Philip Green worked his way up from difficult circumstances to become the king of the high street. But his runaway ego has always been his greatest enemy. Jane Lewis reports.
“It’s just b*ll*cks,” was Philip Green’s reaction when his journalistic nemesis, Oliver Shah of The Sunday Times, asked him some time back about allegations that he had bullied employees and used racist language towards a black member of staff, whom he had later paid off. There followed the sort of expletive-ridden, threatening rant to which the Topshop owner often resorted when faced with challenging questions. During the course of researching his biography, Damaged Goods, Shah had heard many stories of Green’s “atrocious behaviour” – particularly towards women – noting that “out-of-court settlements and non-disclosure agreements were normal operating procedure”. Shah wasn’t surprised Green was named last week as the “mystery businessman” who had attempted to silence The Daily Telegraph from making renewed claims of abuse.
Insecure, chippy, paranoid
Green continues to “wholly and categorically” deny the allegations. But “all hell broke loose” after Lord Hain used his parliamentary privilege to air them, reports Shah. While a Twitter campaign, #PinkNotGreen, urged Topshop’s customers to boycott the fashion chain, the billionaire has faced renewed calls for his knighthood to be revoked.
Green has fallen so far since the 2016 collapse of British Home Stores (BHS) that it’s now “incredibly difficult” to recall a time before his “name was mud”, when he was king of the high street – “a swaggering, wise-cracking wide boy with Kate Moss on his arm and Blair and Cameron on speed dial”.
Green, 66, is “insecure, chippy and paranoid”, says Spear’s magazine. “But his greatest enemy has always been his runaway ego.” He had a difficult start. Born into a middle-class family in south London, his father, who owned an electrical shop, died when he was 12 and he was packed off to board at Carmel College. Expelled at 15, he left school a year later in 1968 and joined a wholesale shoe-importing business.
Green’s waning influence
Green spent the next four decades “sifting through” ever larger ventures, says The Sunday Telegraph. His first business disaster came in 1992 when he was kicked out of the listed retail chain Amber Day – a humiliation that gave him a loathing of the City. But he bounced back, cutting deals to acquire Olympus sportswear and break up the Sears retail conglomerate. By the time he acquired Topshop in 2002 he had developed a taste for the high life and staged the first of many lavish and over-the-top parties, flying celebrity guests to Cyprus to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Green has always been “combative” – he nearly came to blows with Stuart Rose in 2004 as they battled for control of Marks & Spencer – and often threatens to throw people out of windows. But he is renowned for his generosity to friends, noted The Guardian in 2011. He had a “talent” for cutting costs, says Will Hutton in the Observer. “But his greater talent was creating the reputational halo” that let him finance acquisitions “and then use every available loophole to direct as much money as possible to himself” – culminating, in 2016, in “the attempt to avoid his responsibility for the BHS pension fund after he had knowingly sold it to a bankrupt”. He used his businesses to enrich himself (he is now worth £2bn) “so that he could swagger in public admiration”.
Ultimately, the accusations concerning his conduct may prove “less relevant” to Green’s business empire “than the pressing commercial issues it faces”, says the Financial Times. Arcadia hasn’t paid a dividend for years and operating profit fell 40% in its last set of accounts. Green’s “exposure” in The Daily Telegraph – owned by the Barclay brothers who helped finance his bid for Sears in the 1990s – is a severe setback. But it may also reflect his already “waning influence”.