Mark Casci: We must not allow Green and Ashley to become the norm

Sir Philip Green
Sir Philip Green
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In one of the most challenging times the High Street has faced since World War II you have to say the past few days have taken the biscuit.

Two of the nation’s most prominent retail bosses have been the subject of a metaphorical public flogging by Select Committees for their conduct.

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley.

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley.

First Mike Ashley was hauled over the coals by the Business Innovation and Skills Committee after his Sports Direct business was accused of employing Victorian working practices at its massive Derby warehouse.

Ashley, never a popular figure, pleaded ignorance into the shameful goings on at the Shirebrook site, where staff were described as terrified to take time off and where ambulances were frequently called to in order to treat over-worked staff.

The savaging was swiftly followed by Philip Green’s evisceration from both the Work and Pensions and BIS Select Committees.

Once styled as the ‘King of Retail’ his stock has fallen to an incredible low after his heavily-criticised management of BHS in the run up to its collapse.

Ashley and Green deserve the criticism and are rightly the bogeymen of British business.

Committee chair Frank Field is not known for pulling his benches and was unforgiving in his assessment of the Monaco-based mogul. He referred to Green as a “Napoleon figure” who “asset-stripped” BHS and brought untold misery on thousands of his employees. He even went so far as to label him the “unacceptable face of capitalism” and described his conduct as being even worse than that of Robert Maxwell. With his reputation in tatters it is easy to forget just how far he has fallen.

Just six years ago he was personally sought out by the Prime Minister to examine the country’s books an identify failings, something he duly did and reported back on. By all accounts it was he, not Lord Sugar, who was first choice to present The Apprentice.

He has enjoyed a high-profile career and one that has rewarded him with vast and extreme wealth.

As he sits on his yacht you have to consider how much thought he is genuinely giving to the 11,000 workers whose livelihoods are at risk and the 22,000 more pensioners whose future is up in the air.

Sir Philip Green gives evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Work and Pensions Committee

Sir Philip Green gives evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Work and Pensions Committee

Privately he is said to be furious that he has been effectively singled out for the firm’s failings. It seems unlikely he will not respond to the latest broadside fired his way.

Now his detractors want his knighthood to be stripped from him.

Were this to happen he would join an unenviable list that includes Rolf Harris, Robert Mugabe and Fred Goodwin. Many have even publicly questioned the honours process in general, asking why he was awarded the title of Sir in the first place?

While I understand the anger all to well removing his knighthood now would be a mistake. Green may well be preparing to do the right thing and fund the pension shortfall from his own pocket. For all we know the 64-year-old may well have another glorious chapter in his career.

Sports Direct's Mike Ashley faced questions at a select committee hearing into working practices in Shirebrook. (Image source: Parliament.tv)

Sports Direct's Mike Ashley faced questions at a select committee hearing into working practices in Shirebrook. (Image source: Parliament.tv)

The real detail in all of this is that the process for conferring honours on business people must be re-examined. Surely nothing should be conferred until the end of their career.

Sports stars and artists are routinely honoured mid-career but their failures are quickly forgotten.

Business success is very much an aggregate score with the dark days not so easily misplaced in our thoughts.

Ashley and Green deserve the criticism and are rightly the bogeymen of British business.

And while it is extremely important to point out their conduct is far from emblematic of normal working practices at the upper echelons of corporate Britain we should also ensure it is not allowed to become so.

The expression “Made in Britain” are globally acknowledged bywords for quality. Let us never lose that reputation.