Philip Green vs Robert Maxwell: no contest

Paul Phillips remembers ‘the biggest crook of the 20th century

You need a very short memory to suggest that Philip Green, former boss of British Home Stores, was ‘worse than Robert Maxwell’.

Robert Maxwell was a crook, quite likely the biggest crook of the 20th century. So far, no-one has made similar claims against Philip Green.

No question Green has enriched himself from his various High Street retail chains. But no-one is suggesting he stole money from the pension fund and used it to prop up his business.

That is exactly what Robert Maxwell did nearly 30 years ago. The £450m he stole from what he considered “MY pension fund” would be worth £1bn in today’s money. All his pensioners were left destitute.

The BHS Pension Scheme is worth £15bn, but has a deficit of £571m. Worst case, BHS pensioners face a cut in their expected income of 10%. That is, obviously, not acceptable. But it is hardly the same as dying in penury because the administrator of your pension plan plundered it and left you penniless.

Pension deficits everywhere

It is also worth bearing in mind that across the range for British pension schemes worth £2trn (yes, two trillion pounds), there are holes (deficits) estimated at £800bn – a hell of a lot more serious than the BHS deficit.

None of which is to let Mr Green off the hook, but just to point out that a) no-one has yet – in any meaningful and judicially legitimate way – called him a crook and b) that comparing him to Robert Maxwell is simply ludicrous.

Earliest recorded instance of Maxwell’s dodginess, other than his general lies about himself, was selling off the House of Commons wine cellar.

In case you didn’t know, or had forgotten, he was able to do this because – quite scarily – he was a Labour MP. He stood for election in the Buckingham constituency in 1964, and won. At the House of Commons, he had himself installed as Chair of the Catering Committee. Thus his access to the cellar, and the business of selling it off.

According to which report you believe, he either sold the entire cellar to himself, or cherry-picked the best wine for himself.

Either way, as early as 1971, he was denounced as “not a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company”. This was the Department of Trade and Industry, reporting on Maxwell’s early exercises in fixing share prices by trading between his family companies in ways that exaggerated profit.

When I was told, around 1989, that the Chairman of the company which owned a majority share in my own business, was seeking a buyer, I told him: “There are 10 people I don’t want to work for. Numbers 1 through 9 are Robert Maxwell. Number 10 is Rupert Murdoch.” Don’t worry about that, he told me, neither of them is involved.

Needless to say, that’s not how it ended. Maxwell bought the business (with borrowed money, of course). It later transpired that he was lodging, with his lenders, not Share Certificates as collateral, but photocopies of Share Certificates. So the same Share Certificate was collateral for more than one loan, and, it goes without saying, therefore for loans many times in excess of the value of the Shares themselves.

Maxwell the criminal

Stupid banks, indeed. Stupid lenders, indeed. Criminally incompetent, but not criminally liable. Maxwell himself was the criminal. A lot of us paid the price for that. I was 42 when he fell off his boat and drowned. I had advised all of my staff, in writing, to keep their money away from his pension scheme.

So I had that satisfaction. And I was young enough to start again. But I had men and women past retiring age, in my office crying that they now needed to find another job, in their 60s. These were people from other parts of the business, other directors and shareholders whose shares – like my own – were now valueless.

I ended up without a job, as did my wife at the time who worked with me. But we picked ourselves up and started again. Pity the poor Maxwell pensioners who died before any restitution was made.

Does anyone, seriously, apart from a House of Commons Select Committee, believe there is any comparison to be made?

What might happen to help BHS pensioners?

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