Surely British business can do better than Mike Ashley and Philip Green?
Here’s a question. Do you really think that two white billionaires with a penchant for excess, questionable morals and a slew of scandals to their name are the ideal face of business in a country scrambling to keep the surviving scraps of its international reputation intact? I didn’t think so. And yet, here we are.
Mike Ashley and Philip Green shared the business headlines over the weekend with stories very different in nature, but nonetheless all serving as a reminder for why British businessmen are in desperate need of a dramatic image overhaul. Sports Direct, headed up by Ashley – the mouthy retail entrepreneur who also owns House of Fraser and Newcastle United – was last week hailed as a possible buyer of Patisserie Valerie after the cafe chain spectacularly crashed into administration in January putting hundreds of jobs at risk.
Mike Ashley withdraws his surprise bid for Patisserie Valerie
But on Sunday it emerged that Sports Direct had bowed out of the process, claiming that it had not been given access to all the information required to continue bidding for the group, a statement that was contradicted by some reports, which in turn suggested that detailed financial material had indeed been made available. Whichever way you spin it, this looks like a case of Ashley playing a giant game of monopoly, happy to gobble up assets as quickly as he is willing to ditch them, with little apparent concern for the livelihoods behind the deals.
Sports Direct has repeatedly been accused of exploiting workers for financial success. Back in 2016, the 54-year-old from Staffordshire admitted during a hearing before MPs that workers at one of his warehouses were being paid less than minimum wage and were being fined for lateness. Unscathed, he continued to build his empire that now includes Evans Cycles, Lillywhites, Sweatshop, Agent Provocateur and stakes in Debenhams, Game Digital and French Connection.
Ashley is perhaps best known in the media as a self-confessed binge drinker. He’s been accused of encouraging subordinates to take part in extreme drinking competitions that in one case ended with the billionaire barfing into a fireplace. Classy. Now tell me, is this the kind of man who we should entrust with the fate of our struggling high street, the careers of thousands, and the battered reputation of British business? What happened to proper governance? Social responsibility? Moral management? Let us weep.
Ashley is no stranger to letting his mission make a plump profit get in the way of being a decent human. We’ve learned our lesson before and if we keep greeting his behaviour with little more than a slap on a wrist, British business really will lose those final remnants of integrity.
Ashley’s tales are perhaps only just about digestible when compared with those of Philip Green.
Green’s face graced the cover of several newspapers on Saturday under headlines pertaining to accusations, all of which he denies, that the chairman of Arcadia Group (with Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Evans, Burton, Miss Selfridges and Dorothy Perkins in its stable) had sexually harassed and racially and physically abused his staff.
The allegations add to a string of controversies and claims ranging from tax avoidance to using sweatshops and underpaying staff, and – if you didn’t know Green’s history – the latest details would be as unbelievable as they are sickening. The Monaco-based billionaire is said to have directed racist remarks at a black employee, groped women working for him, and physically abused both female and male workers. To avoid personal inconvenience, he’s alleged to have paid some employees large sums of money in exchange for their silence. You can famously put a price on everything.
The black man’s dreadlocks were said to have been mocked by Green, who is also said to have accused the employee of smoking cannabis and “throwing spears in the jungle”. That victim reportedly accepted a payment of £1m in hush money. On another occasion, Green is said to have kissed a woman’s face, touched her inappropriately and commented on her weight. His lawyers dismissed the reports by claiming their paymaster’s style is “playful” and “jovial in nature”. Right.
Philip Green accused of racial, physical and sexual abuse
In an era when political correctness has supposedly gone mad, a world where #MeToo is reshaping swathes of industry, something has gone terribly wrong for men like Ashley and Green still to be flouncing around in their different ways, largely unchallenged. Green has a knighthood, something that is meant to distinguish him as a model citizen with impeccable values. Ashley is hailed by many as a retail visionary. Both are among the most powerful people in business.
We’ve scoffed and tutted at their disgraceful behaviour but that’s just about all. It’s time for us to realise the damage being inflicted upon British business’s reputation by these fat cats. At the current slow rate of progress, British boardrooms will continue to be largely pale, male and stale for many years to come. Even Britain in 2019 can surely do better than this.
• Josie Cox is a business expert who has worked at the Independent, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters
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