BHS debacle shows too much bling is bad for business, says Simon Walker

Ex-BHS owner Sir Philip Green gives evidence to a select committee

The behaviour of high-rolling retailer Sir Philip Green – former owner of BHS – demonstrates that business titans must show more restraint, says Simon Walker

The economist JK Galbraith wrote: “Wealth has never been a sufficient source of honour in itself. It must be advertised, and the normal medium is obtrusively expensive goods.”

The acquisitive soap operas that are the BHS and Sports Direct sagas have real implications for the entrepreneurial businesses whose directors make up the IoD membership – and for corporate Britain as a whole.

We should all celebrate wealth creation. It is the fuel that drives our economy and funds roads, schools and hospitals. Private enterprise is all about willing buyers and willing sellers making choices. Few people want to live in the sort of envy-driven society that ends up levelling down those who prosper.

But business also depends on a degree of public consent. As Paul Myners, former Labour City minister, pointed out, it’s much easier for companies to operate if they’re not subjected to the suspicion and hostility of employees, customers, suppliers and legislators.

BHS receivership

In turbulent times it’s unseemly to be flaunting great wealth when others face real difficulties. Didn’t any savvy PR adviser tell Sir Philip Green that taking delivery of yet another £100m yacht as his former flagship BHS went into receivership looked terrible?

To many, Green and Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley are the face of business. Relaxing with supermodels on the deck of a yacht, or buying a football club, is the visible manifestation of commercial success.

Lord Sugar’s title sequence on The Apprentice, with cutaways of his personalised Rolls-Royce number plate and fleet of executive jets, sends the same message.

Decorum is an underrated virtue in our celebrity era. But it was the flamboyance of Louis XVI and the tsars as much as their oppressive regimes that led to the French and Russian Revolutions. If they can’t behave with magnanimity, it behoves our corporate titans at least to show restraint. To their credit, most do.

Simon Walker is director general of the IoD

About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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Sue Biggs RHS

Sue Biggs, RHS

The director general of the Royal Horticultural Society welcomes us to her idyllic offices in Wisley, Surrey