The king of the high street is dead… long live the king

By Clotilde Gros

The name Philip Green resonated with respect amongst the retail industry, journalists and communications professionals. He would walk the floor at parties or charity events like he was the king of retail, and he was.  I remember starting my career as a communications professional and feeling a bit star struck every time I saw him, even from a distance, a bit like he was a movie star or rock god.

I have never worked with him directly, but some who did found him unpleasant, perhaps even menacing. He was known to distrust his PR advisors (until recently … I know, touché).

Fast forward 10 years, his empire has collapsed, the man is in virtual hiding and journalists and the industry are having a field day at his expense. They can finally say everything they wanted to say about him. A sort of revenge for some. The king is dead and so there is a vacancy… cue Mike Ashley.

Over the last few years, and certainly with the acquisition of House of Fraser, Mike Ashley has built a considerable retail empire, often rescuing brands from administration or simply buying them on the cheap as they teeter on the edge of insolvency. Back at the end of November, he offered, through Frasers Group, a £50m lifeline loan to Green’s Arcadia Group. A few days later Frasers Group reported that Arcadia has declined the offer.

This week, Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group has confirmed it is working on a possible last-minute rescue of Debenhams. The department store chain is currently set to shut all its stores by the end of March, putting 12,000 jobs at risk.  Another opportunity for Mike Ashley to sweep in and save thousands of jobs and another high street icon. 

But is it wise to allow the emergence of a high street monopoly? If he succeeds in the rescue of Debenhams, Ashley will become one of the largest fashion retail employers in the UK.

Like Philip Green, Mike Ashley manages his own PR.  He’s bullish and determined, with many supporters who admire his buccaneering style.  The media are watching him as closely as they once watched Green.  Time will tell if his is the right approach to retail communications, but in the meantime: Long live the king.