Topshop's Sir Philip Green: How he became king of the High Street

By Lesley Curwen
BBC News


Last week Sir Philip Green, one of Britain's wealthiest businessmen, sold a quarter of his prized Topshop and Topman empire to pay for the opening of new stores overseas - but how did he reach his position at the very top of British retailing?

Born into a well-to-do family in South London, Sir Philip Green's competitive streak was apparent from an early age - and was certainly noticed by school mates at his exclusive boarding school which was strict on religious observance, and has been described as the "Jewish Eton".

"There was a rush to get to the common room where the table tennis table was during school break, and he was one of the guys who made a beeline to it," recalls school friend Tony Rauch.

"He wanted whatever bat was in better condition, and he had a tussle over it with one of the other kids, and unfortunately the other kid was a bit bigger than Philip and won.

"He got very angry; cried a little bit," says Rauch. "He wasn't physically hurt, I think he was just very angry at having lost."

Today, Sir Philip still hates losing. Even when he plays a game with his own children he says he plays to win. "Why do you want to do something and not win - to not succeed at something?" he has said.

His relationship with his own father was tragically cut short when his father died of a heart attack when Philip was just 12-years-old.

A few years later, he left school aged 15, and began working on the forecourt of the petrol station his mother managed.

Early business ventures

He then went on to learn the raw facts of business as an apprentice in a shoe warehouse and at 23-years-old he set up his own business importing and selling jeans.

image captionSir Philip Green took over British Home Stores in 2000, rebranding the chain as BHS

"He had a very mixed track record of starting up companies, and closing them down, working with other people, falling out with people," says Stuart Lansley, author of an unauthorised biography.

"He travelled a lot, learning a lot about the supply chain, who the cheaper suppliers were and so on - but he certainly wasn't a household name. "

The moment Sir Philip Green finally "arrived" was in the year 2000, when he bought the dowdy British Home Stores chain for £200m and rebranded it BHS. According to Stuart Lansley, his restless mind had spotted a beguiling new way to make money from the High Street:

"Philip Green moved from having a few million, to a few billion, in the space of a few years.

"He learned the way to make big bucks was essentially to do what's known in the trade as a 'leveraged buy-out'.

"He borrowed very large sums of money, invested a little bit himself, and bought up companies that were relatively cheap, because they weren't doing very well. He turned them around, paying-off his debt, and then tripling - quadrupling - the money he put in, in a matter of a couple of years."

Two years later he copied that model of the leveraged buyout when he bought the giant retail empire Arcadia, which owns brands such as Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, and of course Topshop and Topman.

Marks and Spencer takeover bid

Sir Philip Green's most ambitious move came in 2004, when he put together £10bn ($16.1bn), much of it from investment banks, to take over Marks and Spencer.

Even Sir Stuart Rose - then his rival and at the helm of Marks at the time - was impressed.

"Philip is not only a first-class retailer, he is absolutely pre-eminent in his generation in terms of his financial nous and ability," Sir Stuart told Radio 4's Profile.

"If I wanted to be slightly uncharitable, I could say that he came to the market to raise a very, very large sum of money at a time when money was cheap and freely available - but only Philip could have put that together. It was a pretty amazing achievement."

image captionAs chairman of Marks and Spencer, Sir Stuart Rose (L) faced two takeover bids from Sir Philip Green (R)

Sir Philip's business skills may not be in doubt - but his interpersonal skills are another matter, and he reportedly has a very short fuse.

Sir Stuart Rose has first-hand experience of this, with Sir Philip reportedly grabbing the-then Marks and Spencer boss by the lapels during his second unsuccessful takeover bid in 2004.

"There was a fairly physical occasion one morning, yes. I think tension had got quite high during the bid and Philip got upset about something," says Sir Stuart.

"He wasn't above ringing me up during the height of the bid and singing 'if I were a rich man' down the telephone to me, trying to point out the error of my ways [for not selling]... that I would make more money.

"He used to say 'the only jet you know is easyJet'."

Bearing in mind that he can be tetchy and on occasion volcanic, a workaholic and obsessive about detail, how easy is it work with him?

"He doesn't do email," says Topshop creative director Kate Phelan.

"He still operates two old Nokia phones and text messaging is about as much as you will get from him.

"It's still about picking up the phone, asking questions and getting answers and getting things done."

Sir Philip also remains extremely hands-on, as Kate Phelan remembers during the run-up to the opening of a new Top Shop store in Las Vegas:

"He walked into the store and was picking up the rails and moving them around and saying 'I want this here' and 'we need more dresses up front' - physically pulling the rails and the stock around. It shows incredible passion and an incredible astuteness - and he was right."

Lavish lifestyle

But it is not all work and Sir Philip Green is not shy about enjoying the trappings of his success - his personal fortune is estimated at somewhere between £3bn and £4bn.

image captionActivists targeted BHS and Top Shop in 2010

He commutes into London from Monaco in a private jet and is famous for throwing extravagant parties for friends and family in exotic places, with entertainment from the likes of Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and George Michael.

He has also forged a business partnership with supermodel Kate Moss, whose line of clothes helped raise Topshop's profile in the world of high fashion.

But what has attracted the most controversy is not the lavish lifestyle - but his tax affairs.

In 2005 his company paid a £1.2bn dividend to the owner of Arcadia - Sir Philip's wife, Tina. Since she is a resident of Monaco, the tax advantages were substantial, according to BBC business editor Robert Peston:

"There was a great saving of tax, but when the perception is that dividend has been generated by the business acumen of Philip Green and not particularly the business acumen of his wife, it stokes up enormous controversy."

In 2010 activists demonstrated outside the flagship Topshop and BHS stores in central London after Sir Philip was chosen by Prime Minister David Cameron to conduct a government efficiency review.

They thought his tax arrangements made him the wrong choice. Despite their anger, however, Arcadia has paid significant sums in corporation tax.

"I haven't gone through the books line-by-line but Philip Green says his businesses have paid not far off £600m over the past 10 years, and let's be clear, he did have discretion to pay less tax than that," explains Robert Peston.

The British High Street has struggled in recent years, and Sir Philip's Arcadia group has not been immune.

This time last year, the owner of Topshop and BHS, reported a fall in annual profits and announced plans to close up to 260 stores in the UK over the next few years.

But while domestic business slows down, new overseas ventures beckon. Having sold a chunk of the Topshop empire to a US private equity group, Sir Philip has boasted how the business is now debt free.

Those who know the 60-year-old say he is as full of energy as ever, and there is no sense he is slowing down, with the push now on to open more Topshop and Topman stores in the United States, Asia and beyond.

This edition of Profile was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 8 December 2012. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or the Profile podcast.

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