UK: The Davidson Interview - Terry Green.

UK: The Davidson Interview - Terry Green. - A flash car, a sexy girlfriend and a house in the country - Debenhams' chief executive has realised his dreams. Andrew Davidson gets the hard sell from retailing's number one raconteur, gaining insights on ever

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A flash car, a sexy girlfriend and a house in the country - Debenhams' chief executive has realised his dreams. Andrew Davidson gets the hard sell from retailing's number one raconteur, gaining insights on everything from his love life to Einstein's theory of relativity.

What is it you dream of when you're young? Terry Green, 47, chief executive of Debenhams, self-styled boy from the Potteries made good, poses the question. He is sitting in his shirtsleeves, looking compact and just a little cherubic, behind a massive desk in his rooftop office in London's West End.

'I'll tell you,' says Green, before I have a chance to answer. 'Having a flash car, a sexy girlfriend and a house in the country. And this', he continues, pulling out a book of photos of his new home, a 10-bedroom mansion set in 22 acres of Weald countryside south of Tunbridge Wells, 'is my boyhood dream realised.'

The house, built in the style of Lutyens on the site of a Victorian original that burnt down in the 1890s, sits on top of a hill, making Green feel like the lord of nearly all he surveys. It has a coach-house, pavilion, oak-framed bronze windows, gardeners, a housekeeper, woodland, rhododendrons, azaleas, bluebells, orchids, two lakes ...

What's in the pavilion, Terry? 'A complete squash court,' says Green, his dark, cautious little eyes widening almost as far as mine. His delivery is smooth and accentless, and he has the same sort of chunky reliability and slightly teasing manner popular with male television hosts. He goes on. 'I am having it completely refurbished with a steam room.'

Is he serious? Of course he is. Green is a man who has achieved his dreams, and knows everything about selling them to others. Debenhams, transformed under his leadership from a saggy maiden aunt of a department store chain into a rather glamorous platinum blonde, is now one of the great successes of the British retail scene. Green himself, chief executive since 1992, pulls in a basic salary of around £300,000 a year but has been rewarded in enough bonuses and share options to hit millionaire status long ago.

In 1996 he exercised share options worth £1.9 million. Last year's flotation, when Debenhams split from the Burton group, eventually may make him richer still. He can now indulge his passion for very expensive wines and, of course, cars. He drives an Aston Martin DB7. And yes, Green, one-time protege of Burton boss Sir Ralph 'Five-Times-a-Night' Halpern, has even been rumoured to have had a few girlfriends since his marriage broke up four years ago.

What is it about retail? Male menopause? 'Probably,' laughs Green. The world, it seems, lies at his feet.

This is where it gets complicated. Because Green, who is smart enough to enjoy simultaneously flaunting and debunking his own Flash Harry image, says that there is one thing about it all that really worries him. If he has achieved his dreams, what will drive him on? Will the hunger go?

No, he says, that's the brilliance of it - because since he swapped his townhouse in London's Camberwell for the big spread in the Home Counties, he's personally more in debt than he has ever been. He has to keep earning more money, making Debenhams a huge success, to pay off his mountainous mortgage. Debenhams' shareholders need have no worry. Their wonder-boy will continue to roll up in his Aston Martin hungrier than ever. And he gives off a rather troubling, rolling laugh which rather makes you think that he knows something that you don't.

But as anyone who has met him knows, Green can be an infectiously likeable man when he turns it on, a born raconteur prepared to sound off about anything from his love life to the importance of Einstein's theory of relativity (more of which later). He is also a man with a lot of friends in the retail business, who point out that, right now, Green is on a roll. Every so often, they say, a retailer comes along with a golden touch. He can sense what the public wants, drive them with him. Halpern had it for a bit. The team at M&S had it. Now Green is blessed with it. In a troubled retail world, Debenhams is simply, according to one supplier, the hottest name on the high street at the moment.

They also agree that Green would be insufferable if he wasn't so readily prepared to laugh at himself. When I ask him how Christmas is going in Debenhams' 90 stores, he says, 'So-so. It seems different every week, but then customers are different now.

'If you accept the fact that baby-boomers are the fastest growing part of the population,' he continues, as if embarking on a tutorial, sticking out his cuff-linked sleeves, 'they have seen the '70s and what that brought: the three-day week and the misery. They have seen the boom of the '80s.

Now in the' 90s they have been through recession, seen what that involves, and they are a lot wiser. They are not stupid; they have a sensitivity that is not readily understood by many people ...'

You mean they are more cautious? Green laughs. 'Did I spend a long time saying that?' Er, yes. Green is the kind of speaker who will happily use five sentences where one will do. And he doesn't seem to take offence at all when it's pointed out. 'The thing about Terry,' says his old colleague and mentor, John Hoerner, now chief executive of Arcadia, 'is that he takes his job extremely seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously. That's the big difference.'

Green is such a good storyteller - a touch of his Irish ancestry, perhaps (his family on his father's side came from Roscommon many generations back) - that you wonder how much the tale of his youth is embroidered. The story of his boyhood dreams, the car, the girl, the house, is wrapped around an anecdote about sitting behind his parents' terraced house in Stoke as an eight-year-old watching a rat crawl out of the coal bunker. 'And on the radio someone was talking about living in the stockbroker millionaire belt in Surrey, right? And I remember watching that rat and thinking: I am going to spend my life putting distance between myself and that rat. That was one of my motivating moments,' says Green, suddenly looking very sombre.

It also, of course, sounds rather like the beginning of a Jackie Collins novel. Green's parents both worked in a tile factory, where they expected all their sons to get jobs. Life was tough: no central heating, Catholic church every Sunday. Green, two brothers, his parents and a set of grandparents squeezed into a tiny three-bedroom terraced house (where Green's father still lives to this day). Now, married, divorced, three children later, Green sits atop Welbeck Street, London, in his opulent office, two secretaries outside, surrounded by beautiful contemporary art and dozens of framed photos of family and friends, fancy car, fancy home. One photo sits facing him on the desk. Is it a child, a parent or a girlfriend? Maybe a house? 'No,' says Green, turning it for me to see, 'it's a photo of me with Christian Moieux and his wife.'

Who? He's the man who owns Chateau Petrus, he says, which produces one of the best and most expensive wines in the world. 'I met them at a charity auction in Dublin two weeks ago,' sighs Green, looking at the framed photo lovingly. 'I have been reading about this guy for 20 years. It was such a pleasure to meet him.'

Oh, please. I would bet that one of the motivations that has driven Green on, apart from the rat, is competition with his brothers, all of whom were obviously very able. Green is the younger of twins - his other half, as it were, is a successful consultant radiologist, as unlike him as chalk to cheese. 'He is taller, more handsome - that kind of stuff,' says Green. For a moment I think he is feeling sorry for himself. Then comes the pay-off, complete with big grin: 'But I got to earn the money.'

You don't meet many bosses who are twins. Did it drive him on? Not sure, he says. Their elder brother was always the benchmark they measured themselves against. He is now a computer analyst, Green says, who lives on the moors with his wife in a house full of beautiful antiques and a garden that should be open to the public. They are blissfully happy, he adds, as if he cannot quite understand why.

All the Green boys read maths at Liverpool University, a feat which left their parents 'gobsmacked', apparently. Somehow it is hard to imagine this particular Green reading such a subject. Oh no, he says; he loved it. 'The first question the lecturer asked us was, "What is a number?" Then you had to get thinking, and the whole of academic life is about thinking creatively, isn't it? I mean, when you can study n-dimensional continuity in space, you don't have to go and smoke a joint in the corner to get excited about four-dimensional objects, do you?'

No, probably not. Green then rushes me through a blizzard of topics - the Klein bottle, applied maths, Mozart's operas, Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, the second law of thermodynamics. At this stage I am not quite certain what he is on about. When I listen to a tape of the interview afterwards, it appears to me that maybe he is not very sure either.

'Do you know the phrase: all things are relative?' he asks. Yes. 'Well,' he rushes on breathlessly, 'believe it or not, if you extrapolate that to whatever that means and ... do you know, Einstein talked about the theory of two angry men, two blokes the same height, both walking towards each other, both thinking they are taller than the other, therefore in a brawl might get the better of each other ... It's all to do with relativity.'

But what does it all mean? 'Well,' concludes Green, 'what I have learnt in life is that I have a point of view - not necessarily the right one or the wrong one, it is just my point of view.' Ah. So can we conclude that leaving Liverpool for a traineeship at C&A was a bit of culture shock?

Green grins broadly. Nothing can dent his chirpy verbosity. 'Shall I tell you why I went there? The guys who interviewed me really impressed me and they offered me more money by a shed load than anyone else. It was the exact amount of money that my father had just retired on, too. Spooky that.'

Anyway, he thought marketing and fashion would be 'sexy' and the money was too good to resist. 'My parents were married for 30 odd years and the only row they ever had was about money,' he says, sombre again. 'I worry about money all the time, you know?'

He loved C&A; he learnt a lot there, even if, on his own admission, he didn't make a success of it. How so? He looks thoughtful. 'I guess I realised that the system that nurtures and encapsulates the essence of their philosophy was not for me.' In short, they didn't love him. 'One statement they used was, "We don't want cocky individualists in this company, you know."'

And is that a fair description of what he was? 'Probably,' he laughs. 'It was about attitude - they were big on that.' Another friend who trained with Green there says he has always been the same. 'You could sum up Terry in three words: ambition, ambition, ambition.' Would Debenhams now accommodate a young Terry Green? 'I'd like to think this company was full of them,' laughs Green, who has a reputation for promoting young talent.

So, as he didn't fit in at C&A, he moved companies and landed on his feet at the Burton group, where through a combination of maturing and careful mentoring, Green found a focus for his talents and impressed his bosses, among them Halpern. But, he says, let's nail this protege myth. 'I did impress him once at a meeting, and after that we became more pally, but nothing more.'

Did he learn anything from Halpern's downfall? 'Yes,' says Green quickly. 'Don't ever believe your own press.' He leaves it hanging, prompting me to ask what he means. 'What I have learnt, before everything, is that I have got here by being humble.' Really? It is not, perhaps, the first adjective that colleagues would reach for to describe Green.

'Well, I don't have to act humble to see I have learnt humility, if you see what I mean,' he says. Hoerner, who took Green under his wing after Burton bought Debenhams in 1985, describes him as a 'challenging' manager: intense, driven - and not always easy to work with. Others have found he has pretty sharp elbows too. Stuart Rose, chief executive of Booker and another former colleague of Green, is still perceived in the City to have left Burton after losing out to his ambitious friend. 'There is no doubt,' confirms Rose, 'that Terry was buying me a drink with one hand and elbowing me out on the other, and he knows it.' Green, on the other hand, says Rose is still a good mate. So how does he think his own staff see him? 'Attilla the Hun with a sense of humour,' he laughs.

Above all he has proved to be a brilliantly intuitive retailer. He learnt well from stints as a buyer at Topshop, Expressions and Dorothy Perkins and, once at Debenhams, helped reposition the store chain on a clever platform of affordable designer ware. The shops now concentrate mainly on clothes and goods for the home, and have developed a range of own brands and special deals with name designers (Jasper Conran, Philip Treacy, Ozwald Boateng) that have boosted both Debenhams' reputation and its margins. Other factors come into play too: local tastes are catered for with different stock in different localities; fixed costs have been reduced; gearing is low and more performance-related pay structures have been introduced.

The result? Trading profits have doubled since 1995, and last year's pre-tax profits topped £138 million on £1.37 billion of sales. Of course, many of the initial changes were put in place by Hoerner. So who was responsible for what? 'John was the architect of the shape of our department stores, I was the architect of what went in it,' says Green. 'I think we were both lucky to have a strong team around us,' points out Hoerner.

Others say that it is easy to forget Debenhams' recent past: dowdy stores, rights issues, lack of strategy. Green actually started with a pretty poor hand. Now you can see the transformation as soon as you walk into a new Debenhams: the bright, open interiors, the huge catalogue-style photos of models. Green spends millions on 'visual merchandising'. The feel, he says, should be like walking through the pages of a magazine.

Then there are the me-too brands that mimic the big designer names (Maine New England for Tommy Hilfiger and so on), and the designer names themselves in special cut-price versions, an initiative pioneered by Green which garners lots of glossy coverage. Debenhams customers, average age 35-55 - a demographic group set to grow by 8% over the next couple of years - clearly like what they see. Debenhams' suppliers, who obviously have a vested interest in saying that Green is a genius, are also impressed, even off the record. Green's really got an eye for it.

What's the secret? People trade up, says Green. Whatever their spending power, shoppers in Debenhams always have the opportunity to get something a bit nicer. It is as simple as that. Peter Jarvis, Debenhams' chairman, says Green is just completely switched on to what customers want: better amenities, air-conditioning, new toilets, new catering, a better style of shopping. 'We used to be dowdy,' says Jarvis. 'Now Debenhams is the prettiest girl in town.'

There is still a long way to go, though. Debenhams' success has yet to be reflected in its share price, which - down from a February high of 426p to 360p in December - is hamstrung by the market's worries about retail in general. Some believe, after Arcadia's profit warning in December, that Debenhams will be the next to crack. And others outside the City still have to be convinced, too. Green has figures that show around 30% of the adult UK population shopped at Debenhams in the last six months - three times as many as its nearest department store rival, John Lewis - but he admits that means 70% are still unaware that Debenhams has been transformed into 'a sexy place to shop'.

'Our biggest challenge', he says, 'is to convince people like you.' So why not advertise more? I had no idea Debenhams had changed because no one had told me.

'Telly is expensive,' he says, flatly. Instead he relies on word of mouth, handing out free magazines, print advertising and pushing the stores to influential fashion editors. This Christmas, Debenhams also mailed out nine million catalogues. Most of all, he says, it is about getting the stores right. Many, especially in the South, are still too old-fashioned but the new ones elsewhere are great, he says. Go to Leeds. 'We opened at the same time as the M&S store there, and a year after Harvey Nicks.

House of Fraser is there too. Judge for yourself.' The Debenhams store, he argues, is streets ahead of the rest.

So could the ailing M&S chain, which is a much larger operation (£12.8 billion market capitalisation compared with Debenhams' £1.4 billion), learn a thing or two? Green says he doesn't want to be drawn into criticising M&S. 'But I do think they have become a little bit complacent and arrogant, and I think they are a bit expensive, and I don't think they treat their customers the way they should do, and I don't think they are trying hard enough when it comes to visual display.'

So what's next for Green? He has plenty on his plate running Debenhams and masterminding its expansion both here and through franchise deals in the Middle East. Green wants to open another 16 stores in the UK over the next five years, but he will need to keep cranking up the profits to push through an expansion strategy on that scale. He has other interests of course: the big sporting challenges he likes to set himself (he lists kayaking and rowing as hobbies) and the little dabbles at entrepreneurship.

When we met, it was the music business. He had just funded a recording session for a 20-year-old clerk from the Daily Mail whom he had heard singing at a publishing conference in Malta.

'I don't know what I am doing, she doesn't know what she is doing, it's fantastic,' he says. 'And now we move on to the next stage ...' Where you lose a lot of money? He laughs loudly. 'Exactly, I fund it, but I promise you there is no ulterior motive. I am just trying to get the creativity out of her and see if anything happens.' He starts searching across his vast desk but then throws his hands up. 'I'd play you a track but I think I left them in my car.'

It is all about selling a dream, of course, and living it out - the essence of contemporary retailing. Green loves working with creative people, he says, that is his key. Designers, singers, shoppers - he wants to get people to express themselves while, presumably, he handles the figures. You can just imagine Green, mischievous smile in place, tapping out the tunes on the wheel of his DB7, whizzing up the A21 from his country pile each morning, redesigning the stores in his head, hoping everyone else is clocking the car. He is a lucky man. He appears to be the complete package of enthusiasm, drive, inspiration and a bit of theatrical showmanship.

I am not sure that's the real Terry Green, of course, but it is certainly the projection I got, and like many of his shoppers, I am happy to buy it. The real Green, I suspect, is probably rather more complicated.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

1951 - Born 9 October, Stoke on Trent

Educated St Joseph's College, Trent Vale, and Liverpool University

1973 - Graduate trainee, C&A

1978 - Assistant merchandiser, Burton's menswear

1980 - Merchandiser, Dorothy Perkins

1983 - Buying and merchandising controller, Expressions

1983 - Buying and merchandising controller, womenswear, Topshop

1985 - Buying and merchandising director, Topshop

1989 - Buying and merchandising director, Dorothy Perkins

1990 - Womenswear buying and merchandising director, Debenhams

1992 - Chief executive, Debenhams

1994 - Chief executive, Debenhams and chief executive, Topshop and Topman

1997 - Chief executive, Debenhams plc

WHAT PEOPLE SAY

'Terry's strengths are that he is extremely intelligent and has huge drive. People with these qualities can be impossible, but what makes him acceptable is the fact that he has a great sense of humour.'

John Hoerner, chief executive, Arcadia

Terry is ebullient, larger-than-life, very self-assured and a very able retailer. He has modelled himself on Sir Ralph Halpern. He worked for him for 10 years and it's had an effect. He is just so confident. If he fell in a pile of shit he would come up smiling. He is that kind of a guy.'

Stuart Rose, chief executive, Booker

'What's he got that sets him apart? It's vision. He just knows what will turn the customers on and bring them in. He is also very good at motivating the people around him.'

Jon Webber, Debenhams' supplier and fellow trainee at C&A

'Terry has transformed Debenhams with a team that includes a very experienced managing director and some very young executives.'

Peter Jarvis, chairman, Debenhams

'Terry is one of the most impressive retailers out there: very hands-on as to product positioning, very aware of the profile of the stores and very aware of the merchandise on the floors down to the tiniest detail.'

Richard Caring, chairman, ICD, a Debenhams supplier.

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