UK department store chain BHS collapsed after multi-millionaire Philip Green scuppered a sale of the stricken group to rival retailer Mike Ashley because he “couldn’t entertain the notion of selling to a competitor”, a court heard on Friday.
The claim came on the second day of the trial of Dominic Chappell, the businessman who bought BHS from Sir Philip’s group of companies for £1 in 2015, and is facing three charges of tax evasion. He denies all the charges.
As BHS was about to collapse in 2016, Mr Chappell put in a call to Mr Ashley, the billionaire founder of the Sports Direct chain and owner of Newcastle Football Club, the jury at Southwark Crown Court in London was told.
“Dominic Chappell was content to hand BHS to Mike Ashley,” said Trevor Burke QC, the barrister representing Mr Chappell. “Sir Philip Green could not entertain the notion of selling to a competitor and refused to engage and ultimately BHS collapsed in chaos.”
In an opening statement, Mr Burke claimed that Mr Chappell had been left “utterly broken” two weeks after he bought BHS in 2015 following the decision by the Pensions Regulator to launch a probe into BHS’s retirement fund deficit.
Mr Burke alleged that the defendant’s corporate vehicle, Retail Acquisitions Ltd, was not given access to BHS pension fund documents until after the sale had completed because Sir Philip had made assurances he would deal with the pension deficit.
“Sir Philip would not permit anyone access to the pension scheme materials,” Mr Burke told the court, adding that due diligence by Grant Thornton and others advising RAL “was in its very nature limited due to the non disclosure of pension materials”.
“Sir Philip Green assured everyone: I will sort the pension out. Hence the justification for not disclosing the material to anyone,” Mr Burke told the jury.
Mr Chappell’s barrister told the court that Sir Philip “never sorted out the pension” and that the probe by the Pensions Regulator “proved fatal”, making it more difficult for BHS to deal with top tier banks and to secure a “big hitter” chief executive.
When BHS failed, its pension scheme had a £571m financial hole. The jury heard that Sir Philip reached agreement with the Pensions Regulator in 2017 to pay £363m into the BHS pension scheme and the Pensions Regulator had ordered Mr Chappell to pay £9.54m into the fund.
BHS, which started life as a single store in Brixton, south London, nearly 90 years ago and grew into a mainstay of Britain’s high streets, struggled to compete with discount chains and cope with the rise of online shopping.
Prosecutors have alleged Mr Chappell “dishonestly chose” to evade paying tax on £2.2m of income he received from the acquisition of BHS and used it to fund his lifestyle including buying a Bentley car, a holiday in the Bahamas, a yacht called Maverick and some expensive Beretta guns.
Prosecutor Mark Bryant-Heron QC told the opening day of the trial on Thursday that Mr Chappell had the financial means to pay his corporation tax, income tax and VAT but “dishonestly chose not to”.
Mr Chappell denies three counts of cheating the public revenue between January 2014 and September 2016. The trial continues.