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04 April 2004
Scotland on Sunday
Business Comment

Philip Green

A PACKED conference hall in Glasgow last week proved, at the very least, that Scotland has an appetite for entrepreneurialism.

Five hundred - a sell-out - turned up to hear Bhs boss Philip Green for a rare public outing. But Scotland had been good to him, he said, and he wanted to give something back. Hence his offer to share his thoughts on risk and making money.

Contrary to his public image as the rottweiler of retailing, he looked shy and nervous, barely confident enough to look his audience in the eye. But nobody was fooled by this apparent reticence. So what did we learn from this audience with a billionaire?

He had plenty to say about merchant bankers, lawyers, the public company arena in general, though not much that we hadn't heard before. He is certainly not a fan of any of them, so there was no point anyone asking if he was going to float Bhs or Arcadia - the Top Shop to Dorothy Perkins chain.

More enlightening were his views on politicians and taxes towards whom he was quite favourable, but less so towards government plans to send half of school leavers to university, the case for which he would 'need some convincing'.

The audience lapped up his put-downs and one liners - 'most lawyers could have an argument with themselves in an empty room' - and there is certainly a Green bandwagon in process.

He is regularly at the centre of rumour and speculation. He was said to be interested when Scottish & Newcastle's pub estate went up for sale last year, which proved to be untrue. Last weekend he was linked with a bid for supermarket giant Sainsbury, though I understand he is not in the running.

Green's links with Scotland go back to Tom Hunter's acquisition of the Olympus chain from Sears in 1995. Four years later the Barclay brothers, owners of The Scotsman Publications, supported Green and Hunter's acquisition of Sears. Hunter, this time without the Barclays, came in with Green when he paid GBP 200m for Bhs a year later.

Last Monday night provided another opportunity to confirm the Scottish partnership, though unlike his extravagant 50th birthday bash in Cyprus, guests were not required to wear Roman togas, or sing-a-long with Stevie Wonder who performed at Hunter's 40th in the south of France.

This time Green lavished his beneficence on those he admires, notably Bank of Scotland and Peter Cummings, its head of corporate finance, who has funded a number of his deals. Green told his audience that 'if there is anyone better, I don't know them.' Standard Life could do with a few of his kind.

TERRY MURDEN

 



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