Recently I took a phone call from one of my most voluble business contacts, Sir Philip Green. After long months of uncharacteristic silence in which he had been vilified in the media, the Commons and at Jewish gatherings, the old Green, minus the industrial language, was back.
His new apparent warmth came after my paper, The Daily Mail, had lifted the ‘Sir Shifty’ sobriquet in a voluntary front page tongue-in-cheek apology after Green graciously settled with the members of the BHS retirement funds by making a formal transfer of £365million to the Pensions Regulator.
Green had called to talk about a shake-up at the senior level of Topshop, with one of his longest-serving fashion employees moving to The White Company.
But what was also recognisable is that the entrepreneur so recently labelled as Britain’s nastiest boss was at ease with himself. No one in Britain has ever written a cheque that large to put right a wrong in a pension fund. Parting with so much wealth is never easy, however rich you may be, especially with HMRC watching over your shoulder.
Indeed, it is often said that those who have the most are the most reluctant to part with it. Green plainly feels the settlement that he reached was cathartic and he can, once again, hold his head high as he strolls down Oxford Street or finds himself at the top table of one of Anglo-Jewry’s many charities.
The BHS scandal, Green’s sale of the historic retailer for just £1 to a serial bankrupt, has been excruciating for the Jewish community. For much of last year, the public disparagement of Green, including a painful appearance before a Commons Select Committee, was a matter of huge embarrassment. Little, if anything, was made of Green’s Jewish background in the coverage, but it is in the nature of the community to assume that whenever Green’s name came up people were thinking ‘the Jews again’, or something like it.
Green did not help himself with the reports in some parts of the media of his gratuitous swearing and the pictures of him clad in billowing shorts in the Mediterranean last summer aboard his new £100m plus yacht, the Lionheart. This simply played into the narrative of a ruthless, overweight and uncaring businessman prepared to rub the noses of the former BHS workforce – many of them close colleagues – into the ground.
There can be few excuses for the gratuitous displays of wealth and Green’s combative behaviour. But the truth of the matter is that from the first Green was willing to try to fix the pension fund, albeit inadequately, and was hampered throughout the process by second-rate Pensions Regulator and tax considerations.
The BHS affair was costly to reputations in the community. Soon after an unhelpful appearance before the work and pensions and business select committees, the joint chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Michael Sherwood, informal advisor to Green, resigned. Over the years, Sherwood has been a stalwart of Jewish philanthropic causes.
The law firm Olswang, legal adviser to the BHS buyer consortium, merged with another firm. There has been criticism of its due diligence, which was relied upon by Green’s lawyers Linklaters.
Green had a vision of what needed to be done from the first. What he was determined to avoid was the BHS pension fund falling into the hands of the Pension Protection Fund, under which benefits, especially for senior management, would have been dramatically cut. His negotiations with another quango, the Pensions Regulator, were painfully slowed by inexperience and bureaucracy. This was recognised by the Commons committee after Green made his transfer.
Green has cleared his responsibility for BHS, although there are still some questions about the deficit in the Arcadia (Topshop) pension fund. Nevertheless, other companies with problems have sought to jettison pension responsibilities, including Tata Steel and Bernard Matthews. Green in the end did the right thing. It is time for the community to forgive and forget.