ALEX BRUMMER: It may be hard to feel sorry for Philip Green but is it fair to single him out over pension deficits?
The political clamour for Philip Green to pay up and make good the £350million deficit in the Arcadia pension fund as the group heads to Carey Street is becoming deafening.
The memory of Green being dragged through the court of public opinion over his sale of BHS to a former bankrupt and now convicted tax evader Dominic Chappell is fresh.
Green was required to write a personal cheque of £363million to close the gap in the BHS pension fund. It is hard to have much sympathy for Green.
Fallen empire: Philip Green is under pressure to pay up and make good the £350m deficit in the Arcadia pension fund
The speed with which he paid his wife Tina Green an offshore dividend of £1.2billion in Arcadia in 2005 rather than investing for the long-term in the company was unacceptable.
Similarly, Green’s gross extravagances from over-the-top family celebrations to super-yachts and a spa home in Arizona, and apparent liking for non-disclosure agreements with disaffected staff, does not evoke trust.
While Green was on his personal spending spree, and Arcadia’s owner Taveta was running up losses, fast-fashion competitors online such as Asos and Boohoo, and bricks and mortar rivals such as Primark, were forging ahead.
Green’s rag-bag of brands, in spite of some great heritage in Burton and Wallis, were struggling for leadership and air.
As a company in private ownership, the ultimate covenant for the Arcadia pension fund rested with Green.
Indeed, the proprietor’s wife made good on that by signing over £210million of properties to the pension fund as well as pledging cash contributions of £100million over several years.
But one has to ask why Green is singled out for political opprobrium over pension funds when other companies which have fallen by the wayside during Covid-19 or before have not.
Carillion was a public company yet executives who were accused by MPs of allegedly misrepresenting the company’s health walked away rich men, while the pension funds were swiftly dumped on the Pensions Protection Fund (PPF).
Another Monaco exile, Philip Day, has seen his Edinburgh Woollen Mill empire go belly-up, but there has been no noise about the need for the proprietor to make good on weaknesses in the pension fund.
The same could be said for countless other victims of bad business choices and the pandemic, including such illustrious names as New Look, Cath Kidston, Austin Reed and Monsoon.
Green is a voluble character renowned for salty language. That does not mean that he alone should be required to jump through the fiery hoop of public ignominy.
The unification of Unilever under the union flag has been a long time in the making and the premium listing of the shares in London is finally assured.
It has been a rough ride, which saw the group’s eco-warrior former chief executive Paul Polman step down after UK investors rejected a move to Rotterdam in 2018.
Before seeking a safer haven in the Netherlands, Polman valiantly fought off an assault from Kraft Heinz, which would have left the company loaded up with debt and in no fit state to fight coronavirus.
The current shape of the group, with Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care (and all the R&D and testing involved) run from the UK and Food from Rotterdam, tells us where the HQ should be.
Home and beauty are the faster growing parts of the enterprise and produce the bigger revenues – and that was before Covid-19 gave it a lift.
The premium London quote is aligned with the shape of the enterprise. Being quoted in London rather than Rotterdam also means a more liquid market for the shares.
The current chief executive Alan Jope deserves credit for guiding Unilever to the London float, with secondary listings in Amsterdam and New York, in spite of obstacles including gaining the support of Dutch institutional investors and overriding fears of an ‘exit’ tax.
There have been few victories for ‘global Britain’ since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Keeping Unilever domiciled in the UK is one of them.
Lloyds Banking Group has not exactly played the diversity card with the choice of the next chief executive Charlie Nunn.
He is a 49-year-old white male who went to Cambridge and worked at Accenture and McKinsey before a stint at HSBC.
His background in wealth management will be useful as Lloyds seeks to build on an under-powered private banking partnership with Schroders. But there may be some Covid nasties to deal with first.