In only a year Philip Green has become to retailing what Rupert Murdoch is to the media. It is as impossible to contemplate the high street without Green as it is to consider newspapers, television or sport without Murdoch.
Green’s fame is built on multi-million pound transactions such as the Sears break-up, but it has been 15 years in the making since he was drummed out of his last public company – the discount retailer Amber Day – by the City, with whom he fell out royally.
Now those same detractors are flocking back to his court. Whatever happens in the high street – a bid for M&S here, rumours about Woolies there, that Arcadia deal – is influenced either directly or indirectly by the man whose currency in the City soared in 2002. His fortune became stratospheric. The gossip columns and tabloid news pages played their part in raising his profile, thanks to that £5 million fiftieth birthday bash in Cyprus.
The man who turned the foundering Bhs into a billion-pound business and who bought Arcadia for £850m now sells more women’s clothes than any other retailer in the UK. Much has been made of his self-made, self-taught success story.
Was last year a flash in the pan? Hardly. Even if Green himself stopped doing retail deals (unthinkable) he is now so influential that this would have a huge impact on sectors from fashion to football, simply because he sits at the centre of an incredible network. Green’s Groupies? Not exactly, but plenty of people, including the type of City money men he fell out with, like to rub up against success. Then there are all those hefty fees for the multi-million pound deals.
Green says this network is the inevitable result of his legendary deal-making, but its size and reach is remarkable. He is wary of the publicity on the one hand (‘I don’t need this article, I don’t like all the self-congratulatory stuff’) and until recently has eschewed official public relations. But he has good contacts in journalism, including BBC business editor Jeff Randall (one of the guests at the Cyprus party), and is pretty good at his own spin. He was persuaded to hire a City PR firm for the Arcadia deal.
‘Having done more deals than anyone else in this sector, from Sears and Bhs to getting the Bank of Scotland to write the biggest cheque they have ever written anyone, I have got a really good track record. That means I am involved in a network. I don’t believe that in modern times it is too easy to put together a retail business worth £3 billion, owned privately and paid for in real cash, not Mickey Mouse bits of paper.
‘You need a network to be able to do that, to get it done, to make it happen. The end result is that other people come to you if they think you can be an asset. They might want you to make a phone call or write a letter for them or make an introduction. If l like someone then I’ll do it. Take Bill Kenwright. I helped him buy Everton. I wrote a £30m letter for him.’
Does he mean he underwrote the theatre impresario’s acquisition of the club in December 1999? ‘Yes, that’s right.’ Why? ‘I liked him.’
Green will not confirm or deny another multi-million football deal whose sticking wheels he is said to have oiled: did he ‘have a word’ with Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale (a friend and colleague of Green’s own close friend and fellow Leeds director Allan Leighton) to prompt the £30m transfer of Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United? ‘I dunno. Did I?’
None of this implies anything amiss. There is nothing cynical about wanting to know that Green’s good friends include Tom Hunter and Terry Green, currently squaring up over the Allders department store chain. Nor that his new chief executive at Arcadia, Ian Grabiner, was in business with Hunter and separately with another entrepreneur friend of his, Chris Gorman.
It would not and should not trouble any regulatory authority that Stuart Rose, who sold Arcadia to Green and made £25m out of it, is among the 219 close friends who graced Green’s toga party in Cyprus. It adds mere colour to the general picture that his brother-in-law is Stirling Moss, the one-time British motor racing genius, and that Terry Venables (now at Leeds United), Michael Winner and Bruce Willis form part of his diverse social set.
Green says that, if he likes you, he is happy to make an introduction, put in a phone call or write a letter. He is generous with his time given the demands made on it. He is also generous with his money, as many charities would testify if they were not bound by anonymity.
Friends say Green is the kind of character who comes along maybe twice in a century. His sheer energy marks him out. His desire and ability to juggle so many balls at once are unusual. He declines even now to identify a multi-million pound deal done in December, completed as he checked Christmas stock and carried out an interview for a weekend supplement.
Maybe this is why he fell out with the City over Amber Day, the discount retailer. The insinuations that Philip Green could not possibly be what he appeared to be started then.
Now his currency is so high that the next time his wife Tina arranges a party for his closest friends you might imagine she will be lucky to get away with chartering a flight for just the 219 who attended the Cyprus event.
Here, though, is the list of core crew who would be certain to get invitations, barring a monster falling out:
Tom Hunter, stalker of the House of Fraser and Allders department store chains, boss of D2 Denim and West Coast Capital, is Scotland’s fourth richest man. Hunter is a friend and former associate of Ian Grabiner, 43, new chief executive of Philip Green’s Arcadia. His cousin, Lord Anthony Grabiner QC is Arcadia’s new chairman. Grabiner was Alan Sugar‘s lawyer when he ran Spurs, Green’s favoured team. Despite a petulant claim by Sugar in a recent evening newspaper article that he was snubbed by the retail king, Green says he saw Sugar recently and they had a chat. Ian Grabiner cut his retail teeth at River Island and worked with Hunter at Sports Division which Hunter then sold to JJB Sports. Grabiner became a millionaire when he sold his internet company, Reality, to GUS in 2000 for £3m. He had set up Reality with Chris Gorman another friend of Green’s and Hunter’s, who now runs the Gadget Shop.
Hunter’s interest in Allders puts him in direct conflict with another mutual friend, Terry Green, whose bid is already in and recommended. Terry Green (no relation) was Philip Green’s right-hand man at Bhs and despite rumours that the two Greens were fighting long before Terry left to pursue his own interests last summer, Philip says they are still good friends.
Terry Green is sufficiently good friends with Stuart Rose, now considering his options and enjoying his new fortune, to speak to him often. They knew each other when they worked at the Burton group. John Coleman, chief executive of House of Fraser (also in Hunter’s sights) is a friend of Rose and Green, but says firmly that he is far from being part of PG’s set. Still, he moves on its fringes.
Rose began his retail career at Marks & Spencer and, although in a different league financially, he is perhaps the retailer whose success at turning around and selling troubled businesses most closely emulates Green’s own record. However, another good friend, Allan Leighton, head of the Post Office, a director at Bhs and of Leeds United and a former boss at Asda, might reasonably challenge for that title.
It helps to know the sort of people who can support as well as build a business.
Green counts the UK’s biggest fashion supplier, Richard Caring of International Clothing Design, as a close friend. Caring supplies millions of pounds worth of clothing to every chain from Marks & Spencer and Next to Arcadia. Green has declined to say on a previous occasion whether Caring’s company was included in the 1.25 per cent cut in payments to Arcadia’s suppliers and now says the issue of his supplier arrangements is ‘two months old now, it’s finished as far as I’m concerned’.
Bankers would not always have flocked to join Green’s cause. Now he counts Robin Saunders, the successful American-born, female financier at WestLB as a friend. Saunders sits on the Bhs board. She went to Cyprus. He went to the Tuscan extravaganza marking her fortieth birthday, her wedding anniversary and children’s baptism.
Saunders and Green are both friends of Formula 1 owner Bernie Ecclestone. It would be nice to think that this means former motor racing ace Stirling Moss, married to Tina Green’s sister Susan, has someone to talk to at the parties when the retail contingent start talking shop.
Bob Wiggley, managing director of Merrill Lynch, Chris Coles, an MD at Barclays Capital and Peter Cummings of HBOS have joined the list relatively recently by dint of their key roles in bankrolling Green’s deals.
The Barclay brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick, bridge the gap between retail, leisure and media. Secretive they may be but they share Green’s love of deals and fine living. They are constantly linked to fresh media acquisitions to add to the Scotsman, and own the London Ritz. So having abandoned his weekday residence at the Dorchester because people started sending him begging letters there, at least Green knows he always has a five-star bed in London.
He should never want for a decent meal, either. Restaurateur Robert Earl is ‘a very good friend’, Marco Pierre White speaks very highly of Green, and his other chum, Michael Winner, a fellow winter guest at Sandy Lane, Barbados, could always put in a word.
In Monaco his jet-set of contacts is headed, at least out of courtesy, by Prince Albert with whom Green plays tennis. It is reported that, perhaps not surprisingly, Green wins.
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