Last month the retail tycoon Philip Green paid his wife Tina £1.2 billion, as a dividend from their privately owned Arcadia store group. Tina lives in Monaco, a tax haven for the super rich, so the £1.2 billion avoided all UK taxes. Philip commutes to and from Monaco at weekends in his Gulfstream jet - a present from Tina - but he is a UK resident. He cannot avoid being a UK resident because he is, in the current jargon, very much a "hands-on" business boss. This means he interferes in just about everything that happens at Arcadia - which owns Top Shop, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins and other clothing chains - and to do this he has to be in Britain five days a week.
Not surprisingly, the humongous size of the dividend, its tax-free status and the fact that Green gave it all to his wife provoked a media feeding frenzy: front-page headlines, double-page features, television news and magazine profiles, all adorned with large pictures of Green and his adoring wife. More surprisingly, the media were almost unanimously laudatory.
This unauthorised biography by Stewart Lansley and Andy Forrester provides an excellent backdrop to Green's munificent act of self-generosity. Green refused to co-operate with the authors, and his friends and employees either rebuffed them or insisted on remaining anonymous. Despite this, Top Man is in many ways a top-notch, even-handed biography. It is neither a demolition job nor a panegyric of the kind doled out by the media last month. It shows Green to be sharp, fiercely energetic and focused, loyal, crudely (and often cruelly) witty, and a doting dad - his son's bar mitzvah set him back £4 million. He is also foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, a cultural philistine and a high-rolling gambler.
The authors have unearthed no new dirt. Several of Green's early companies went bust. But that is all old hat. If there are any truly ugly skeletons in Green's cupboard, they remain locked away. Maybe there is none. His bankers, with whom he has had a long and particularly close relationship, are the Halifax Bank of Scotland, who are famously conservative about the people and companies they back.
Green is one of a group of highly successful British entrepreneurs - such as Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Tom Hunter and Greg Dyke - who shunned formal education and left school in their teens. They were far too impatient to sit behind a school desk and absorb academic knowledge, let alone to have any truck with higher education. They ached to get out and make money. As a rough generality, those who now rise to the top in large corporations have degrees, the entrepreneurs have not. The personal qualities required of entrepreneurs, particularly when they are building companies from scratch, are utterly different from those required by executives climbing corporate ladders.
Lansley and Forrester are journalists and, unlike most business books, Top Man is a model of clarity. It will be enjoyed by business pundits and general readers alike. However, the book does not have the narrative power of, say, Barbarians at the Gate , perhaps because it has only one key character. And, apart from being unbelievably wealthy, Green is not that interesting. His pleasures are partying, gambling, playing practical jokes, sunbathing on his yacht - and working. Even when on holiday his mobile is glued to his ear. There is nothing wrong with his behaviour, but for many of us it would be tedious. So is reading about it. If there is anything other than business that stimulates Green's mind, Top Man does not mention it. And because all the other characters in the book exist in Green's shadow, the story lacks much human interest.
Although there was nothing illegal about the tax-free £1.2 billion payment, its morality is a tad more questionable. Green works in Britain and earns his money in Britain. Surely, he could have held the shares in his own name and therefore paid tax on the dividend? Green would respond that he provides jobs for more than 30,000 Arcadia employees in Britain, plus handsome bonuses to many of them, and provides good-quality inexpensive fashions to millions of British customers. And he does not take much out of our tax system, as neither he nor his family has a home here.
Weekdays he lives in a swish London hotel.
So what makes Green tick? It is insufficient to say he is obsessed by money. He most certainly is, but he already has far more than he needs or can possibly spend. He is no Bill Gates. He gives relatively little to charity, buys no fine paintings, builds no great dwellings (in Monaco he lives in a penthouse apartment) and owns no football teams. He has set up a retail academy to train budding shopkeepers, but he seemingly lacks the imagination to do anything more creative with his loot.
The authors, and other commentators, believe he is afire with the desire to acquire M&S - which he has tried and failed to do twice. He denies this, but then he would, wouldn't he? They hypothesise that he yearns to go down in history as one of Britain's great retailers, like Sir Simon Marks and some of the Sainsburys. They believe this would provide him with the kudos he has sought ever since he left school at 15 without a single O level.
All that is probably true. But I suspect that, in addition to the fags he puffs constantly, he has grown addicted to another potent drug: fame. That is why he dished out the £1.2 billion to Tina. It niftily trumped the £1.1 billion paid to himself by the much richer steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. Green had to borrow the cash to pay the dividend, which could perfectly well have been left in Arcadia as the Greens own the company. But he was desperate for those headlines. Well, fame is a fickle friend that frequently warps the judgment of those who crave it, as some of those publicity-loving tycoons of yesteryear, such as John Bloom, Freddie Laker and Cyril Lord, discovered to their cost. People the media build up they usually knock down. Should the media cease to be so laudatory, Green will have to watch his back.
Winston Fletcher is visiting professor in marketing, Westminster University, and chairman, Royal Institution.
Top Man: How Philip Green Built His High Street Empire
Author - Stewart Lansley and Andy Forrester
Publisher - Aurum
Pages - 8
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 1 84513 100 2