Walton’s widow (she refused).

Back home in Scotland, Hunter hung a framed list of “Sam’s rules” for building a business on his office wall. Rule 1: Commit to your business. Rule 2: Share your profits. The third rule – motivate your partners – may well come back to haunt him.