By  on January 11, 2011

LONDON — It’s a dark midwinter afternoon here and the freezing rain has just begun to descend, but Sir Philip Green, the billionaire British retailer, is no victim of the January doldrums.

“Can you hold a second? I’ve just got to wipe away suntan lotion,” said Green via telephone from 4,200 miles away in Barbados during his annual winter break.

Not that it’s all been lounging with his family and pals Simon Cowell and Lucian Grainge, the new boss of Universal Music, at the Sandy Lane resort. He’s got a routine: “Seven a.m. is the first call to the office, dealing with the e-mails, faxes and texts that have come in overnight. And I’ve already gone over the sales figures and stock positions of the stores,” said the 58-year-old Green, who today will collect the National Retail Federation’s International Retailer of the Year Award during the group’s annual convention in New York.

Green’s retail holdings range from trendy Topshop to Bhs, the mass market retailer with merchandise ranging from lighting to lingerie. Every week, he gets his brands’ profit and loss statements — among other relevant information — on his battered Nokia 6310, a model that launched in 2001 and has since been discontinued. The phone, which has no answering machine, is on day and night, and Green returns every missed call, whether he is in Barbados, on his Gulfstream 550, aboard his 208-foot Benetti yacht Lionheart, in the back of his Mercedes S500 or in the back of his Bentley.

His $4.28 billion Arcadia Group is one of the biggest private employers in Britain, with 2,778 stores and more than 45,000 staff. Outside the U.K., there are 479 franchise stores, with 25 more planned for this year in markets including Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan. Green wholly owns the business with his wife, Tina.

But he’s no in-the-clouds proprietor running his empire from the 75th floor. Green thrives on the day-to-day business, and doesn’t shrink from unglamorous tasks: He’ll often do the markdowns himself, and tells his staff how to drive sales: “Get it in the window; it’s nicer without the corsage,” he said of one slow-moving, cream-and-black satin dress from Bhs.

“I am doing the same jobs I was doing 25 years ago. I’m into things where I think I can help, add value, teach people, show them what I’ve learned. I don’t want to be an absent landlord. That’s not my style,” said Green, who sounds a little like Michael Caine in “Alfie.”

Richard Caring, a longtime friend and business associate whose holdings include the private clubs SoHo House and Annabel’s, said Green has a keen eye for product and an eerie ability to crunch numbers. “He’s worked out what sold at retail price, with discount, times the number of stores last Tuesday afternoon between 3 and 4 o’clock. He knows the answer before he’s finished asking the question. It’s quite disconcerting for the people listening to him,” said Caring.

And when Green isn’t attending to the minutiae of the business, he’s working on the bigger picture. “There are opportunities to double or triple the size of the Topshop/Topman business — we’re still small compared to Zara and H&M, and I think all the Arcadia businesses have international scope,” he said, adding that the biggest market for Bhs outside the U.K. is the Middle East. Although Green doesn’t break out the Topshop numbers in Arcadia’s annual report, he confirmed that chain’s Oxford Street flagship has annual turnover of 150 million pounds, or $231 million at current exchange.

Regarding Topshop/Topman’s expansion in the U.S., Green said he’s hoping to have “another four or five stores under our belt” this year. A Chicago unit is set to open in late summer, and Green spent this past weekend in Miami looking at potential sites. A deal for a Santa Monica, Calif., store fell through just before Christmas, but Green said he still plans to open in the L.A. area, and in San Francisco. He has been doggedly searching for a second Manhattan site — uptown — for more than a year and said he’s currently evaluating “three or four” sites. Internationally, he plans to open a Topshop/Topman franchise in Rio de Janeiro in the spring, and in Cairo, he and local partners will open a bigger store later this year. The company is also in advanced talks to open stores in Canada and Australia later in 2011.

He’s mining opportunities abroad as he faces challenges at home, with the British government raising value added tax to 20 percent from 17.5 percent, and the cost of raw materials such as cotton increasing. Green said that “2011 is not going to be easy. It could be challenging from a cost point of view, with the VAT rise, overseas labor costs, local taxes and a more nervous consumer. We just have to make sure we run very slick businesses.” Stressing that at Topshop/Topman, there will be no VAT rise passed onto the customer, Green said, “We have got to sell merchandise at great value, and continue to give our consumers fresh products.”

As for his thoughts on retailing in the U.S., where Topshop/Topman opened in March 2009 on Broadway in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, Green admitted he’s “still on a learning curve. We’re not really far enough in yet, to be honest.”

Green, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 for his services to the retail industry, was born with a merchant’s brains and bones. His career began when he was a teenager underachieving at his Jewish boarding school in Berkshire, England, and helping his widowed mother, Adele, now in her early 90s, who owned a string of garages and self-service gas stations in London. He dropped out of high school — “I was useless at school, good at sport and maths, and that was it,” he said, adding he wasn’t interested in taking on the family’s businesses either, preferring to do his own thing. Fortified by passion, a remarkable ability to number-crunch — and a photographic memory — Green began traveling regularly to the Far East, where he learned how to manufacture jeans and bought job lots, cancelled orders, and end-of-line clothing, shoes and other goods to sell back in London. In the Seventies, he asked his friend Joan Collins to cut the ribbon on one of his first London stores — a designer discount outlet on Conduit Street off Bond Street — and by the end of the decade he’d made his first million, thanks not only to fashion but to his knack for buying and selling commercial real estate.

In the years that followed, Green met and married Tina, his South African wife of 20 years, who amassed her own fortune during the Eighties with a multibrand designer boutique on Sloane Street. The couple — whose combined net worth is 4.1 billion pounds, or $6.31 billion — have two teenaged children, Chloe and Brandon.

In 1998, Green tried — and failed — to retire. He sold his various retail businesses and moved his family to Monte Carlo, where they’re still based. But he quickly got restless, and made his retail comeback the following year when he bought the British retail conglomerate Sears, made a profit of more than $240 million by selling off various divisions, and used the money to purchase the ailing British Home Stores, which he re-branded Bhs and turned around in less than two years.

Last month, the tycoon came under fire from protestors who accuse him of dodging taxes by keeping Arcadia in his wife’s name, and transferring company dividends to Lady Green, a Monaco resident. Protesters, who have targeted other businesses in the UK, believe unpaid taxes should be reclaimed by the British government as an alternative to the planned austerity measures. In the interview, Green — whose company structure is perfectly legal — declined to comment on the protests. “I don’t want to talk about politics,” he said.

In 2002, a year after sorting out Bhs, he bought Topshop’s parent, Arcadia, for $1.3 billion, a move that catapulted him into the international spotlight, and sealed his place at the height of Britain’s meritocracy, along with pals Caring and Cowell, in whose media and entertainment company Syco he has an investment. Green has also become close to Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss — with whom he’s collaborated on collections for Topshop — who refer to him as “Uncle Phil.”

But his career hasn’t had a constant upward trajectory. Green failed twice in his bid to take over Marks & Spencer — most recently in 2004 — and earlier in his career, he was ousted as chief executive officer of the discount apparel chain Amber Day after a series of profit downgrades.

“He’s always played to win, he wants to win — it’s not all about making money,” said Harold Tillman, the owner of Aquascutum and Jaeger, and the current chairman of the British Fashion Council who has known Green since the Seventies. “He’s very, very fair, and if he likes you, he guards you,” Tillman said.

A more recent friend, Burberry ceo Angela Ahrendts, calls Green “one of the greatest merchants in our industry today. He’s not only a brilliant mind, but he has one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen in another human being.”

Green is also spreading his love of his business: He is the founder of London’s Fashion Retail Academy, the government and privately funded organization that offers professional and vocational training to students.

Having tried once — and failed — to retire, Green not surprisingly doesn’t have any plans to do so now. “What? I just started!” he said, adding he has no plans for succession in place either.

Not that he ever expected to achieve this degree of success. “I was always interested in the business from a very early age, and I always thought I would be successful — but you can’t plan for this. It’s a combination of opportunities, luck, timing, banks that want to support you, and your own pursuits and endeavors. And then hopefully a few things come your way,” he said. “It’s also about building great teams of people — the average stay of my top managers is 12 years — and I’m proud of that.”

To wit, Green is traveling to New York with Ian Grabiner, chief operating officer of Arcadia, with whom he’s worked for 20 years. Not that he doesn’t put his staff through the wringer. The blustery Green does not suffer fools gladly and will regularly upbraid staff for failing to live up to his high standards — although his bark is generally worse than his bite.

As for 2011, the year is actually looking pretty exciting: “You’ve got to be challenged, to drive harder, to explore new things,” Green said, adding that the few remaining days of his holiday won’t be wasted. “I’ll be laying in the sun, thinking up my next ideas.”

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