“I want to pull out. I don’t want to do this interview any more. You can stay for lunch, but you are getting me annoyed.” It’s only 20 minutes into the first interview he has given since the BHS debacle, but Sir Philip Green is already simmering a fraction of a degree below boiling point.
A great interview with Monaco resident, billionaire Sir Philip Green (by Ruth Sutherland for Daily Mail).
He’s taking exception to being questioned over why, with all his acute business instincts, he sold BHS for £1 to serial bankrupt Dominic Chappell – who drove the business into the ground with the loss of 11,000 jobs – without spotting him as a charlatan.
It’s not the only time the billionaire retailer takes umbrage during the course of an extraordinary, expletive-peppered three-hour lunch. He snarls and splutters with indignation at the way he was branded ‘Sir Shifty’ for his role in one of the biggest business scandals Britain has ever seen.
He protests he has done nothing wrong – and when asked whether any of the debacle was his fault, his reply is: ‘No. Zero. Nothing.’ He also rages that he is still vilified despite helping BHS pensioners:
‘I wrote a cheque for £363 million. But nobody has ever said, ‘This man behaved like a gentleman, his family behaved properly.’ ‘
In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, the tycoon:
- Declares that the attacks on him are fuelled by jealousy of his wealth and success;
- Defiantly claims that his wife Tina’s £100 million yacht is NOT extravagant;
- Accuses his arch-enemy, Labour MP Frank Field, of pursuing a personal vendetta against him;
- Complains that he has spent up to £35 million on lawyers’ bills in the debacle;
- Says that he stopped going out and had to hire a bodyguard for his wife;
- Reveals how he had a heart operation just days before a gruelling Commons appearance;
- Admits selling BHS to Chappell was the worst mistake of his life.
On the subject of Chappell, can’t Green see why critics think he was over-eager to get rid of BHS, and to distance himself from the obligations to pensioners?’
‘My family lost millions on BHS, so for you to say to me it looks like I wanted to get rid of it… I can see the flavour of where this is heading,’ he bellows.
The legal bill alone, he says, was £35 million. How do you spend that much on lawyers? ‘I wish I knew,’ he counters.
Bombastic and combustible, unabashed by his wealth and success, Green makes an easy target for his critics.
The Topshop tycoon became a hate figure when BHS collapsed with a huge black hole in its pension fund in 2016, just a year after he sold it to Chappell.
Billionaire Green and his Monaco-based wife Tina – who actually owns the family’s Arcadia retail empire – were lambasted for previously, in 2005, taking a large dividend out of their companies.
The fact that he spent the summer of 2016 bobbing around the Greek islands on his wife’s £100 million superyacht, the Lionheart, while BHS pensioners feared for their nest eggs, did nothing to burnish his public image.
But he is indignant because, on the credit side of the balance sheet, he has written a £363 million cheque to BHS pensioners. That’s a contrast, as he correctly points out, with others who have walked away from their obligations. He was recently cleared after an exhaustive investigation by the Insolvency Service into whether he should be banned as a company director.
Green knows he will never win over his harshest critics, including Mr Field, with whom he is enmeshed in a seemingly obsessive feud.
But he feels, having handed over a large sum, he at least deserves some respect for putting his hand in his pocket and the right to get on with his business – and his life.
He was, he says, taken in by Chappell, who presented himself plausibly. ‘I’m not such a smart a*** as you are. But clearly with what subsequently occurred, I and our board were wholly misled by everyone involved with [Chappell]. Was it the worst mistake of my life? Yes, it was. Horrible. Ugly.
‘You’ve got no idea how much front this guy has. More than Selfridges and Harrods put together. Those people who know me know there is no way on this planet this business would have been sold to him if I had even a millionth of a thought process he would do what he did.’
Green is holding court on the sixth-floor of his offices in London’s retail heartland, just off Oxford Street. Tina, he says proudly, was in charge of the interior design, which involves a lot of shiny black surfaces. The next day, she telephoned me to me to say how angry she is that her husband has ‘done the right thing’ but is still portrayed as the bad guy.
With a deep tan offsetting his silver corrugated hair, Green has the air of an impresario. He’s a raconteur, with a sense of comic timing and a strong streak of the showman. He is surrounded by a supporting cast including his finance director, Paul Budge, his in-house lawyer and his PR man.
Long-standing personal assistant Katie, with 18 years service under her belt, is just outside in the wings, ready to play her role. ‘Katie, how many people on a week-to-week basis do I help?’ he demands.
‘It varies but believe me it’s a lot. It’s every kind of charity, and he never puts his name on anything,’ she says loyally.
In pride of place on the cabinet behind him is a magnificent ceremonial sword. It was presented to him by Ian Grabiner, the chief executive of his Arcadia fashion business, to mark his knighthood in 2006 – an honour he was threatened with losing in the furore over BHS.
Is the handle solid gold, I wonder? ‘No!’ he scoffs.
Did he ever think he might lose his knighthood? ‘I’m not going there. Why should I?’
Because it was debated in Parliament. ‘Excuse me, by a complete bunch of old w*****s.’
It’s a term of abuse of which he is fond, using it six times in the interview, plus 29 uses of the F-word. He also thinks there is an element of resentment he could afford to hand over a lump sum – technically of Tina’s money – without flinching. ‘I feel like I’ve got to justify I had the ability to pay, that my family has got a yacht, that I’m living a nice lifestyle. Thank goodness, along my journey, I was very successful and therefore I was able to pay.’
Wasn’t it a mistake, though, in the midst of all this, to take delivery of a £100 million yacht?
‘Other than bury myself, what should I do? I wasn’t trying to run away. Why should I hide? Wherever I would have gone, I would have been harassed. I am not turning this into a boat conversation. It’s my wife’s boat, it’s not mine,’ he adds.
‘I don’t think it’s grand living [on the yacht], I’m sorry. You’re saying I have been successful and I should have to apologise for that?’
Green looks to his lieutenant, Paul, for support. Does Paul think having a £100 million vessel is quite extravagant?
‘Yes, to me, in my lifestyle it is,’ says Paul, veering boldly off-script. ‘To a BHS pensioner, or someone on below average wages…’ he says, before Green interrupts.
‘But Paul, sorry, have you got a fancy car?’
‘No,’ says Paul, as his boss looks at him in disbelief.
‘Some people have an issue with it. I think get on with your life,’ Paul adds.
Can’t Green see, though, that being photographed on his yacht while hard-up BHS pensioners worried about losing their nest eggs was not a good look?
‘There is no way in the world if somebody has got no money… there is nothing you are ever going to say to somebody that is going to make them feel better that you’re rich and they’re poor. OK, let’s go down your road. On the basis that I’ve paid [a cheque to the pensioners], what am I supposed to do? Take all my clothes off and say I’m skint?
‘I’m feeling the way this conversation is, I am feeling I need to apologise – ‘Oh, I’m sorry I was able to write a cheque for £363 million and carry on living a normal life.’ Unfortunately, I won’t end up sleeping on the street like a beggar but I believe I behaved properly, like I said I would.’
Other entrepreneurs and private equity barons, including ‘f****** zillionaires’, he says, have not put their hands in their pockets. ‘This nonsense with Carillion,’ he says, referring to the failed contracting firm chaired by his namesake, another Philip Green, ‘what are they going to get from that? Coconuts.
‘The most sad part of all of this: having paid and behaved correctly, I’ve got more vilified.
‘I wrote a cheque for £363 million. But nobody has ever said, this man behaved like a gentleman, his family behaved properly. I’m not doing this as an act for you because you know it’s not my style – but I’m sad that there’s no acceptance of that.
‘Fortunately, we were able to pay and rectify it. I was pleased we were able to resolve it.’
Although Green has been criticised for taking a long time to hand over the money to the pension fund, The Mail on Sunday can reveal that, in fact, to his credit, he made several earlier offers before a final deal was reached. His view is that Mr Field, who chairs the parliamentary committee that looked into BHS, ‘harassed the Pension Regulator’ and that this held up the payment.
Green does not bother to try to hide his hatred of Mr Field.
‘He was on the rampage. This is a personal vendetta. Frank Field is interested in publicity for himself. His behaviour delayed the settlement,’ says Green. ‘I tried very hard for a settlement for many months before writing a cheque.’
In its report, the Pensions Regulator confirms that he made a number of much earlier offers. Frustratingly, he cannot, for legal reasons, give any details. So why do people still criticise him? Again, he says it’s ‘because they are a bunch of w*****s’.
Intriguingly, he raises a question about whether anti-Semitism is involved. ‘Do I think the viciousness has anything to do with the fact that I am a Jewish businessman? Well, I’m not going to say. The answer is I don’t want to get into it.’
At 66, Green seems indestructible, but in 1995 he suffered a serious heart attack, and acknowledges his health and state of mind have been affected by the BHS debacle.
Five days before he appeared for a marathon session in front of the parliamentary select committee, he had a heart operation, having a stent fitted at the Wellington Hospital in St John’s Wood, North-West London.
‘Nine stents later I am all right. But I went to the committee, five days after a heart operation, because I had made a commitment to go. Was it brought on by stress? Who knows? I have had a heart operation and days later I go and do hours down there. I wasn’t trying to run away.’
Has it aged him? ‘I think I look pretty good for my age! But none of this stuff goes nowhere, does it, going through this sort of stress, it doesn’t go in your boots. I got one of these, a step counter. Last week, I walked 100,000 steps.’
Did he shed tears when BHS went bust? ‘I never cry,’ he says, unconvincingly. ‘I was very, very sad.’ He did shed tears, his aides murmur.
People are fascinated by his relationship with Tina, who as the owner of his retail empire, holds all the purse-strings. Doesn’t that require extraordinary levels of trust on his part?
‘I don’t even know where she keeps her money, how’s that? I’ve never been to her lawyer’s office. I’ve never been to her bank.’
Does he ever ask her for money? ‘Occasionally,’ he laughs, then adds: ‘Sorry, it’s not something I like talking about.’
Hasn’t she ever given him a telling off for landing himself and the family in hot water with BHS? ‘She would have if I had done anything wrong, but I haven’t.’
Tina has clearly been a huge influence on her husband and is, in fact, his most ardent defender. ‘It is beyond horrendous the way my husband has been treated,’ she tells me in a phone call the day after the interview. ‘Nobody else would have done what he has done for pensioners. We cared, we never ran away but we have been victimised. My husband did the right thing.’
Twice-married Tina told one interviewer that Green is the love of her life, but she wasn’t instantly enamoured.
On their first encounter, in 1985 in the restaurant San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge, then one of the capital’s trendiest spots, she thought he was ‘dreadful’.
Although born in England, Tina had an exotic upbringing in Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand.
Aged just 18, she married jazz drummer Bobby Palos, 14 years her senior and ‘six-foot-two and divine’, and had two children with him – daughter Stasha and son Brett, who are now in their 40s. She remained friends with her ex until his death in 2014.
Sixtysomething Tina is a businesswoman in her own right. She is owner of Monaco-based business Green & Mingarelli, which she set up with Italian architect Pietro Mingarelli, to fit out the interiors of luxury yachts.
The pair have designed furniture for Lalique, the ultra-expensive French glassmaker, and other projects include luxury flats and the interior design of three Gulfstream jets and helicopters.
She has been the legal owner of her husband’s major retail investments since 2004 and received a stupendous dividend of £1.2 billion in 2005 – tax-free thanks to her Monaco residency.
Apart from Tina, the other woman who has had a great influence on Green’s life is his mother Alma, a businesswoman who owned garages and car showrooms. His father died when he was still a boy, and friends say he inherited his drive and business acumen from his mother.
Brought up in London, he went to Carmel College in Oxfordshire, an elite Jewish boarding school, but was not academic.
Green doesn’t want to chat about daughter Chloe and rumours that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Jeremy Meeks, nicknamed the ‘Hot Felon’. He refuses to answer questions on whether he is looking forward to being a grandfather. ‘I’m not going there. It’s not my business, it is my daughter’s business.’
Does he believe in leaving his children – Chloe, son Brandon and his stepchildren – a large inheritance from his reputed £3 billion-plus fortune, or does he think it’s better to leave them little so they can make their own way?
‘Ask my wife, she’s in charge. Look, you want them to be able to live their life. I don’t believe you leave them nothing.’ And what about your grandchildren? ‘Nice try,’ he replies.
What he will say, however, is that the BHS debacle has had a ‘big impact on myself and the family’, to the extent he has become a social recluse and hires a bodyguard for Tina when she is in London.
‘I was in a restaurant with some really serious business people and this guy comes over to the table and says, ‘Oh, I suppose you’re paying for that with BHS money.’ After that I decided not to go out. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t go out, you can’t go in the street.
‘I have to get my wife a security guard when she comes to London.’
One of the hardest things for him was that he felt unable to go on to the floor in Topshop or his other stores, where he loves to be. ‘In the first months I didn’t go to any of the shops. It was horrible, being accused of something, fundamentally of being dishonest. It is devastating. I don’t go anywhere.’
There are inevitable questions at his age about succession at the head of the business. He says he wouldn’t want Chloe, 27, or Brandon, 26, to follow in his footsteps, because of ‘all the legacy and history of where we are.’
And he doesn’t answer questions on whether, in a chastened, post-BHS era, he will have any more of his famous blingy parties, including a 60th birthday bash in Mexico in 2012.
That four-day marathon is said to have cost £6 million. Guests apparently wore PG60 logos to denote his initials and age, and pictures of his face were beamed on to the rocks at the resort.
Ten years earlier, guests including Prince Albert of Monaco, former Page Three girl Jilly Johnson and Jeremy Beadle went to Cyprus for a £5 million 50th birthday fiesta, with performances from Tom Jones and Rod Stewart.
Whether there will be an extravaganza to mark the start of his eighth decade remains to be seen. Perhaps by then Green will have put behind him the BHS saga, which he describes as an ‘exceptionally sad’ episode in a career that began 40 years ago ‘starting at the bottom with one store’.
He opened his first shop in 1979 at 41 Conduit Street in London with stock bought from a chain of shops called Originelle, which had gone bankrupt. It was, he says, ‘part of my education’ in deal-making.
‘There’s no harm in making an offer for something – people can only say no. They had £250,000 worth of stock so I went to have a look and offered ten pence in the pound. They said, ‘You’ve bought it.’ So I sent the whole lot to the dry cleaners, put it all on brand new hangers – true story – and I went to look for a shop. I found 41 Conduit Street and I was driving down the back of Selfridges and I saw these three guys on the corner, mime artists with the white face – you know, entertainers in the street.
‘Anyway I see these guys and I stopped my car, got out and said, ‘Would you like a job?’ I said I want you to be my mannequins and work in the window of my new store.
‘Anyway, OK we’re on. Thursday afternoon, one o’clock, come to Conduit Street and we’ll have a rehearsal. So I got the store ready, put all the stock in and I put these three guys in the window. There were cars having accidents, the police came – ‘You can’t do this!’ People were looking in the window. That was the start of the whole thing.’
So did he see anything of himself, as a younger, aspiring entrepreneur, in Dominic Chappell? ‘He was a good talker, he presented himself well. He had a great opportunity.’
Green is clearly eager to draw a line under the BHS affair and move on. But what’s next for Arcadia? Is there any truth in suggestions it is for sale? ‘That’s not on today’s menu. We’ve got cheese, grapes…’
How much blame does he think he deserves for BHS – was none of it his fault? ‘No. Zero. Nothing.
‘We didn’t go as a vulture and bankrupt it, try to keep it all to ourselves. That was the stupidity. Trying to do it the correct way turned out to be a disaster.’