The parliamentary inquiries into BHS and Sports Direct do not show the side of the retail business that Peter Williams recognises.
I feel rather saddened and ashamed.
It is not a picture I either recognise or like. I joined my first retailer nearly 30 years ago and since then I’ve worked for a variety, both publicly and privately owned.
As a sector to work in, the retail industry is fantastic. Fast moving, ever changing, huge variety. It is a privilege to be able to say work is fun.
Retailers have forever been fiercely competitive with one another but after the store closes, there is a business and social aspect where many rivals become friends.
Retail people, conditioned by the need to please the paying customer at all times, are generally outgoing, positive and fun to be around.
As in any business sector, boardroom discussions can be feisty but, in my experience, executives are generally treated with respect and their views listened to.
A chief executive leads the executive team, aware of his or her responsibility to stakeholders whether customers, suppliers, employees or shareholders. We all want our employees to feel that they can come to work to shine.
In public companies, great care is taken to balance the commercial drive for success and the need for proper governance in organisations that employ thousands of people and serve millions of customers.
There is much to admire about Sports Direct, cleverly created by Mike Ashley starting from a single store in Maidenhead, and Arcadia, initially the result of acquisitions by Sir Philip Green, who has subsequently successfully expanded Topshop on to the international stage.
Various commentators have described their reaction as being at times prickly, evasive and not always in possession of the facts.
How could BHS, a retailer with no clear consumer proposition, be sold to someone who is unknown in the industry and with no retail experience? The impression is given of a domineering management style and a reluctance to accept challenge.
Towards the end of the marathon six-hour questioning of Sir Philip Green, Richard Fuller MP asked the following question:
“I started with a fairly open question about why do we have companies and what are their aims. The reason I ask that is because we work in a business system where we give companies tremendous freedom, and directors and owners of companies tremendous power, over the way in which they operate—a very loose system of governance; and also because we are in an era where there is a lot of public mistrust of bosses and how those powers are used.
“Whether you would like it or not, your business is front and centre of that. Perhaps that is because it is a private company. Perhaps it is because it is held offshore. Of course more to the point it is because ultimately British Home Stores, subsequent to your ownership, went bust relatively quickly thereafter.
“Are there any lessons, as this Committee looks at the role of directors in transparency, that you in hindsight look back and think should inform us, so that we can rebuild the public’s trust in how the private capitalist system works?”
Perhaps when this question is answered positively, I will feel less saddened and ashamed.
- Peter Williams is chairman of boohoo.com and Mister Spex