Emperor in New Clothes: In the glory days Amber Day boss Philip Green could talk the City into anything. When deeds fell short of the words, suddenly no one was listening. Chris Blackhurst and Martin Tomkinson on the fall of a whizkid (CORRECTED)
Sunday 27 September 1992
WHEN journalists wrote about Philip Green, they knew what to expect. If the article was favourable, Mr Green, the chairman and chief executive of Amber Day, the store group that built up the Woodhouse and Review designer menswear chains and now owns the What Everyone Wants budget shops, would call to offer his congratulations. If it was hostile, he would also ring.
That conversation would start off amicably enough. But soon, Mr Green, a north Londoner, would slip into his native patois. Once, when a two-paragraph comment in this newspaper upset him, he called. 'I just thought you should know I tore your fucking article out and put it under my cat's arse where it belongs,' he raged.
When a journalist on another newspaper upset him, a dossier on the writer's financial affairs was passed to this newspaper.
He was never off the phone. It was not only journalists he would call. Shareholders and potential buyers of Amber Day shares would also receive his attention - sometimes to the irritation of his advisers. When Amber Day and the stockbroker Laing & Cruickshank parted company not long ago, a Laing executive blamed the split on the BT fixation of the Amber Day boss. 'He kept ringing clients up directly and asking them to take shares,' he moaned.
His efforts were reflected in the acres of newsprint devoted to what is, by stock market standards, a tiny concern. 'I have never known a company of Amber Day's size get so much written about it,' one of his financial advisers once said. Profit forecasts, successful share placings, special in-store promotions, deals and developments - all were covered in fawning detail.
Last week, the phone went dead. Mr Green suddenly resigned. Amber Day, which was the second-best stock market performer in 1990, outstripping the likes of Hanson, ICI and the mighty Marks & Spencer, had lost its driving force.
His position became untenable after the company failed to meet a profit forecast issued in June. Mr Green said it would at least match last year's pounds 10m. Instead, Amber Day made pounds 7.5m.
For the institutional shareholders, who had seen Amber Day shares plunge from 129p to as low as 23p in little more than a year, it was the last straw. Mr Green, who had spent so much time courting and cajoling them, went.
The man who played the stock market like a barrow-boy, exhorting the press and City to buy his wares, has discovered that, no matter how good the words are, if the fruit goes bad nobody will listen.
Of all the stock market stars of the late 1980s, none worked harder at promoting himself and his company than Mr Green. Gradually, an 'authorised version' of his career took shape that neatly smoothed over the bumps and heartaches suffered by any young budding entrepreneur.
Thus, readers were told he had spent 'a lifetime in the rag trade . . . buying and selling clothing and general merchandise' because, as he told Judi Bevan of the Sunday Telegraph, 'It was the easiest way to build capital quickly.'
The truth, as is often the case with 'self-made' men, is somewhat different.
He was born in 1952. His father, a businessman with property, garages and electrical interests, who died when Philip was 12, was wealthy enough to send him to Carmel College, a Jewish public school in Berkshire.
He left without any O-levels, but was able, shortly after his 21st birthday, to take over Langley Investments, the family property company. Far from being in the rag trade, Mr Green described himself as a 'property negotiator' on Companies House documents.
As a good Jewish boy, he remained close to his mother, Alma, setting up a string of companies with her - none of which was especially successful. One of them, Cupcraft, went bust in 1982. Another, Tarbrook, a clothing importer and wholesaler, was wound up a year later, with debts of pounds 239,000 and assets of just pounds 436.
When he joined Amber Day, in 1988, his arrival was accompanied by a rights issue. In the offer document, he duly mentioned the two failed companies. But two further wrecks were omitted.
In 1983, he became a director of Buzzville, a women's clothing manufacturer 50 per cent owned by his mother. Alas, the mother-son partnership again failed to sing. Buzzville later went into voluntary liquidation with debts of pounds 103,000 and assets of only pounds 500.
Then there was the Joan Collins Jeans Company. Formed in 1981, with Mr Green as a director, it lacked the longevity of its actress namesake, going under a year later.
He did, though, make some good deals. One of them, in 1985, would have made Alexis, Joan Collins's character in Dynasty, green with envy. In his words, he 'bought an option on Jean Jeanie lasting six months for pounds 65,000. I sold the option after 5 1/2 months for pounds 3m'.
It could have been better: in return for his continued help, Lee Cooper, which bought his option, also agreed to pay him an earn-out based on the next three years' profits that could have earned him pounds 5m to pounds 10m. But the carrot was not enough to persuade him to stay. He left Lee Cooper less than 12 months later.
Nevertheless, Philip Green, would-be tycoon, was on his way.
His next move brought him to the attention of the City. In 1988, he took over Amber Day, then a struggling quoted menswear group. In the year to the end of July 1987, the company suffered a loss of pounds 31,000 on sales of pounds 10m. He was backed by a pounds 300,000 loan from Blue Arrow's Tony Berry (who, ironically and entirely coincidentally, was disqualified as a director by the Department of Trade and Industry on the same day last week that Mr Green resigned).
At the same time as the takeover - Mr Green emerged with 16 per cent of the company - Amber Day acquired Barrie Menswear, the owner of the 13-strong Review chain of shops, for pounds 5.5m.
The phone calls began in earnest. The fast-talking, street-wise new boss endeared himself to some sections of the press with a stream of pithy quotes, mostly trumpeting his abilities:
'At the end of the day, people are backing me because they think I know how to make money.'
'After all, things are for buying and selling.'
'Value for money over the next decade is going to be crucial.'
'I think I'm a fairly hard task-master but I like to win fairly.'
For over three years, his relentless self-promotion paid rich dividends. A host of friends, acquaintances and speculators piled into Amber Day, drawn by the image of a dynamic boss who appeared to be heading for super-stardom.
Even usually more restrained institutions were impressed. The Prudential, Midland Montagu Asset Management, TSB and Equitable Life, among others, jumped aboard the cocky north Londoner's bandwagon.
The transformation of Amber Day was rapid. He restructured Review and Woodhouse, which was previously loss-making, opened new stores in the North and set up licensing deals in Europe. Before he bought What Everyone Wants in May 1990, analysts were predicting profits for the year of pounds 2.5m.
But it was the purchase of What Everyone Wants, a Glasgow-based chain of discount department stores, from the Weisfeld family for pounds 47m, that sent Amber Day into the stratosphere and led to glowing reviews. Overnight he added around pounds 120m of potential sales and pounds 6m in profits.
Similarly, he won applause with his undercutting, by up to 30 per cent, of prices on well- known branded perfumes in the run-up to Christmas 1990.
Eyebrows were raised, though, when he had to be dissuaded from bringing in Tony Berry, his close friend, as chairman. And there were occasional mutterings around the City about Amber Day being 'a one-man band' and nobody except Mr Green knowing what was going on.
But that only served to add to his wunderkind image. The City in the late 1980s revered deal- makers. And Mr Green, as he told anybody who would listen, was a deal-maker. Amber Day's increasing reliance on his abilities, and nobody else's, made it even better.
The fact that snootier elements in the City were rude about him - 'Oh, he is a wild man, totally uncouth,' said one banker - or that he went through five firms of stockbrokers in four years and his accountants changed three times, merely marked him as an endearing maverick. He wallowed in his success, buying an expensive house in Avenue Road in plush St John's Wood, a peacock-green Bentley, a villa in Marbella and a Mercedes 300SL for his wife, and spent pounds 60,000 fitting out his kitchen. (In fact, some of his 'toys' were leased from his friend Ted Ball, whose Landhurst Leasing crashed with debts of pounds 120m this month. Another deal was for a pounds 160,000 Cougar Sportscat powerboat. Amber Day's two menswear subsidiaries did not go short either, leasing a Jaguar Sovereign, a Saab Turbo and a VW Golf).
He mixed with other leading members of the north London, Tottenham Hotspur-supporting business community: Mr Ball, Roger Levitt, Irving Scholar and of course, Tony Berry. He gave sumptuous dinner parties for friends, associates and selected members of the financial press, and he was a familiar figure in West End casinos.
He also mixed, however innocently, with an unsavoury character, mention of whom has returned to haunt him these past few months.
Forget the City for a moment and descend into the seedy world of money-lending or 'loan sharking'. Inevitably, as with any business, some operators stand head and shoulders above the rest. One such is Anthony Isidore Schneider - or, to give him his street name: 'Uncle' Tony.
Mr Schneider, who lives in The Quadrangle off the Edgware Road, lends money at the rate of 4 per cent a month - more than 50 per cent APR. Like Mr Green, he has a nice turn of phrase. He liked to talk about Italian-sounding business contacts in New York.
According to friends, Uncle Tony, now in his mid-sixties, has mellowed considerably. But in the world in which he moves, his reputation, however unjust, goes before him.
And so the recent revelation that Uncle Tony, his wife Vassiliki, and his company, Eastcheap General Trading, had all at one time held shares in Amber Day, reflected, however unfairly, on Mr Green.
The City has changed drastically in 12 months. Shuddering business collapses have caused fund managers and bankers to examine their portfolios in a different light.
Mr Green has talked darkly of being the victim of sophisticated 'bear raiders' and a 'press conspiracy'. Whatever the truth in his claims - and there seems to be none - institutional shareholders are no longer so lenient. Post-Maxwell and Brent Walker, they want two things above all else: transparency and performance.
The recession has hit everyone, even the brilliant Mr Green. On our two recent visits to the What Everyone Wants stores in Glasgow and Edinburgh, for instance, customers were thin on the ground.
At the beginning of this year, brokers were forecasting profits of about pounds 15m for Amber Day, up from last year's pounds 10.1m. In June, when Mr Green's finance director and a non-executive director resigned simultaneously, he still said profits would exceed last year's.
The share price, which had already started to fall, carried on falling. The barrow-boy began to discover an unpalatable truth: that no matter how hard you huff and puff, once the City has turned against you, your days are numbered.
In early August, with the shares down to 31p, one of his largest supporters, the Prudential, lost faith and opted to sell its 6.1 million shares at the below-market price of 27.5p. Optimistic and ebullient to the last, Mr Green tried to put a gloss on the potentially lethal vote of no confidence by getting Amber Day to buy up the shares itself.
Last week's profits of pounds 7.5m, rather than the hoped-for pounds 10m, marked the end. They were accompanied by a pounds 6m extraordinary loss on the disposal of the menswear division, plus a further pounds 8m write-off on goodwill. For all Mr Green's bluster about dark deeds and a conspiracy, the market had judged him correctly.
Geoffrey Hall of Midland Montagu Asset Management, once a loyal fan, said the unthinkable. 'With regret, we supported Philip Green's resignation from the board as chairman and chief executive on the grounds that the missed profits forecast was unacceptable.'
The City presented him with the final ignominy. Usually when the head of a one-man band resigns, the shares take a tumble. On the news of Mr Green's departure, despite the failed profits forecast, they rose 2p.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Green can make a comeback. Last year he was asked, 'What is your greatest strength?' He replied: 'Good vision and timing. I see quite far ahead.'
That is all in the future. This morning, if he stays true to form, he may be searching for his cat again.
PHILIP Green has asked us to point out that in last week's feature on Amber Day we omitted to mention that he had put pounds 4.1m of his own money into the company as well as borrowing pounds 300,000 from Tony Berry, repaid within 12 months.
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