Journalists aplenty have been cursed at by Sir Philip Green, in the news today for alleged assaults on women. My big regret was not taping the tirade. Unformed thoughts of ‘posting it on the internet’ came to mind as he ranted on. The second time he called, I was about to press record. On the line he came, nice as pie. Here is the tale, extracted from the first chapter of Planet Property.
SIR PHILIP GR**N
It’s September 2008, the week before Lehman Brothers collapses. The phone rings in my office: “Can you take a call from Sir Philip Green?” Er… yes, okay. “’Oooo the f***ing ’ell do you think you are?” roars the Croydon-born king of the rag trade. “You know the square root of f*** all!” I recall at the moment he shouted it thinking momentarily that this was a very good line from an expert in vilification. I’d written an article in the Evening Standard on 5th September that had clearly failed to amuse.
The head of the Arcadia Group, which operated brands like Bhs, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins from some 2,300 retail outlets, had just returned from cruising round the Med on his £32 million boat, Lionheart, where he had been snapped with Kate Moss and Sylvester Stallone. The tirade continued for a few minutes.
I reverted to a technique I’d learned the hard way: stay silent. Eventually, the person delivering the tirade begins to wonder if you have hung up. They gradually slow down, leaving you room to interject. Don’t. In the end, they trail to a halt, leaving the abused smiling (well, in theory). He stopped. I thanked him for his views in a shaky voice and gently put the phone down. But I was not smiling; I was shaking. It was a horrible experience, not lessened by later learning that I’d shared it with many others.
What Sir Philip had objected to was the larky and landlord-friendly tone I’d taken in the Evening Standard article, which discussed a letter he had sent to the British Property Federation in August. Retailers were under huge pressure as the retail market slid into steep decline, and Sir Philip was taking up the cudgel on behalf of the British Retail Consortium. He wrote to British Property Federation president and Land Securities chief executive Francis Salway, complaining of high service charges and rip-off building insurance commissions.
But what had caught the headlines was his demand that landlords accept just one month’s rent in advance, in place of the usual ninety days’. Salway deflected Sir Philip’s arguments with the expertise of Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby: “A small number of retailers have raised the monthly rents issue on new lettings,” he said. “A number of owners have been prepared to allow tenants in real financial difficulty to move to monthly rents to ease cash flow. However, it is a different story when you are talking about a successful retailer that is making hundreds of millions of pounds of profit,” added Salway, pointing unmistakably at Sir Philip. “Why should you transfer value from one set of shareholders to another when you have an existing contract?” This was a view that had informed an EG leader on 30th August 2008, written a week before the Evening Standard article:
Green Envy Undermines Rent Debate
The weighty name of Sir Philip Green of Arcadia Group was used in late July by the British Retail Consortium to fan the embers of an old campaign to persuade landlords to abandon quarterly in advance rental payments in favour of a once a month cheque. Since then, the man who owns Bhs and Topshop – landlord of a few properties himself – has enjoyed a holiday on his £32m yacht Lionheart in the Med, keeping company with Kate Moss and Sylvester Stallone, and, understandably otherwise occupied, has said little. But on 20 August, Green weighed in on the topic with a letter sent to leading retail landlords.
Sir Philip says he wants an “open and honest conversation” with regard to the “existing archaic leasing and rent review structure”. Not just on the practice of payments being made on the ancient quarter days, but also on “rental evidence, service charges and insurance charges”. The fight is clearly going to be about more than paying rents 90 days in advance. So, retailers should expect mud to be flung back – how long do you take to pay your suppliers, for instance? None of his landlords will say it to his face, but lying just below the surface is a fierce personal resentment against a billionaire leading a campaign to screw down retailers’ costs. If there really were an “open and honest” conversation it would include the phrase: “Why on earth should I subsidise the gaudy lifestyle of this particular billionaire?”
Actually, maybe it was that which annoyed Sir Philip, rather than the Evening Standard article (not that I had him down as an EG reader). Anyway, he had timed his assault to perfection, had he but known. The collapse of Lehman Brothers came just sixteen days later, plunging a precariously poised retail sector into deeper trouble, unnerving landlords still further. The web was taking more and more traffic from the high street.
Retailer after retailer began to choose the path of company voluntary administration, a legal way of tearing up lease agreements and getting lower rents which infuriated helpless landlords. Sir Philip Green’s intervention was a tipping point: before, landlords had been able to hold the line; afterwards, they were forced slowly back from their defensive positions. Sir Philip seemed to back out of the fray as fast as he had entered. So I was surprised to receive a call sometime in 2009 (I can’t quite remember when), with the usual preface of “Would you take a call from Sir Philip Green?”
I had already decided to tape the next call from him and keep it for general amusement. I took a few steadying breaths and said: “Hello?” Sir Philip was sweetness itself, presenting merely a mild complaint about some minor point in a story we’d written on Arcadia’s search for new offices. He ended by giving me his mobile number and the invitation to call any time. I never did switch the recorder on. Nor call him again, any time.
Extract from Planet Property.