Sir Philip Green: A Gambling Man
LONDON — It was just five years ago that Sir Philip Green was marking a milestone in his career, the 10th anniversary of London’s Fashion Retail Academy, the trade school he founded to help young people develop their skills and talents in the sector, a move that helped earn him a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth.
In 2015, Green was one of Britain’s richest men, with a self-made fortune estimated at $5.45 billion, and friends in high places. It was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who’d originally approached Green about opening some sort of government-funded school, and the two eventually did a deal to open the academy in the space of five minutes.
“The building was already earmarked, so we agreed to buy it. We put in 10 million pounds, they put in 10 million pounds, and off we went,” said Green in a 2015 interview with WWD. By then, the academy had trained thousands of students in fields such as fashion retail, merchandising, buying and graphic design and packed them off to jobs at retailers ranging from Asos and Next to Marks & Spencer and Tesco.
Green has long considered the academy among his grandest achievements.
A few years after he founded the academy, another British prime minister, David Cameron, asked Green to undertake an efficiency review as part of his quest to slash government spending and reduce the U.K.’s budget deficit. After completing the review, Green found that government “has consistently failed to make the most of its scale, buying power and credit rating. There is no reason why government should not be as efficient as any good business,” he said.
Black Friday Shoppers in New York City 2020
Since buying the Arcadia Group in 2002, Green has been on a wild ride – forging deals with figures as diverse as Blair, Cameron, Kate Moss and Beyoncé — and transforming Arcadia’s flagship Topshop chain into what was once the hottest high-street chain around. Topshop was an original street-style spotter, quickly and stylishly transforming the trends it saw in cities worldwide — and on the runway — onto the shop floor.
For years, Green — bombastic, funny, brash and sometimes bullying — banked big profits and lavished them upon friends, family, employees and charities — becoming almost mythical in the eyes of the British public. They’d witnessed his rise from suburban Jewish kid flogging shoes, jeans and mass-market clothing to the billionaire pal of Moss and Naomi Campbell, who once fondly referred to him as “Uncle Phil.”
His parties were epic and packed the pages of the tabloids. In 2002 he reportedly laid out $7.5 million to fly friends to Cyprus for a three-day 50th birthday celebration that culminated in a toga party at which Rod Stewart performed. In 2005 he reportedly spent $7 million on his son Brandon’s bar mitzvah, another three-day affair, in the South of France. Brandon marked his coming-of-age with a traditional ceremony in a custom-built temporary synagogue overlooking the Mediterranean, and Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli performed during the celebration.
Green, 68, reached the heights of career success in an industry dominated by publicly listed behemoths — or well-funded private ones. For years he was an independent operator who prized his freedom to shape and grow the business the way he wanted.
He had no aspirations to be the biggest, the richest, the man with the most stores. What he wanted instead was respect — and for the businesses to keep growing. “Financially, we’re very solid, and at the end of the day we’re responsible for looking after people’s families — they’ve all got kids,” he told WWD in 2015.
Green’s old pal Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the former chairman and chief executive officer of J. Crew, which filed for bankruptcy in May, once described Green as “one of the great sourcing minds in our business. I don’t think anyone has replicated Topshop at this point.”
In 2015, Green’s Arcadia Group was worth $4.22 billion.
Now, five years later, it lies in tatters, having declared bankruptcy, and appointed Deloitte as the administrator. Enforced store closures from the second national COVID-19 lockdown pushed the already fragile Arcadia, into which Green has pumped more than 100 million pounds in the last two years alone, to the breaking point.
Five years ago, Green was riding so high that few could see bad times coming, or could predict that his personal fortune would shrink to the point where he’s now no longer a billionaire — at least not in British pounds. According to the 2020 Sunday Times Rich List, Green’s net worth is down to 930 million pounds.
The man who was once a trusted adviser and, in some circles, the toast of the town, has stopped coming to London altogether, and resides permanently in the tax-free haven of Monte Carlo, where he moved with his family in 1998. Green is married to Tina, with whom he has two children, Chloe and Brandon.
So what went wrong?
Arcadia was the victim of external and internal pressures, with Green tripped up by macro trends such as the rise of international and online competitors, the decline of the U.K. high street, onerous store leases, a Gen Z and Millennial backlash against fast fashion, store closures resulting from the pandemic — and by catastrophes of his own making.
They include Green’s sale of his BHS chain for 1 pound to a serial bankrupt, Dominic Chappell, who in early November was sentenced to six months in prison for not paying his taxes.
BHS collapsed on Chappell’s watch and in 2017 Green — finally — wrote a 363 million pound check to cover the gaping hole in the BHS pension fund. While it was the right thing to do, it came too late, after a brutal parliamentary hearing that saw Green castigated by the same lawmakers he’d been advising just a few years earlier, and vilification in the press.
Green also got caught up in the #MeToo wave, becoming the subject of an investigation by The Telegraph, which had accused him of inappropriate behavior at Arcadia — something he denied. They eventually settled their dispute, but then Green became embroiled in a court case in Arizona, having been charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault, which the judge later dismissed.
Following the BHS and #MeToo scandals, things would never be the same for Green, who’d grown up inhaling and exhaling retail. A high school dropout who always said he was “useless at school,” Green plied his ferocious intelligence, photographic memory — and a “disconcerting” ability to crunch numbers in his head, according to his friend Richard Caring — into becoming the erstwhile emperor of the high street.
The past five years have been more of a headache than anything else for Green who, despite some good instincts, failed to keep up with the onslaught of online retailers that quickly grabbed his market share, and then some.
Topshop was early into e-commerce — it had a site even before Green purchased the group in 2002.
On Green’s watch Topshop was doing projects with Instagram, Snapchat and using AR. Over the years, his teams ramped up Topshop’s digital offer, partnering with Facebook and Twitter for runway shows, strapping tiny cameras to models’ heads so viewers could see the catwalk from their perspective and allowing Oxford Circus customers to watch shows — including VIP arrivals and backstage — in a 360-degree virtual reality.
But it’s clear that Green’s heart has always been in physical retail — and in owning property.
He began his career helping his widowed mother Alma with her string of garages and self-service gas stations in London. Later, he began traveling regularly to the Far East, where he learned how to manufacture jeans and bought job lots, canceled orders, and end-of-line clothing, shoes and other goods to sell back in London.
By the end of the Seventies, he’d made his first million pounds through a designer discount outlet on Conduit Street, near Oxford Circus, and his knack for buying and selling commercial real estate. He later bought the British retail conglomerate Sears, made a profit of more than $240 million by selling off various divisions, and used the money to purchase the ailing British Home Stores, which he re-branded BHS and turned around in less than two years.
While he appeared open to tech advances and knew they would drive sales and marketing, he — like many of his generation across a variety of industries — didn’t fully grasp the significance of tech to the future of business.
He doesn’t own a smartphone, and continues to use an old-fangled Nokia 6310 that launched in 2001 and has since been discontinued. (Green buys up the old stock, and keeps a stash in his office.) He never turns it off, returns his calls personally and prefers to speak one-on-one rather than via text. He doesn’t do e-mail, either. Total waste of time, he always said.
When he was still working day-to-day at Arcadia, he was adamant that his staffers restore some basic human contact to their increasingly digitized day-to-day lives.
“The minute they get in the lift they’re on these bloody machines,” he told WWD in 2015. “I want to put a sign in the lift — ‘You’ve got to say hello, how are you? Did you have a nice day? Good morning, good afternoon.’ What’s happened to that world?” he asked.
He also believed that physical retail trumped all. “Working in shops, going to shops. I still believe that’s what people need to be doing.”
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