BHS probe offers gripping business theatre

BHS store Image copyright PA

Get your popcorn, take your seats and settle in for a piece of business theatre with elements of near-farce and tragedy.

In all, 11,000 livelihoods and 20,000 pensions were affected when BHS collapsed with crippling debts. The mudslinging between a colourful cast of characters has only just started.

The opening exchanges between MPs and the pension regulator now give way to the principal cast in the ill-starred sale of BHS for £1 to a relative unknown with a chequered history.

The next few weeks of joint select committee investigations may at times seem like a game of Cluedo.

Was it the former racing driver, twice-bankrupt yacht enthusiast with no retail experience? Was it the straight-talking flamboyant billionaire retail tycoon and his glamorous Monaco-based wife?

Even the bit-players are important - the advisers from a variety of blue-chip firms who managed to combine in a way that effectively vouched for a buyer who many think shouldn't have passed the smell test.

For Sir Philip Green, the central question is this. Did he knowingly sell a struggling business to a retail novice in the knowledge that the company, its employees and its pensioners were doomed? Or did he receive enough reassurance from others and leave enough of a cash dowry to give BHS a fighting chance?

For Dominic Chappell, the inquiry should focus on whether he had any prospect or intention of turning BHS around - or whether he set about extracting as much cash in fees and management charges as he could from the business before the adminstrators stepped in to freeze the accounts.

For the various advisers (Grant Thornton, Olswang, Antony Gutman from Goldman Sachs, PWC, Linklaters etc), the question is whether this transaction satisfied the due diligence standards that blue-chip firms are expected and required to uphold.

Linklaters, who advised Sir Philip Green, and Olswang, who advised Chappell, are already in dispute over who did which background checks.

The most uncomfortable seat in the House of Commons today may be reserved for Anthony Gutman, Goldman Sachs banker and informal adviser to Sir Philip Green.

Though his firm was not engaged or paid by Sir Philip, he is thought to have vetted potential buyers for BHS - a process that seems to have badly wrong. Just how thorough was he at this early stage?

The box office attractions, however, will be the appearances of Dominic Chappell on 8 June and Sir Philip Green on 15 June.

It's a rich cast and a fascinating tale that promises to shine a light on the workings of corporate Britain.

Meanwhile, BHS continues to trade as the administrators evaluate proposals to find a new buyer offering a more sustainable future for the 90-year-old business. That process should conclude this week. Don't forget the popcorn.

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