As Private Eye put it, serialised exclusively across all newspapers, this book says that Philip Green is not a nice person. “Quelle surprise” as they may say in Croydon. But on the other hand, Oliver Shah is the Sunday Times journalist who broke the BhS story and who Philip Green threatened to kill. His book has been eagerly awaited.
Partly sly gossip, frequently sweary and profane, often with threats of violence, Damaged Goods is a detailed account of the rise and fall (repeat a few times) of Philip Green (PG or SPG depending on your view) and his business ‘colleagues’ and behaviours. Lots of sources on the record (and more than a few anonymous sources who are not), the author’s relationship (or at least a channel) of sorts to PG, and some detailed research allows Oliver Shah to paint a picture of Philip Green and his business dealings.
This portrait is pretty ugly; though Shah at times seems to enjoy the chase and point and counter point with PG.
It would be all too easy to focus on the character of the central “villain”, and there are plenty of other reviews out there (e.g. Guardian, Financial Times, CityAM), that dwell on some of the more unsavoury aspects of the affair and the more sensational episodes, but that wasn’t the message I took from the book. For me the book further exposes a whole series of corruptions at the heart of British business.
These include the:
- Sheer nastiness of many of the protagonists
- Cosiness between some journalists, analysts and business people, with the sense it is all a “game”
- Financial rotating merry-go-round and its lack of grounding in the real world, and the constant search for the next short-term deal and the best way to screw the “other side”
- Asset-stripping and pursuit of personal wealth at everyone else’s expenses (especially those working in stores and retail generally)
- Lifestyle obscenities of the rich and famous and the ‘hangers-on’ (and some of those in this book might surprise you, and hopefully they are now embarrassed – though I doubt it)
- Shady characters on the side-lines funding (often without declaring their interests, – and regulators should be taking a hard look at this) and cheering on.
Overwhelmingly the sense I got was of a system out of control, predicated on property values and personal greed, with a total disregard for ordinary people who work in the stores and shops, and the consumers they serve. They simply didn’t matter and were playthings of the rich and more powerful (or as I have put it previously – the (monetary) rich and (in)famous).
In that previous 2016 blog I wrote:
“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.”
Oliver Shah’s book places the BhS story in the longer run context and adds a wealth of detail. The bottom line conclusion should be the same though: the system and individuals are out of control and are getting away with “murder” (not literally despite the death threats). Regulators need to step in, toughen up and force transparency.
But in reading beyond the detail a different sense came into focus for me. The parallels with Brexit and Trump seem all too real. The people involved and their characteristics and faux concerns, the pursuit of personal gain at an obscene level, the outright lies and denials and the incitement to polarise, denigrate and demean are common threads. This set of broader behaviours have been normalised and in that sense PG is no different to Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Gove. Read in that light the behaviours are all too familiar and all too damaging.
After a detailed expose of the BhS pension scandal and the unravelling of PG and Bhs, Oliver Shah ends with a cautionary chapter which focuses on Top Shop and Arcadia. He points out the collapse in sales and profits, the desperation to sell (denied) and the pensions black hole (possibly twice that of BhS). He sees BhS as the “starter” and Top Shop and Arcadia as the main course, with the scale of the latter dwarfing what has gone before. In short this story (and PG’s responsibilities) has some way still to run. It is a catastrophe in the making for thousands (and in passing the BBC at least focused on the workers of Poundworld in a recent retail collapse story, which stood out as it made such a change).
The book also went to press prior to the news that Steve Denison, the PWC partner had been banned from practice for 15 years, fined £500k and PWC fined £10m for their shoddy work on BHS. Apparently a cursory two hours in what passes for audit and due diligence in these rarified circles. Cozy or what?
Damaged Goods is worth a read, but it is truly appalling – not as a book but for the system and behaviours it documents. The whole thing stinks, but I’m not holding my breath for things changing any time soon, as it is whole approach that needs to change. Till the next scandal …..
Shah O (2018) Damaged Goods: The inside story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street. Portfolio Penguin.
PS: I have no idea who thought it was right to add the sub-clause to the title (the death of the high street)- the book is not about that in any real sense and it smacks of bandwagon jumping, which is not required given the subject matter at its heart.