Philip Green: retail king who lost the Midas touch

Philip Green’s empire has collapsed, taking great chunks of the high street with it. In the Noughties his Topshop chain was called Britain’s favourite emporium. What went wrong?

Sir Philip Green is most at home in a grey tracksuit, pacing the decks of his £100m superyacht, Lionheart – “shouting into one, two or even three mobile phones simultaneously”, says The Guardian. The Topshop tycoon has spent most of the past year permanently aboard his yacht, currently moored in Monaco, seeking to avoid the pandemic. 

It’s easy to picture him there last weekend, barking out orders – while in Britain his empire went down, taking great chunks of the high street with it. In an echo of the row after BHS collapsed in 2016, demands are growing for Green and his wife Tina to plug a £350m black hole in Arcadia’s pension scheme.

Bond Street bandit 

Arcadia’s collapse “brings down the curtain on three decades during which Green attracted both admiration and opprobrium for his combative approach to business”, says the Financial Times. Born in South London in 1952, his father – an electrical goods retailer – died when Philip was 12. He attended the now defunct private Carmel College, known as “the Jewish Eton”, but left at 16 with no O-levels. Green, who began his retail career, “selling surplus stock from a store called Bond Street Bandit”, was always a street-fighter remembered chiefly for his “audacious and ruthless” approach to deals and ability to persuade backers – ranging from the secretive Barclay twins to high-street banks – “to lend huge amounts of money at short notice”. After taking a drubbing in the City when he was forced out of the menswear chain Amber Day in 1992, after failing to meet profit forecasts, “he never ran a listed company again”. 

In the early days, Green’s bold moves were rewarded with rapid and often spectacular returns. The break-up of Sears, which he took over in 1999, saw him pocket a profit of £300m, while the refinancing of Arcadia in 2005 resulted in the £1.2bn tax-free dividend that formed the basis of the Green family’s private fortune, put at $7.2bn by 2011, according to Forbes. In the early Noughties, the self-styled “king of the high street” seemed unstoppable, said The Independent. Having apparently turned round BHS, Green’s Arcadia brands (including Dorothy Perkins and Burton) had much of the mainstream UK fashion market sewn up. 

Meanwhile, the group’s flagship chain, Topshop, emerged as Britain’s favourite emporium in the Noughties, graced by model Kate Moss, says The Times. Catapulted into celebrity status, Green became famous for his lavish birthday parties. 

Technophobic and myopic 

Some dubbed him a retail genius with a “Midas touch”, says the FT. But after acquiring his empire, critics charge that Green appeared to “sit back and milk the cow”. Many of the problems that afflicted both BHS, which he flogged for £1 to serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell in 2015, and Arcadia sprang from his refusal to invest, particularly in online delivery. Green’s own technophobia made him myopic, opening the door for rivals Asos and Boohoo to eat his lunch online while, on the high street, Primark, Zara and others began trouncing Arcadia’s tired brands. A bunker mentality set in. “As Arcadia’s decline gathered pace”, people became “less willing to indulge his abrasive personality” making him “increasingly reliant on longtime lieutenants”.  

In recent years – bruised by the public outrage over his treatment of BHS and by allegations of sexual harassment and racial abuse – Green has kept a low profile at his base in Monaco, supported by his wife. Former colleagues reckon she will shape his next move. But the options don’t look great for Green. “Whatever he does now he cannot win.”

Recommended

Just how green is nuclear power?
Energy

Just how green is nuclear power?

Nuclear power is certainly very clean in terms of carbon emissions, but what about the radioactive waste produced as a byproduct? It’s not as much of …
22 Jan 2022
Why GSK should turn down Unilever’s billions
UK stockmarkets

Why GSK should turn down Unilever’s billions

Unilever has offered GSK £50bn for its consumer division. But while the cash will be a temptation, the deal is not in the interests of shareholders or…
22 Jan 2022
The charts that matter: the start of the big crash?
Global Economy

The charts that matter: the start of the big crash?

US tech stocks fell further this week, more than 10% down on their November high. There’s what happened to the charts that matter most to the global e…
22 Jan 2022
Cryptocurrency roundup: authorities tighten the screw
Bitcoin & crypto

Cryptocurrency roundup: authorities tighten the screw

Saloni Sardana looks at the cryptocurrency stories that caught our eye this week.
21 Jan 2022

Most Popular

Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is
Inflation

Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is

As inflation bites and the labour market remains tight, many of the nation's employees are asking for a pay rise. Merryn Somerset Webb explains why yo…
17 Jan 2022
Temple Bar’s Ian Lance and Nick Purves: the essence of value investing
Investment strategy

Temple Bar’s Ian Lance and Nick Purves: the essence of value investing

Ian Lance and Nick Purves of the Temple Bar investment trust explain the essence of “value investing” – buying something for less than its intrinsic v…
14 Jan 2022
Interest rates might rise faster than expected – what does that mean for your money?
Global Economy

Interest rates might rise faster than expected – what does that mean for your money?

The idea that the US Federal Reserve could raise interest rates much earlier than anticipated has upset the markets. John Stepek explains why, and wha…
6 Jan 2022