Who didn’t I work for? From my work memory I recreate my brief time in the counting house of Debenhams as we witness its decline into troubled waters.
Back then, aged 19, I masqueraded as some kind of clerical assistant. All I remember though is that I was royally punched on the nose and knocked to the floor by a short, powerful man who objected to my antisemitic joke, back in those days when I was an unreconstituted racist. This ended my time at the Debenhams empire of department stores, and in some ways the punch on the nose may well have led me towards my later conversion to anti-racism.
The demise of Debenhams and Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire drives home the change in the way we shop. But it also drives home the way in which traditional businesses of long standing can be turned into new ruses for offloading debt. And making big money for new short-term minded investors.
One wonders if it was within the gift of Sir Philip, for instance, to cough up from his own resources the £30m that would supposedly allow his empire to carry on until into the New Year. Certainly his earlier spending of a reported £6.5m on a joint party for his 60th and his beloved daughter’s 21st birthday in 2012 shows he can flash the money around when required.
Once upon a time the then-prime minister Mr Edward Heath could describe some dodgy business practice as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”, as if to underline its rarity of occurrence. The argument in the Seventies was around the arrival of ‘asset strippers’ who could see value in troubled companies and just cream off bits, leaving the rest of the business to flounder. Now business has marched on and new ways of squeezing money out of traditional and time-honoured businesses have become an even cleverer art form.
Is there anyone watching assiduously, with power to intervene, over the companies that take enormous risks with their future? Often because the company board have enriched shareholders in the short term at the expense of business sustainability. Pensions should be protected before anyone else. But there seems little bite in pension authorities’ ability to stop bad business behaviour; however legal it may appear.