Ralph Halpern, who died aged 83, was the most flamboyant member of a group of retail and real estate tycoons who rose, then mostly fell, in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It was a remarkable period of British entrepreneurial endeavour, when a handful of talented, greedy and fearless businessmen changed the face of shopping in Britain.
Its brands, Top Shop (now Topshop), Principles, Top Man and several others within the Burton group, have become legendary in the industry. At its height in the mid-1980s, Burton Group took one in eight pounds spent on clothing in Britain – only Marks & Spencer could claim more. Yet within a few years the group had passed its peak – its market share was in decline, and in 1990 Halpern fell victim to a coup in the boardroom.
In many ways, Halpern got what he deserved, both good and bad. He was variously celebrated or otherwise as the first British businessman to earn a salary of over £1million, a fitness fanatic who had a £2million gymnasium built in the under floor of the Burton Group headquarters and, thanks to the kiss-and-tell stories of a model named Fiona Wright in 1987, a man with a voracious sexual appetite.
An inspired despot who, like so many of his peers, considered himself a genius, Halpern was a man of exceptional retail acumen. He rightly saw that the stores that would be most successful in separating young people from their money needed three ingredients: flair, drama and value.
However, he was a flawed genius, as he courted danger, seemed obsessed with currying favor with young women, and took shortcuts with his accounts which, while legal, gave a somewhat exaggerated view of the true bottom line. In time, each of these flaws contributed to his humiliating, but profitable, ejection from the Burton Group, which he had transformed from a boring maker of suits for workers into one of the most famous retail chains. of the time.
Halpern had devoted most of his working life to the business, having joined Montague Burton, then managed by Cyril Spencer, which made men’s suits in a series of factories in the north of England, in 1961. He gradually rose through the management ranks. and, in 1970, co-founded Top Shop, a boutique-style chain aimed at teenagers and young women. It was Burton’s first venture into the haute couture industry, and it was so successful that it was soon followed by other “standalone” chains.
Three years later he acquired Dorothy Perkins. As the old suit factories were closed and sold off, the portfolio of brands operating under the Burton Group grew. Top Shop was followed by Top Man, while Evans was transformed into a store for women of all sizes.
Those were happy days for Halpern. His reputation both inside and outside the company was at its height and in 1977 he became group managing director. Four years later, he went to the president’s office when he knocked down Spencer.
In 1985, at the height of Thatcher’s reign, Halpern fought a bitter battle for control of Debenhams, an old fashioned department store group. He teamed up with Sir Terence Conran, the designer and businessman behind Habitat, and the two starred in a video presentation sent to all Debenhams shareholders. The video showed how Debenhams could be ushered into the 20th century, with glass escalators, atriums and commercial bustle on every floor.
The bitter takeover brought him into contact with Gerald Ronson, a property developer who wanted a slice of the development potential inherent in the Debenhams portfolio; he played a crucial role in the success of the bid. Ronson was said to be the only man Halpern feared, although it was never quite clear why. The stock trades that earned Halpern his award were later investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry, which found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Throughout this period, Burton Group used a legitimate accounting device whereby new outlets added to a retailer’s portfolio could “amortize” a substantial portion of their costs in the first year, rather than, as It’s customary to charge costs against benefits.
Sooner or later it had to catch up with reality and the true underlying profitability would be exposed. At the same time, Halpern thrust the Burton Group into property development, pursuing shopping center developments that were neither permanently financed nor fully pre-let.
By the late 1980s, a number of City’s institutional shareholders and investment analysts were beginning to worry about the group’s financial condition. Halpern hated the city and made enemies of many in whose hands his future in the band was held. He believed that as long as he was producing growing profits and dividends, he should run the business as he pleased. But a generous stock option program for him and his fellow directors was introduced at the wrong time when things were already getting tough and, although amended, left a chasm of mistrust between Halpern and his shareholders.
Determined to the point of ruthlessness, his style was to trample on all who opposed him, whether inside or outside the company, and his supposed visionary understanding of the mode allowed him to get away with it.
Just days after Fiona Wright’s story broke in the News of the World with claims they had sex five times a night, Halpern was portrayed by a Burton shareholder at the AGM annual as the “second greatest Englishman, after Churchill”. Knighted in 1986, he traveled in the Burton Group’s private helicopter and used business jets while others used trains. Everywhere he went he achieved celebrity status.
After the exposure of the kiss and the reveal, the knives were out for “Burton’s boss five times a night.” Even then, however, he was said to have secretly enjoyed notoriety and still believed himself to be untouchable.
Born in London to Olga and Bernard Halpern, who had fled Austria to escape the Nazis, Ralph grew up in Belsize Park and Hampstead, north London, and attended St Christopher’s School in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire. After leaving, he worked for his father’s textile business before becoming an intern at Selfridges and then joining Peter Robinson, part of Montague Burton.
For a man who had devoted almost his entire professional life to the Burton Group (renamed Arcadia in 1998), his ejection nearly 30 years later was the bitterest blow. However, Halpern had prepared his exit well.
He had set up a pension plan whose contributions were based not only on his base salary, but on his total compensation. So he walked away with an indexed pension of over £500,000 a year for life. He was a somewhat nervous person, with bulletproof glass in both his office and in his car, and was more religious than he liked to let on, taking advice from Jewish figures in the era.
There was also a benevolent streak running through it. When one of his employees had a serious accident on the group’s premises, he insisted on visiting the man’s wife to see what assistance she needed.
He retained ties to the retail clothing industry for a few years as chairman of the British Fashion Council, but he would never again reach the heights that made him as well known to tabloid readers as to the business pages of the serious press.
His first marriage, to Joan Donkin, whom he had married in 1967 and with whom he had a daughter, Jenny, ended in divorce in 1999. He married Laura Blume, his former secretary and mother of his son , Samuel, in 2003; they moved to Miami in 2005 and divorced two years later.
His children survive him.