Playthings of the Monetary Rich and (In) Famous

The last couple of times this blog has fallen silent for a month, it has been because of a death in my family. Thankfully, this time that is not the case, though an alleged death threat does feature.

Can you believe the BHS saga as it unravels? My silence is basically because I have been trying to lift my jaw up from the ground. I have been rendered speechless – or wordless to be more accurate – over the whole affair and especially the Select Committee investigations. In what may yet be not the most jaw-dropping element we now have the ex-Chief Executive alleging that the owner threatened to ‘kill him’ if he raised alarm over specific money going out of the company.

The ways in which BHS was the plaything of the rich, as laid out by the fall out from administration and liquidation is genuinely astonishing. Treated as a private cash cow by the owners and in my view, some of the advisors, auditors, consultants and other hangers on, the grubby story shows the employees, pensioners, some managers and now the public purse being taken as mugs. Staff have been shafted by the greedy, rapacious behaviours of a number of people and firms.

Should this surprise me?

In the early 1980s, soon after I moved to Stirling and became seriously interested in retailing, we had the Tiny Rowland and Mohammad Fayed ‘spat’ over Harrods. This was unpleasant with plenty of mud to go round. The unacceptable face of capitalism was also laid out in companies such as Polly Peck, Guinness and United Distillers (I see Ernest Saunders’ miraculous recovery allowed him to be a company advisor and director) and Amber Day (in which a certain Philip Green starred). Throw in Amazon tax issues, the current Boots problems and Mike Ashley and Sports Direct (what an excellent choice to choose this week to appear before a Select Committee given the BHS ‘evidence’) and we have a long and not so distinguished history in this broad area. But if you can get away with it …..?

We could also look to the more recent Comet closure and pension issues. This is not at all the same cause or ilk as the current BHS situation, nor is it of the same magnitude. But it does have similarities in terms of the role and reward of advisors and administrators, preferred creditors and the public having to pick up the tab. This was in its own smaller way a scandal, but the Government, despite pledges to the contrary, have refused to make public the investigation findings. Why not? What is there to hide? After all the taxpayer paid for this report in so many ways and we should see it. Perhaps it might even contain lessons for BHS – and those to follow.

Advisors passing the buck, shady introductions and inter-linkages, a lack of morals and ethics and a wanton disregard for staff, suppliers and even landlords; this is not exactly a wonderful legacy for deregulation and the market economy. Add in a death threat, claims of insanity, questions of intelligence and who knows what else in the coming weeks and it really is a grand soap opera, whatever we think of the ‘probing’ of the Select Committee members. But in this soap opera people are being really hurt and livelihoods damaged.

‘(He) is a mythomaniac…a Premier League liar and a Sunday pub league retailer. At best’ (Michael Hitchcock, former BHS financial consultant on owner Dominic Chappell).

That’s some epitaph on an owner and a business model. Whilst I understand the current focus on BHS and its problems, there may be a systemic issue here that needs to be resolved (lanced?) We have to make sure it can never happen again.

This is probably a good place to reiterate that this blog expresses my personal view and is not a stated position of my employer.