Lucy Kellaway: BHS’s Philip Green the least straight talker of all

‘There was no limit to what Sir Philip did not know. He uttered the phrase “I don’t know” a full five dozen times’

Philip Green before the British parliament’s business select committee on the collapse of British Home Stores which he used own. Photograph: Reuters

Philip Green before the British parliament’s business select committee on the collapse of British Home Stores which he used own. Photograph: Reuters

 

Sir Philip Green, in some ways, is my ideal man.

Last Wednesday British MPs cross-examined Sir Philip for nearly six hours over the sale of BHS, the company’s luckless pensioners, his tax status and his character. I couldn’t watch the whole thing as his boorishness got to be too much. So I read the transcript instead.

As I considered his words, divorced from the obnoxious sulking and harrumphing, an unwelcome thought occurred to me: Sir Philip uses language in the way I wish all business people did.

His sentences are short. His words are mostly one or two syllables. Sometimes a lack of formal education lets him down, and he says “hopefully” too much, but otherwise it is as close to perfect an example as I can think of.

In six hours, there were no key deliverables, no reaching out to stakeholders, not even any value-adds. Instead, this was how Sir Philip summed up his position: “We have run these companies properly . . . We could have taken the brands offshore and charged a royalty. We didn’t. We could have routed. We haven’t . . . Where we made money, we paid tax here.”

For the past few years I have had a linguistic pin-up boy. His name is Wan Long and he founded Shuanghui, the biggest meat producer in the world. I once read a piece about him in which he was quoted saying: “What I do is kill pigs and sell meat.”

Neat and clean

I stared at these words, jaw slack with admiration. As a description of what a company does, I have never seen anything neater and clearer. Since then I have asked myself with every sentence I write: would Wan Long approve? If not, I rewrite it.

Last week Sir Philip out-Longed Wan and kept it up all day. Clear language, I had thought, gave people nowhere to hide. It makes everything straightforward. And yet here was Sir Philip Green giving one of the least straightforward performances I have ever seen.

This has brought on a crisis of worldview for me. Does it mean it does not matter if business people use language clearly or not? Is a man who talks straight no better or worse than one whose speech is a tangle of value-adds and going forwards?

Last week The Economist published a piece about how Donald Trump uses the simple, clear political language recommended by George Orwell to bad ends. Clear language may expose lies, but if enough Americans can’t spot them, Trump’s “looseness with facts” and demonic style become an advantage.

The same does not quite apply with Sir Philip. He wasn’t talking to a credulous American public but to suspicious MPs. And he was not lying.

My evidence for the latter point comes from Sir Philip himself. “I am not a liar,” he said – twice, before going on to say “I’m not going to tell you lies”, “I am not going to tell you any lies” and “I don’t tell lies”.

In case the penny still hadn’t dropped, a further nine times he prefaced remarks with “to be honest with you” or “to be perfectly honest”.

It then occurred to me that the best way to make sense of Sir Philip’s character was to search for the most popular words and phrases. One of his favourites is “respect”. No fewer than 39 times did he claim to have respect for his questioners.

Yet seldom in that committee room has less respect been shown. Sir Philip asked his own questions, patronised the women, told one MP not to stare, and another that he looked better with his glasses on.

Blame game

His next most favourite word was “blame”. In the course of his evidence, Sir Philip declined to blame other people 21 times.

“It’s not my style to blame anybody else,” he said, at the same time doing just that. As he stuck the knife in, he praised his victims, talking of a “lovely journalist” or “she’s a lovely lady” while fingering the person running the BHS pension fund.

Yet Sir Philip’s most popular phrase of all was the simple “I don’t know”.

In the normal course of events, chief executives never admit to not knowing anything for fear of looking weak. Instead, they hum and haw and look pompous. But when in the dock, not knowing is your safest bet. And there was no limit to what Sir Philip did not know last week. He uttered the phrase a full five dozen times.

So why did he decide to live in Monaco? “To be honest with you, I don’t know. Someone suggested it.” There you have it. A hat trick. Honesty, ignorance, and nailing someone else.

Sir Philip’s words are good. The syntax is great. But the repetitions tell you everything you need to know about his character. And what is that?

With the greatest respect to Sir Philip. He is a lovely man and it is not my style to lie or be rude. But to be perfectly honest (and knowing that our libel lawyer and his will be reading this), respectfully here is my answer: I don’t know.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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