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Top Man

Retail July 7, 2009

Top Man

Self-made billionaire Sir Philip Green is top cat in the British fashion industry, building up his Arcadia Group empire to boast such well-known names as Topshop, Topman, Wallis and Miss Selfridge.

When Real World caught up with him, Arcadia had just scooped the top spot in the retail category of the Times Graduate Recruitment Awards 2009, and Sir Philip was also celebrating the successful launch of the New York branch of Topshop, so no wonder he was in expansive mood. Having left school at just 15, he started his first retail company at the tender age of 23, and taught himself everything he needed to know to grow a successful business. Now, he really is master of all he surveys from his office high above London’s bustling Oxford Street, and often refers to himself and his empire using the royal ‘we’. After the excitement of New York, he is keen to oversee the continued expansion of the Group. ‘We already operate in 30 countries,’ he explains, ‘but we need to do China and Shanghai. We’ve already been in discussion with India and we’ve got requests from Australia and South Africa. But I want to do all these places for the right reasons; if we can’t deliver at a very high level I don’t want to do it. Everything has to have the same "wow" factor as New York.’

So what it is that has made this autodidact the success that he is today? ‘I think I’m lucky because I’m a businessman who just happens to sell clothes, as opposed to a rag trader trying to be a businessman,’ he says. ‘I never worked for a retailer, I never worked in the clothing business for anybody; I taught myself from the beginning. Do I think that’s the best way? I don’t think there’s a specific formula. I was hungry and keen and wanted to learn and wanted to make money, so I went and broke a lot of doors down and developed my career. In the perfect world I think if you can get practical experience, then having the opportunity to work in different businesses in all sorts of jobs is the way to go.’ So what is it that makes him so very good at what he does? ‘I’m focused on what I do; I’m an educated risk taker; I understand how all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle go together; I have an educated opinion on what needs to happen, and I have the people who can make it happen. These are the intrinsic parts that make the business tick; the relationships you have to forge; the things you need to do; the trust people must have in you.’ Then there’s the added X factor – instinct. ‘Instinct is something you can’t learn or buy,’ he says, ‘that gut feeling and nothing better has ever been invented.’

As the interview draws to a close Sir Philip also mentions lady luck as a key to success, but it is something else he says in passing that is far more telling. He is explaining how he has no computer in his office and does not own a Blackberry because he prefers to deal with people face-to-face. ‘I like seeing people, I like looking at them and getting them engaged. I think it’s nice to see people and to talk to people. You can’t underestimate people’s emotions and the politics that go on in a big organisation. I think 25 per cent of my time is spent being a psychiatrist.’

Having met him, it is this ability to engage with people and to get their measure almost instantaneously that really stands out in Sir Philip. It also helps that he loves what he does – and when you control a workforce of over 44,000 and one of your designers is Kate Moss, then what’s not to love?

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