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30 March 2004
The Herald
Billionaire retailer lambasts merchant bankers

PHILIP Green, the billionaire retail baron who owns around 15% of the UK high street, last night praised the Bank of Scotland for its speedy decision-making and entrepreneurial spirit.

If the catalogue of press reports is to be believed, it was a rare moment of positive sentiment from a man who is often painted as rude, arrogant, and obnoxious.

In an expensive grey suit, smelling strongly of tobacco smoke, and a celebrity suntan, he appeared oddly nervous at the Entrepreneurial Exchange event in Glasgow, in front of more than 500 eager listeners.

Green, however, wasted no time in lambasting the merchant banking industry for being too expensive, too time-consuming, and too risk-averse.

'There was a time, maybe 30, 40, or 50 years ago, when merchant banks took real risks,' he told the crowd.

'These days, most have been taken over by big players, and they're highly expensive to use.

'I think the relationship with your bank is critical, as is the quality of advice.'

However, he said: 'I have been lucky with the Bank of Scotland, and I have what I would call a special relationship with them. I find them entrepreneurial and honest. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no, but usually you have an answer within three or four hours. With some merchant banks, you can get 300 or 400 days of due diligence and in the end they say no.'

He added: 'Their idea of advice is like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? They answer two questions correctly then phone a friend. I feel the same about most lawyers.'

Green, 52, has been wheeling and dealing in retail companies for the past two decades, but is best known for rehabilitating two giants - Bhs, and Top Shop to Dorothy Perkins chain Arcadia. His empire spans 2500 outlets, employs 40,000 workers and turns over around 3bn in sales annually.

With a personal fortune estimated at roughly 2.8bn, he is the 84th richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

He has spent some of his fortune living high off the hog - a flamboyant yacht, a private jet, and a penthouse in Monte Carlo - yet his rapid rise to riches has been greeted with something less than enthusiasm.

'There has been a lot of non-sense written about this,' said Green.

'I believe you're only worth what you have in your pocket. In other words, your assets aren't worth anything until they have been converted to cash. That's something we saw in the dot.com boom, which had some people worth a fortune on the Thursday morning but by Friday night they were skint.'

Green also recently paid handsomely for an England rugby shirt from the World Cup final. There is debate over whether the shirt was actually worn by player Ben Kay, but Green said he was happy to have helped a charity with his purchase.

His outlook has been forged by his personal journey to the top. He attributes his success not to cheap acquisitions, but to walking factory floors in the rag trade and by learning to price clothes by rubbing the fabric between his fingers.

He left school at 16 without qualifications to become an apprentice for a London shoe importer run by a family friend.

At 27, he opened his first store. In March 2000, he paid 200m - backed by the Bank of Scotland - to take Bhs into private ownership and has since instigated a huge financial turnaround at the high street chain.

It was the Bank of Scotland, part of the HBOS group, which also backed his 770m takeover of Arcadia.

Green's relationship with the bank owes its roots to his friend, Ayrshire entrepreneur Tom Hunter, after the bank helped with the (pounds) 20m purchase of the Olympus chain in 1995.

Green has been linked with almost every major takeover bid in recent years, including Safeway and Marks & Spencer. Most recently, he has been linked to a bid for Sainsbury, which has been losing market share.

However, while Green has made a reputation as a tough businessman - and one accustomed to getting his own way - he admitted he dislikes public-speaking engagements.

'This is my first for many years, but Scotland has been lucky for me and I wanted to give something back.'

MARK SMITH



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