Entrepreneurs have always played a lively part in rejuvenating the UK retail scene. In the past, such knights errant as Sir Phil Harris and Sir Ralph Halpern successfully challenged the retail orthodoxy. More egregiously, there was Gerald Ratner – who took cynicism too far and paid the ultimate price for his prawn sandwich quip.
These days, it is the newly ennobled Sir Philip Green who has most set pulses racing. With nearly 10% of the UK retail clothing market under his control, he can accurately be described as a high street colossus. And, as if that were not justification enough for the epithet, he also boasts an outsize, flamboyant personality that ensures he is rarely out of the business news headlines.
Memorably, his flair for the dramatic came to the fore a couple of years ago when he (allegedly) collared in his car former Arcadia ally Stuart Rose, after Rose had had the temerity to thwart Green’s takeover of Marks & Spencer. Later, Green was heard to claim he would "trade the socks off" off Rose in a forthcoming battle of the retail titans.
That comment was a hostage to fortune and Rose may be forgiven – in contemplating what looks like a copper-bottomed turnaround story at M&S – a moment of private smugness. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best tasted cold.
For Green is now beginning to look a bit of a retail pariah. Bhs, in particular, is on the slide, with analysts castigating it for trying to cut too fashionable a dash while also compromising on quality. In short order, Green has lost (no connection, it is said) his long-term design guru Jane Shepherdson and his more recently engaged marketing director, Beverly Churchill. Green, in fairness, has been pretty forthright in blaming himself for the mistakes, which he ascribes principally to poor buying and underinvestment in the brand.
The Green/Rose fable provides a useful corrective to some conventional wisdom about retailing, which is that – if you want to make money these days – the private sector is generally a much better place to be. There is a good deal less regulation to worry about, the whingeing investment community is more manageable and remuneration (as Green has so spectacularly shown) is not a problem. What is not so frequently observed is that greater executive freedom brings with it the potential for disastrous error.
It’s interesting, for example, that Green’s instinctive distrust of marketing led directly to one of his avowed mistakes, underinvestment in the brand. Whereas, a high-profile marketing campaign, orchestrated by Rose’s lieutenant Steve Sharp, has been instrumental in turning M&S’ fortunes around.
Be this as it may, we should not fault Green on his other instincts, which remain formidable. 2006 has been his annus horribilis – a nightmare chapter in a much longer-running saga. It will be interesting to revisit this self-same scene in two or three years time, when the retail climate has become much harsher. Who will be the winners then?