Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

It's as if Parliament is now a finishing school for retail billionaires. Sports Direct's Mike Ashley has turned out to be the star pupil, while former BHS owner Philip Green has some swotting up to do.

Green's six hours of questioning by lawmakers on Wednesday on his role in the collapse of the department-store chain was remarkable for his tetchy behavior. No question went uninterrupted. At one point he told one questioner that he didn't like the way he was staring at him, and on several occasions he called them rude. 

That's a far cry from Ashley's performance in Parliament last week, and Green can learn from that. For all the obfuscation in his testimony, he did nevertheless reveal that Ashley might still have time to buy BHS. 

Green apologized for the loss of 11,000 BHS jobs and the massive hole in the pension fund, calling it "beyond horrible." He also said he made a bad call selling the business to Dominic Chappell for 1 pound last year.

But telling lawmakers that it was all his fault, while at the same time blaming his advisors and others involved in the business, amounts to a refusal to accept full responsibility for the store's collapse and the problems awaiting pensioners. 

It was a different matter with Ashley. The founder of Sports Direct appeared before lawmakers last week to justify the way he treats his workers (who could get penalized for taking too long in the toilet, among other things). He won them over with his down-to-earth approach and forthright assessment that his company had outgrown him. He accepted that labor practices needed improvement, and promised he was on the case. 

During Ashley's 90 minute testimony last week, the value of his controlling stake in Sports Direct rose 13 million pounds ($18 million). Big shareholders are monitoring his progress and will hold him to account, possibly helping to improve governance.

Gold Star for Mike Ashley
His Sports Direct stake rose as his open responses to U.K. lawmakers' questions on June 7 won them over
Source: Bloomberg
Intraday times on y-axis are displayed in ET. Indications of timings of events during hearing are approximate.

Green's Arcadia retail empire isn't publicly traded. If it were, its share price would surely have fallen during his testimony. His "thin-skinned," in the words of one lawmaker, reaction to some of their queries raises a flag on governance at his group -- it would take a very strong board to keep him in check.

Assessing improvement after today's performance is more challenging than at Sports Direct. But there's a danger shoppers will start to care about how Green manages his holdings, and choose to stay away from his brands, led by Topshop. 

Contrast this to Ashley, who did his best to answer questions fully, took responsibility and acknowledged that he was ignoring his public relations advisers' warnings. "How can you media train me," he asked. "I'm going to put my foot in my mouth." The irony was, he didn't.

Aside from being friends -- Ashley calls Green the "emp," short for emperor, while Ashley is "little emp" -- the two are linked in the sorry BHS saga.

Ashley was drawn into discussions for a last-minute rescue of BHS. He's told lawmakers that he "100 percent" wanted to buy the chain, but Green indicated that any potential offer had fallen short because Ashley was not prepared to pay a high enough price -- he emphasized the point by drawing his checkbook from his breast pocket, with a flourish. 

Green said he had been prepared to contribute millions of pounds himself to smooth a deal, and that even now he wouldn't prevent a rescue going through. 

So Ashley, if, as you told lawmakers, you still "100 percent" want to buy BHS, get in now. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net