Former BHS boss Green vows to resolve pensions mess following collapse of retailer
Former BHS owner Sir Philip Green has vowed to sort out the pensions “mess” that followed the collapse of the retailer last month. The billionaire told MPs that his advisers were working on a “resolvable and sortable” solution for 20,000 members of the BHS scheme.
He said he would sit down as soon as possible with the regulator and would give it his “best shot”. Sir Philip also said he had offered to help Sports Direct buy BHS.
He said Sports Direct’s founder, Mike Ashley, had offered to buy the business and keep the shops trading until Christmas 2016. Sir Philip added that he had even offered to put in a “few million”, but that the total on the table was not sufficient.
The pension scheme is now in the Pension Protection Fund, meaning that members will receive less money than they had expected.
Sir Philip, whose retail empire includes Topshop, was appearing before a joint hearing of the Business and the Work and Pensions select committees, which are investigating the demise of the department store group.
He has come in for criticism for the £400m in dividends taken out of the firm during his 15-year ownership, his management of the pension scheme, and the sale of BHS in 2015 to former racing car driver and bankrupt Dominic Chappell, who had no retail experience.
At the start of almost six hours of tetchy exchanges, Sir Philip apologised for the collapse of BHS, which is expected to result in up to 11,000 job losses.
‘It’s my fault’
“There certainly [was] no intent on my part for anything to be like this. It didn’t need to be like this,” he said.
But he said he was working on a plan for the pension scheme, which was in surplus when he bought BHS but now has a £571m deficit.
“We want to find a solution for the 20,000 pensioners,” he said. “It’s current and in motion.” He took blame for the pensions “mess”, saying: “It’s my fault”.
Sir Philip told MPs the new plan, being drawn up by Deloitte, would offer BHS pensioners a “better outcome” than compensation available from the Pension Protection Fund, a lifeboat scheme that helps finance pensions when companies go bust.
However, he declined to give more details of the plan. When asked if it meant scheme members would receive the pensions due before the collapse, Sir Philip said: “We are trying to fix this mess.”
He rejected suggestions that he had sucked money out of BHS. Sir Philip told MPs that his Arcadia retail empire had invested £800m in BHS in an attempt to turn around a business that “structurally was in the wrong shape”.
Asked when he first considered selling BHS, Sir Philip replied that it was 2014. He added that there was “no thought process – perhaps there should have been – it would have saved a lot of aggravation”.
He said: “Would I do that deal again? No.” Mr Chappell was “unfortunately the wrong guy” to buy BHS.
But Sir Philip said Mr Chappell had endorsements from lawyers, accountants and banks. He took comfort from the advisory firms Grant Thornton and Olswang, which acted on behalf of Mr Chappell, although he now thought they didn’t know him “from a hole in the wall”.
Asked about Mr Chappell’s previous bankruptcies, Sir Philip said that should not necessarily count against him. “Entrepreneurs do bad deals. That doesn’t mean they can’t go back into business.”
He also defended his use of the tax haven Monaco to run his operations, saying: “I don’t accept that it is tax avoidance. With respect, if you look at our corporate structure, there is a lot of stuff written and I don’t want to talk about other companies, it is not my style.
“I could have been a lot more aggressive than I probably was. Every penny our company has made in the United Kingdom has paid tax.”
The businessman said he only left the UK because of a heart scare: “When I went there [Monaco], I had no idea I was ever going to do any more business.”
In an extraordinary exchange, Sir Philip stopped mid-sentence at one point to rebuke Richard Fuller MP for “staring” at him.
He said to Mr Fuller: “Sir, do you mind not looking at me like that all the time, it’s really disturbing. You just want to stare at me, it’s uncomfortable.”
Mr Fuller replied: “I don’t wish to make you feel uncomfortable, Sir Philip… I think it is another parliamentary colleague that is known for his death stare.”
MPs have already taken evidence from Mr Chappell, the pensions regulator and advisers on the sale of BHS.
After the hearing, the committee chairs, Iain Wright and Frank Field, said they may have further questions for Sir Philip. They are already planning to recall Mr Chappell.
Mr Wright told the BBC: “What was quite clear was that he was not used to being questioned. One of the things that really struck us was the ability of him to have quite vivid recollection of detail such as where that £7m went, but in terms of ten years of pension schemes which went from surplus to deficit he didn’t know anything, and we were trying to push him on that – that curious mix, that contradiction between knowing the detail and knowing nothing at all is something we really want to push.
“How can somebody extract hundreds of millions of pounds from a business and then sell it to somebody who isn’t putting any equity into it himself and it crashes in 13 months – how can that be allowed to happen?”
Mr Field added: “This guy, Dominic Chappell, who was a fantasist – how could he ever have been taken by anybody, seriously?”