Will Hutton Fail – But Has Philip Green Done Better Than Others?

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Will Hutton comes over all Edward Heath and tells us that Sir Philip Green is the unacceptable face of capitalism. Tough, brusque to the point of rudeness, by some of today’s standards sexist and so on. Hutton also tells us that Green is profoundly wrong in all of this. Companies must be differently managed in order to thrive and survive.

Well, yes, perhaps, but this is something that must be shown, proven, not simply assumed.

This is not to be in favour of sexism – by today’s or any other standards – nor brutalism in management. Nor to be against them either. It’s also not to insist that Green is who I’d like as a boss, nor Hutton – although my pension might be safer with the former, who did at least cough up as Hutton didn’t for lost pensions. It is however to ask for proof:

Soon after taking over British Home Stores in 2000, Shah claims he said to the womenswear buyer who had paid too much for a range of products: “You’re absolutely f**king useless. I should throw you out of the window, but you’re so fat you’d probably bounce back again.”

Green was a foul-mouthed, amoral deal-maker with an ego the size of a house who could only float to the top in the crazed world of credit-driven, property-bubble Thatcherite and Blairite capitalism, aided and abetted by an unsavoury cast list of loan sharks, fraudsters, indulgent bankers and fawning journalists, notably the former Sunday Times business editor Jeff Randall to whom he regularly fed gossip in return for admiring write-ups.

Arguendo, assume all this is true.

It is a widespread view in too many British companies, even if the directors would recoil at the comparison with Green. Staff are not seen as members of the organisation, essential to co-creating wealth – they are seen as disposable commodities and their voices, opinions and views of the business are to be disregarded.

Again, assume verity.

British capitalism needs a root-and-branch makeover. We need more firms committed to creating value over time, animated by a purpose. Firms that want to be great places to work, to serve their customers, to possess shareholders who take on that vision and to recognise their responsibility to the society of which they are part.

A national conversation about how to do this has not even begun. Until then, there will be more Philip Greens.

This is the thing which needs to be proven. Arrogant, duplicitous, Neanderthal management, Yah! Boo! Sucks! More caring, sharing, inclusive an supportive, Yay! But, which works better? No, not which is desirable in a platonic sense, which works better?

Thus can organisations become more creative and productive. But first the organisation’s leaders need to want to create such great workplaces and to recognise their importance as the cornerstone on which to build a value-generating business. Green was not signed up to this. His concept of business, it seems, was of the firm as his fiefdom and his staff as his chattels – to be fired, hired and valued as he thought fit.

It is a widespread view in too many British companies, even if the directors would recoil at the comparison with Green. Staff are not seen as members of the organisation, essential to co-creating wealth – they are seen as disposable commodities and their voices, opinions and views of the business are to be disregarded.

Does this or not?

Green, with his knighthood conferred by Tony Blair for “services to retailing”, is a national embarrassment and Arcadia is facing the same hostile high street environment as every other retailer.

This is something we can test. Is Arcadia performing better or worse than other High Street retailers? Than FCUK? Debenhams? House of Fraser? This is the test of a management style, isn’t it. Whether it does better or worse, facing the same external conditions. And it’s not entirely obvious that Green’s management style is doing worse than that employed by other retailers in that same marketplace. And there’s at least some evidence that it’s done better at least in the past. He did, after all, build that pile.

And, err, I don’t think anyone’s going to claim Mike Ashley’s management style is modern up to date caring and sharing now, are they? But he seems to have done pretty well running retail with that style of his.

Which is what Hutton needs to prove and doesn’t. Sure, we can all claim that our prejudices are best, even about how organisations should be managed. The thing is, in a market economy, with competition, we’ve that evidence base that we can check such claims against. And just what is that evidence in favour of Hutton’s claim? The business records of the Work Foundation perhaps?