Sir Philip Green admits he made "a bad call" selling BHS to Dominic Chappell

 
Helen Cahill
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Green has said today that he doesn't want to blame anyone for BHS' downfall (Source: Getty)

Sir Philip Green has said he is working on finding a solution for BHS pensioners and claimed most of the buyers who came forward for the company wanted to put it into administration.

There have been some testy exchanges as Green faces a grilling from MPs, with questions so far focussing on the advisers who worked with Chappell and Green's involvement with the BHS pension scheme.

"I made a bad call selling this business to Retail Acquisitions," Green said. "Didn't do it with any intent."

Green denies meeting Mike Ashley, then admits he did meet Mike Ashley

Chair Iain Wright read out a letter from Ashley in which the Sports Direct boss said he was in telephone contact with Sir Philip Green.

On the meeting between Chappell and Sports Direct to save BHS, Green said: "I had zero knowledge of that meeting. I was not involved, I didn't even know they had a meeting."

Chappell called Green to ask for Mike Ashley's phone number. Green then admitted that at lunchtime on the Friday, Ashley called him laughing: "You know it was me, didn't you?"

Read more: Sports Direct's Mike Ashley steps in for eleventh hour BHS chats

Green said Ashley told him after a call from Chappell: "Do me a favour please make sure that guy does not phone me again."

They had two or three conversations about it over the weekend, but Green said he was not involved in negotiations. However, Arcadia did offer to add £5m to the Sports Direct bid for BHS and hosted a meeting to discuss the deal.

When asked why the deal did not go forward, Green responded by waving his chequebook at Wright and said: "One of these."

Wright then suggest that envy was the reason why Green did not want to sell the business to Ashley, which infuriated Green - and it looked as though he was about to walk out.

"I find that really, I think that's disgusting and a sad way to end. I think that's out of order and you should apologise," he said. "It's laughable. I've sat here six hours and I haven't been rude to you."

Green said that he almost bought back BHS himself "if it hadn't been for all the drama", but said he wouldn't buy it now because "life's moved on it's too late."

Field pointed out that this was not the case for the 11,000 BHS employees who were likely to lose their jobs.

Goldman Sachs didn't tell Green to avoid Chappell

"There was no suggestion from anybody along the road that we shouldn't do business with the guy," Green said about the advice he received on Chappell.

Read more: Sir Philip Green hits back at accusations that he ruined a deal to save BHS

In particular, he said Goldman Sachs - who were appointed as a 'gatekeeper' to do a background check on Chappell - did not tell him not to do business with the serial bankrupt.

He said: "This is important. One million per cent, we would not have done business with him, if they would have said: don't deal with this guy. That is not the advice we got."

Despite this, Green added: "I don’t wanna lay the blame at Goldman Sachs’ door."

Goldman Sachs' Anthony Gutman, who appeared in front of MPs in May, told the joint select committee the firm had warned Arcadia Group's finance director Paul Budge that Chappell has a history of bankruptcy.

Green said Chappell gained credibility from Olswang and Grant Thornton

On Chappell, Green said: “He produced Grant Thornton and he produced Olswang.”

"For me these people...gave him the credibility to move forward. The way they worked for him, you think they’d been working for him for ever."

Read more: Timeline: How the collapse of BHS unfolded

“This cost a lot of money. Nobody ever asked: had Olswang or Grant Thornton ever worked for this man before?”

"I took comfort from those two firms representing him."

Green said the firms "came to act for him blind" and asked whether or not they would be held responsible for this. He brought the hearing back to this point several times - despite repeatedly saying he didn't wish to blame anyone else for the demise of BHS.

Everyone interested in BHS "wanted to take the business through a bankruptcy"

On what he was looking for in a buyer, Green said: "Someone who could take the business forward. Virtually everybody who turned up wanted to put it through a process.

"Most of the people who came along...wanted to take the business through a bankruptcy."

Read more: Seven numbers explaining the demise of BHS

Talks with Paul Sutton "flowed on and off" said Green, until an anonymous file arrived on Sutton and "we didn't want to deal with him."

"When the file arrived, we disengaged with him. Period. That was the end of it," he said. "The file didn't read very well and that was the end of it."

“Paul Budge was dealing with Dominic Chappell and his team.

Read more: The six best moments from Dominic Chappell's appearance before MPs

"I said to Paul Budge I didn’t want to meet Dominic Chappell until effectively, he’s cleared.

"We had a gatekeeper. I did not attend any meeting at Goldman Sachs intentionally, I wanted him independently vetted.

"There was a process, set up by Paul Budge to hopefully get comfortable that we should pursue a transaction."

"Thor-style" scheme in the wings for BHS pensioners

The Arcadia chairman has said he is putting together a "Thor-style scheme" to help BHS pensioners, adding that he is not "running away". He will share the details with MPs when he has put something together, naming Deloitte as advisers.

Read more: Could a focus on customer experience have saved BHS?

"We want to find a solution for the 20,000 pensioners," he said.

"We always agreed and knew we would make a contribution to the pension scheme when the business was sold," he said. "We will sort it...I am there to sort this."

Green distances himself from pension scheme's demise

Nick Hood, business risk analyst at Opus Restructuring, said BHS' £571m pension scheme deficit is the issue "that threatens [Green] the most". When questioned on the subject, Green was keen to make it clear that he had very little contact with the pension scheme trustees.

Green said: "You can't run a business of this size by yourself. I was not actively involved in pension conversations.

"Maybe if I had been, we wouldn't be here."

"I'm not blaming anyone," he said. However, he pointed out that fees to advisers of Margaret Downes – the former BHS pension chair – at one point "reached over £2m". He also said he was lucky if he met her three times over a period of three years.

“I’m happy to apologise, I should have gotten involved earlier,” he said. “I can’t answer you because I wasn’t involved in it. You can ask as many questions as you like.”

Frank Field said: “Someone did this about coat hangers, but they didn’t bring the growing deficit of the pension fund to your attention.”

The situation became tense in the parliamentary hearing as MPs continued to ask Green about the pension scheme, but he refused to answer questions saying: “You’re asking me questions which are impossible to answer.”

"Somebody was asleep at the wheel," he said about the pension scheme, but refused to say who, although he made it clear that it was definitely not him.

"Obviously the issue is beyond sad," he said. "It would be very very very easy to blame this on somebody else."

Green was particularly unnerved by a line of questioning from Richard Graham, saying he was "beating me up."

Graham was asking about a 2012 meeting between Green and Steve Webb, then the pension minister, in which Webb said Green had said there was "no risk" of the BHS pension fund going into the Pension Protection Fund (PPF).

Green refused to confirm he had said this, saying: "You're trying to put words in my mouth.

"What bit of 'don't remember' do you find difficult to listen to?"

Green defends himself over dividend payments

Green has defended his dividend payments, saying: "I think the leverage used on this company was not excessive."

He refused to talk about the dividend payments in conjunction with the BHS pension scheme.

"You can write this down: I have never made or moved one penny out of a bank account of our company. I wouldn’t know how to," he said.

Field said that Chappell's attitude had been very different: "He actually wanted to do it all the time and was told he couldn’t."

Offshore tax structure

The retail tycoon says he "has never had an overseas bank account" and has been defending himself against accusations of tax avoidance, saying: "Do you wanna say every non-UK holder is a tax avoider?"

Frank Field responded: "It is the British Home Stores we are talking about."

Green also hit back at accusations that he did not invest enough into the business. He said that after he took dividends out, he invested £600m back into the business over a number of years.

Selling BHS

Green told MPs that "2002 would have been a good time to sell" BHS.

He added: "I think it was a combination of probably we let it run too long, we put a lot of money into it already and felt that our efforts – we’re operating a business of 27,000 people across 30 countries – I think it was just decided we’d invested enough money and we’d try to find a solution.

“BHS structurally was not in the right shape”

When BHS went into administration in April, 11,000 jobs were put at risk. MPs have been vocal in their disapproval of Green's supposed actions, but the retail tycoon has been hitting back at accusations made about him and even demanded the resignation of Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions committee.

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