It is not often, possibly never, that a business select committee hears of death threats, but today that and other accusations flew thick and fast.
MPs from the Business, Innovation and Skills and Work and Pensions Committees were gathered at Portcullis House to hear what former owners and directors of BHS had to say about the department store chain’s demise and the parts they played.
Taking the stand were eight individuals, spread over three panels. BHS’s former finance boss Michael Hitchcock, former chief executive Darren Topp and the former managing director under Sir Philip Green’s rule, Richard Price, formed the first.
The second was comprised of four former Retail Acquisitions directors: law firm partner Mark Tasker, celebrity lawyer Eddie Parladorio, finance firm partner Stephen Bourne and Aiden Treacy, a former finance director at dairy company Unigate.
The headline spot was reserved for Dominic Chappell, Retail Acquisitions boss and the man thought by many to have the most questions to answer.
Chappell came across as self-assured and seemingly confident. Unhappy at having to share the waiting space with assembled journalists and the mass of BHS management present, he was overheard saying on the phone that he had expected to be able to wait somewhere by himself and derided Darren Topp’s PR man for “trailing after him”.
Topp, by contrast, shook the hands of press and seemed, although solemn and saddened, ready for his chance to set the record straight so far as he saw it. He was accompanied by a raft of BHS managers who, the “trailing” PR person told Retail Week, were there to support him.
The accusations contained in evidence from Topp, Hitchcock and Price ranged from Hitchcock terming Chappell “a Premier League liar and a Sunday Pub League retailer, at best” to Topp saying that, although Chappell sold himself as turnaround expert, instead of putting money into BHS he had his “fingers in the till”.
The second panel of the four Retail Acquisitions directors were dealt with swiftly by MPs. They maintained that, in contrast to Hitchcock suspecting within a fortnight that Chappell was “a fantasist”, they saw a hard-working businessman diligently trying to raise capital.
Then there was the small matter of the death threat, allegedly made by Chappell in response to Topp’s accusation that he was a thief for taking £1.5m out of BHS as it teetered on the brink.
Chappell had several things to say to this. The first was to tell MPs that the quizzing over £1.5m was simply a sideshow, and to ask what difference such a sum made in the context of the £571m pension deficit.
That elicited gasps from the gallery and prompted MPs to point out to Chappell that the £1.5m was important because it was indicative of how BHS and Retail Acquisitions were run.
Chappell’s grilling lasted for more than two hours, during which he failed to keep his cool, even saying that he was considering legal action against Green. He had an array of documents spread on the table in front of him, although a notable exception was exactly how much money he has made out of BHS – he promised MPs they would receive a spreadsheet “as soon as practically possible”.
Chappell agreed when asked by MPs whether he thought he had been “used” by Green and claimed that the tycoon had wanted BHS to be wound up and made the BHS CVA “difficult”, and that this had instigated the retailer’s administration.
It was a day of sensational allegations. As Green prepares to face the MPs next week, no doubt more revelations can be expected.