The TV star, the banker, the knight and his QC - the Gadget tale has it all

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When it comes to retail theatre, it doesn't get much hotter than the show being played out in court 55 at London's High Court.

Some of the biggest names in the business have been dragged into the spotlight during the quest to determine whether Sir Tom Hunter, the wealthy Scottish entrepreneur, illegally excluded his fellow investors in The Gadget Shop from a business opportunity when he acquired the rival retail chain Birthdays. His sidekick Chris Gorman, who ran the gizmo chain, and his business partner, Jim McMahon, are also being sued.

Sir Tom, the newly knighted Glaswegian who has been linked with some of the biggest names on the high street, is unquestionably the star of the show, although Mr Gorman, the self-publicised entrepreneur, is arguably a bigger household name these days thanks to his obsession with television reality shows. (His Channel 4 show Make Me a Million was aired only hours after his court debut on Tuesday).

Then there's Sir Tom's barrister Lord Grabiner QC, the chairman of the Topshop-to-Burton group Arcadia. He was dragged into the proceedings when it was alleged that he advised Sir Tom that the acquisition of Birthdays would be above board. Simon Reuben, the property hotshot and confidante of Lord Grabiner who once discussed a putative takeover bid for Marks & Spencer with the chain's now chief executive Stuart Rose, has given evidence to try to get his friend Sir Tom off the hook.

Even Philip Green, the billionaire king of the high street, has had a cameo role when it emerged he was offered a stake in The Gadget Shop soon after Sir Tom bought into the chain. Tom Walker, who was finance director at The Gadget Shop, provides another link as he was the former finance director at Amber Day, a retailer Mr Green left under a cloud during his last encounter with the stock market.

The court case neatly demonstrates just how small a world the high street is: Mr Green, of course, owns the Arcadia group and often seeks his own legal advice from Lord Grabiner; meanwhile, his history with Sir Tom goes way back. The duo first worked together in the late 1990s, when Mr Green helped Sir Tom's Sports Division acquire Olympus Sports, facilitating a deal that made Sir Tom's fortune when he sold it for £290m in 1998. Today Sir Tom is one of the very few external shareholders in Bhs, the retailer that made Mr Green his first billion pounds.

The legal battle, which reaches its final act this morning when the two sides will present their summations, is a cautionary tale about what can happen when business relationships turn sour. Put four entrepreneurs and one ambitious trader for a top Swiss bank together and it is perhaps not surprising that the sparks fly.

And yet the scale of the animosity that has been dredged up has stunned the City. Allegations of blue language at business meetings, drunken encounters in some of Europe's swankiest nightspots and gentlemen's agreements that are anything but have kept the Square Mile entertained for the past two weeks.

The case has been brought by Peter Wilkinson, the Freeserve designer, and Jon Wood, a UBS managing director, who were 40 per cent shareholders in The Gadget Shop, against Sir Tom Hunter and Chris Gorman, their former fellow shareholders. The duo are seeking about £100m in compensation for missing out on what they argue was a golden opportunity to combine the gizmo chain with the greetings card chain Birthdays in August 2003.

What happened instead, to the incredulity of Mr Wilkinson, was that Sir Tom used his private-equity group West Coast Capital to buy Birthdays with Mr Gorman's input. This ran counter to the deal struck when Mr Wood invited Sir Tom to invest in The Gadget Shop in 2002, which the UBS trader believed cemented an acquisitive business partnership, creating a vehicle for future deals. What is more, the claimants argue, the acquisition was dressed up as a potential Gadget Shop deal until the eleventh hour, which meant that it was on Gadget Shop time that Sir Tom and Mr Gorman put the deal together, wearing Gadget Shop hats on their heads.

Indeed, in his testimony this week, Mr Gorman was forced to admit that the confidentiality agreement he signed with Birthdays' bankers to get his hands on the chain's books was on behalf of The Gadget Shop - although his initial witness statement had said that it wasn't. An exasperated looking Mr Justice Warren, the presiding judge, eventually asked: "Did you know it was a confidentiality agreement or did you think it was a letter to your grandmother?"

Sir Tom's side's argument - that they went it alone only because the other Gadget Shop investors wouldn't agree to the deal - breaks down when it emerges that Sir Tom tried to force the 40 per cent shareholders to accept a derisory 25 per cent in the enlarged group.

Given that the acquisition turned out to be a busted flush and The Gadget Shop itself collapsed into administration earlier this year, the very fact that the case has reached court has mystified many observers. So why are they bothering?

"It's a willy-waving contest," one retail chief executive commented privately about the whole shebang. "But pure theatre."

Lord Grabiner has told Mr Justice Warren that he regards the lawsuit as little more than an attempt to wash his clients' dirty laundry in public. Mr Wilkinson has been accused of "baseless and unnecessary mudslinging" against Sir Tom and Mr Gorman.

And Sir Tom's alleged inebriation in the toilets of the Amber Lounge nightclub after the Monaco Grand Prix and at his home in the south of France during a dinner with Mr Wood have duly been widely reported. As has the fact that Michael Crystal QC, representing the claimant, accused Sir Tom and his associates of a "complete lack of commercial morality".

Friends of Sir Tom say the charges have made him feel "very uncomfortable". For his part, the knight of the realm has roundly denied Mr Wood's description of him as "very drunk" and " staggering".

It is hard not to view the proceedings as a grudge match between multimillionaires. As a result, the business reputation of some of the country's best-known entrepreneurs lies in the hands of Mr Justice Warren, who will take anything up to four weeks to reach his verdict.

Either way, it's all far too late for the 750 employees of The Gadget Shop who lost their jobs when the chain went bust and for Mr Elvidge, who must wish Mr Wilkinson had plumped for any other investors than Mr Wood and Sir Tom.

Dramatis personae in the High Court show that is packing them in

SIR TOM HUNTER

The newly knighted Glaswegian sprung to prominence when he banked £290m from the sale of his Sports Division in the late 1990s. A shareholder in Bhs, he is very close to Philip Green. Has mounted abortive takeover bids for House of Fraser and Selfridges. Set up his private-equity group West Coast Capital three years ago. Has cultivated a philanthropic image via his foundation for Scottish entrepreneurs and playing a big role in last summer's Make History Poverty campaign.

CHRIS GORMAN

Sees himself as Sir Tom's protégé. An entrepreneur who has cultivated a big media profile, starring in a number of reality TV shows including Channel 4's current 'Make me a Million'. The multimillionaire made his money when DX Communications, the mobile phone retailer he had a stake in, was sold to BT Cellnet in 1999. GUS bought his Reality internet services group a year later. Once tried to bid for TJ Hughes.

PETER WILKINSON

The 51-year-old Yorkshireman is best known for his role in designing Freeserve, the internet service provider. He has amassed a fortune of about £300m from his various web-based interests, including a clutch of football websites that he swapped for shares in BSkyB.

JON WOOD

Unlike his opponents in court, Jon Wood does not seek media fame. The proprietary trader for UBS lives in Switzerland and was introduced to Sir Tom by a fellow managing director of the Swiss bank. As a friend of Mr Wilkinson, the pair are co-investors in a number of other companies apart from The Gadget Shop. Mr Wood suggested Sir Tom would be a good retailer to take on The Gadget Shop when the gizmo retailer was in need of a cash injection in 2002.

JONATHAN ELVIDGE

Branded the "gay Dutchman" by Mr Wilkinson because he turned up to a board meeting with brightly coloured, dyed hair in an orange shirt, without Mr Elvidge there would have been no Gadget Shop. The former salesman from East Yorkshire set up the business aged 27 in 1991 because he once struggled to find an innovative gift doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. Claims he discovered Robosapien, the best-selling toy last Christmas.

PHILIP GREEN

Never far from the scene of any retail deals, it should have surprised no one to learn that the billionaire owner of Bhs and Arcadia was also tangled up in the history of The Gadget Shop. Although Mr Green never put any money into the business or had a role as anything other than a close friend of Sir Tom, one of the early rows between the shareholders centred on whether he should be brought in as a fellow investor. Messrs Wood and Wilkinson refused. Lord Grabiner QC, who is defending Sir Tom, is chairman of Bhs.

Comments