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?

Philip Green
Whatever Philip Green does now, he cannot win
(Image credit: © Bloomberg /Getty Images)

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”.

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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.”

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.