Sir Philip Green has spent the past two weeks hiking in the desert around Canyon Ranch. Now, kissed by the Arizona sun and fueled by green tea, he’s pacing the still-raw building site that will soon be his newest Topshop flagship, across from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge. “There’s not enough stock on the wall,” he tells an employee who has shown him a sketch of a women’s merchandise display. “I don’t like the aesthetic of those windows—you lose the eye line,” he announces during a walk-through of the second floor. Dressed in a black hard hat and a vest bearing the words Sir Philip (Green was knighted in 2006), he returns to the ground floor, where he begins fixating on escalator widths. “That’s rubbish!” he tells a construction worker who insists that three escalators would require about 30 feet. “That’s half the shop! We’re in the retail business, not the escalator business!”
A high school dropout with a photographic memory, Green, 58, has been very rich for a long time. He made his first millions in the Seventies flipping London retail stores and fashion inventory. Today he is one of the UK’s largest private employers, with 45,000 staffers and 3,200 stores in 34 countries, selling everything from duvet covers to Kate Moss–designed frocks. According to the 2010 Sunday Times of London’s Rich List, Green and his wife of almost 20 years, Tina, who had her own success with a Sloane Street boutique in the Eighties, have a combined net worth of more than $6.3 billion. Yet here he is, arguing about escalators.
That same morning, at the headquarters of Bhs, his mass-market, general-merchandise chain, Green can be found telling a buyer how to drive sales of a slow-moving dress. “Get it in the window; it’s nicer without the corsage,” he opines, in a voice that sounds like Michael Caine’s Alfie. “See this phone?” he says later, holding up a battered Nokia 6310, a nine-year-old model that has been discontinued. “This phone has no answering machine because it’s on 24-7.” Green loves the uncomplicated design so much that he has bought up the back stock, ensuring that he won’t have to switch to a newfangled smartphone any time soon. He immediately returns every missed call, whether he’s in the back of his
Mercedes S500, on his Gulfstream or aboard Lionheart, his 206-foot yacht. He once fell asleep during a late-night call with his buddy Simon Cowell, then woke up after a few minutes and continued the conversation like nothing had happened. “He talks or he sleeps,” says Cowell.
“And he never forgets a thing.”
Green—whose combed-back curls and swagger give him the aura of a Roman emperor, albeit one in a Gianfranco Ferré suit and a diamond Rolex—tried retiring once, in 1998, but it didn’t work. He sold his various businesses and moved with Tina and their children, Chloe, now 19, and Brandon, 18, to a $13 million apartment in Monte Carlo, where the family still live as tax exiles. (Green usually spends the workweek at a London hotel and jets home on weekends.) “We took a lot of walks on the beach, holding hands,” he says, referring to his days off with Tina. “And I remember thinking to myself, This could end in murder.” A year later he bought Sears PLC, then a holding company for various clothing brands, and made a profit of more than $280 million by selling off its various divisions. He used the cash to purchase the ailing British Home Stores chain, which he renamed Bhs and made profitable in less than two years. In 2002 he acquired Topshop’s parent, Arcadia, for $1.2 billion.