Storm in a teacup – the last time I met Philip Green
“Come round for a cup of tea,” was the cordial invitation from Philip Green one cold January day in 2005. So off I trudged to the offices of Arcadia Group on London’s Oxford Street.
I had been covering the business fortunes of PG - as his confidants referred to him - for many years as a journalist for several big British newspapers. I think it’s fair to say there had been ‘ups and downs’.
The good times came from involvement in one of the most fascinating stories on the British business scene - the rise to riches of a self-taught and self-confident entrepreneur who had become a multi-billionaire through his own shrewd deal-making abilities.
He had also been personally kind to me when a tragic illness struck my family, generously helping to raise money for a medical charity that had helped save my son’s life.
But the bad times were legion. Green was notoriously touchy about his press coverage, and any perceived “mistake” would set off a cluster-bomb of reactions - expletive-laden phone calls, to the office or at home; threats of apocalyptic legal action; even physical confrontation.
He and I had to be separated at a reception just a year before the offer of tea. In fact, the invitation from PG to the Arcadia offices came after I’d sent a “bury the hatchet” email a few days earlier, in an effort to make up for the tiff.
I reasoned that, as a financial journalist, there was no point being on permanently bad terms with one of the best-connected men in British business. No matter how boorish, rude and downright aggressive he could be, he was also the source of lots of good hard news about the London business and financial scene.
Back then, PG was at his zenith. The purchase and turnaround of British Home Stores had made him rich as Croesus, and been the springboard for the expansion of Arcadia – with big name brands like Top Shop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins.
He was the self-proclaimed “King of the High Street”, but had just failed in an attempt to make himself the retailing Emperor with an abortive bid to take over Marks & Spencer. At the time, I was business editor at the Observer newspaper, which had taken a staunch line against Green’s possible ownership of M&S. Our coverage of the bid had led to another round of phone vulgarity and legal threats.
Now that Arcadia is going into administration in the UK, it is quite satisfying to think that I and the Observer may have played a role in keeping M&S out of Green’s hands by swaying public and official opinion against the bid.
No matter how boorish, rude and downright aggressive he could be, he was also the source of lots of good hard news about the London business and financial scene
Whatever challenges M&S might face in the pandemic-stricken UK retailing scene, at least it has some financial resources left with which to confront them. Arcadia (and BHS before it) has suffered years of asset value destruction, even while Green was enjoying the luxury lifestyle from his billionaire haven in tax-free Monaco.
But back to the cup of tea.
PG was amiable enough on arrival and showed me into the gigantic office that served as his personal workspace and a boardroom. On a tennis-court sized table lay one thick ring binder.
“Right, let’s talk about this shall we,” he said as we sat down.
The folder contained every single word I’d ever written about him and his businesses - more than a decade’s worth of coverage. My “mistakes” were highlighted in yellow. He planned to turn our “bury the hatchet” cuppa into a punishment session after which, presumably, I would admit my guilt and implore the great man’s absolution.
That did not happen. Our meeting quickly and inevitably descended into a foul-mouthed shouting match. (I must confess to using some bad language myself as the anger rose).
After 10 minutes, it was all over. I had been escorted from the Arcadia building by security, just a little worried all the time that there might be some physical punishment to come on top of the verbal lashing.
“I never want to see or hear from you ever again,” shouted Green on Oxford Street, his index finger uncomfortably close to my nose.
“That suits me just fine,” I replied. And so it was.
Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai