Alex Brummer

Green, BHS and the ethics of business

November 24, 2016 23:16

In many ways, Sir Philip Green is an entrepreneur of whom Britain's Jewish community should be proud. In 2002, when he bought Arcadia, through his family company Taverta, it was a basket-case, haemorrhaging cash.

With consummate financial management and skills in fast-fashion retailing he turned it around, restoring the great brands in the Arcadia portfolio - Topshop, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Wallace and Evans - to their former glory. It was this achievement which propelled him from perpetual commercial outsider into the billionaire class.

The Sunday Times Rich List values his family's private wealth - most of it held offshore in Monaco by his wife Tina - at £3.22bn.

Not surprisingly, Green is resentful about the hammering he is taking in the media and the House of Commons over his much criticised sale of the 88-year-old high street chain BHS and the plight of his pensioners. He has concerns that because he likes to work behind the scenes he doesn't get the credit he deserves for his philanthropic giving, often focused on the Jewish community.

What has caused the present furore is the disclosure that the company's long-established pension fund with more than 20,000 members is in deficit to £571 million, a sum not far away from the amount that Green's family received in dividends. The former proprietor of BHS has both a legal, and I would suggest, moral duty to help close this gap.

It is reliably suggested that Green has offered up to £80m, in one form or another, to help correct this shortfall. The problem is that the rest will have to be covered by members of other healthy pension funds through levies paid to the Pensions Protection Fund. Even if the hole is repaired, current pensioners will find inflation increases capped at 2.5 per cent and future retirees will find their entitlements cut by 10 per cent. This aspect of the affair has particularly angered veteran pension campaigner Frank Field MP and the Work and Pensions Select Committee is scheduling hearings on the whole affair.

Such actions are entirely appropriate. Less understandable is some of the language used by another parliamentary critic, Conservative Richard Fuller MP. He said: "If the sale was done on the understanding that it was avoiding responsibility for those pension losses, then the £1 received was the equivalent to 30 pieces of silver in his betrayal of the employees and pensioners at BHS."

It has been suggested to me that in using the phrase "30 pieces of silver" there is a hint of antisemitism. It is certainly infelicitous. That is why Britain's high-achieving business community has a special obligation to live up to the highest standards in their financial affairs in accordance with the Talmud's strong code of business ethics.

In taking on BHS, which he bought for £200m 16 years ago, the former Carmel College schoolboy met his match. He found it impossible to turn around the outdated retailer best known for its lighting, cafés for the elderly and women's hats for yomtovim and weddings. Green tried almost every device including the franchising of his prestige Topshop brand inside BHS and new furniture ranges redesigned with the help of advice from his wife Tina.

The public anger now being directed at Green by MPs and others almost certainly has some justification. A business person of his experience, skill and financial know-how should have known better than to sell to Retail Acquisitions, a newly formed company, headed by a former bankrupt Dominic Chappell. Green's friends argue that the buyer had the best of advice from accountants Grant Thornton and law firm Oswang and the entrepreneur had no reason to doubt their credentials.

Unfortunately for Green, the fact that BHS has fallen into the hands of administrators has refracted badly on his reputation. In the years of his ownership, Green's family extracted £400 million in dividends paid into their offshore trusts. Moreover, BHS made regular payments to the rest of Green's empire for rentals on properties (around £11m a year) as well as accounting and management services.

This was all legal and permissible. However, it is surprising to us who know Green well that his instinct would have let him down so badly.

November 24, 2016 23:16

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