What Price The Reputation of Business

wwThe report on the demise of BHS would make a decent script for a mini-series. Titled “The Unacceptable Face of Capitalism” it would have a cast of colourful characters in an epic tale of greed starring Sir Philip Green.

Rarely has a single business figure come in for more vilification than he has in a report that is also highly critical of the wider financial establishment.

Sir Philip is well known as a handy retailer and BHS prospered in the early years of Green’s ownership. Perhaps his real expertise, however, lies in finance and property. As fast as BHS made money in the early years, Sir Philip Green extracted it faster. Hundreds of millions in dividends, rent and management fees were paid to companies owned by his wife who was based in Monaco – safely out of the taxman’s reach.

‘Manifestly unsuitable’

Having been efficiently gutted of profits and property, a weakened BHS lost its mojo on the high street. Sales suffered, losses were incurred and the store limped on, propped up by the success of the rest of the Arcadia group – most notably Topshop.

Meanwhile, the problem that was ultimately to sink BHS and Sir Philip’s reputation was growing. The pension scheme’s deficit began to balloon – hitting £571m by the end of last year. Sir Philip Green was well aware of the problem and had a plan to fix it, but that was aborted when it became clear how expensive it would be.

It became clear to Sir Philip that he needed to get rid of BHS at any cost. In this endeavour he was assisted by some of the biggest names in the financial establishment – most notably Goldman Sachs who gave twice-bankrupt Dominic Chappel their informal blessing and hence access to a very willing seller. For just £1 he sold it to a buyer the MPs report described as “manifestly unsuitable”.

Real victims

So willing was Sir Philip that he financially supported the person buying from him by earmarking profits from a property deal to pay Chappel’s own blue chip advisers Olswang and Grant Thornton.

He was “out of his depth” according to the report but he was a creature, at least in part, of Sir Philip Green’s creation.

There are real victims in this corporate soap opera. Shops started closing down this weekend and 11,000 workers will ultimately be out of a job while 20,000 pensioners are still waiting for Sir Philip Green to make good on a promise to “sort” the pension mess.

When I asked him when he will be returning to the UK, he said, in jest, “hopefully never” but he has unfinished business here with the Pensions Regulator and the Insolvency Service which has an investigation under way and could disqualify him from being a director.

How he goes about resolving the pension question is difficult to see but what seems clear is that unless he does something big, calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood will become louder.

What price a knighthood? According to chairman of the Work and Pensions select Committee, Frank Field – around £600m. What price the reputation of business? That is going pretty cheaply.