Was BHS a blessing?


At a rowdy debate at yesterday’s Battle of Ideas, my colleague Hilary Salt stoked the fires by claimed the fall of BHS was a milestone to improving British productivity. Nobody expressed disagreement – despite it being packed with left-wing thinkers.

Hilary’s argument went like this;

We should see the failure of BHS as a success. A zombie business that few people liked or shopped at, failed. Pension rights were (by and large) secured (by the PPF). Thousands of workers have been released from unproductive labour and a precedent has been set to other non-productive businesses – to pack it in.

Merryn Somerset Webb had set the seen, rehearsing the well known statistics about Britain’s productivity, relative to our European neighbours. Here are the latest ONS numbers.


Those speaking accounted for our lack of productivity in various ways

  1. Lack of Investment
  2. Disincentives to work full time (working credit system)
  3. Low interest rates propping up zombie businesses

Nobody mentioned pension schemes, but the drain on cash flows needed to meet Trustee demands for deficit payments may have something to do with the lack of investment.

In the context of this reasoning, the fall of BHS can be better understood. BHS suffered from too little investment, employed thousands of part time staff and struggled along as a cash cow for Philip Green’s family, because of QE.

This is not to say that losing your job at a BHS till isn’t a painful experience – it is. Especially in parts of the country where it is a less bad job than anything else on offer.

But it’s hard not to agree with the panel who concluded that the way forward for Britain in a post-Brexit economy was to improve productivity by investing for growth, increasing per capita productivity and increasing interest rates. Merryn made the point that British exporters had been handed a golden-goose in the devaluation of the currency and should be squeezing every golden-egg out – while they can.

Philip Mullan pointed out that tariffs or no tariffs, we would trade. The vie in the room was that Britain could swim and (were it down to us) it would not sink.


One of the things that I took from Battle of Britain was a sense of being accountable for helping Britain swim rather than sink. I spent much of the weekend engaging in a stream of debates on technology and ethics that covered (inter alia) driverless cars, the ethical dimension of , artificial intelligence, the Fintech revolution , virtual reality and even dating apps.

Almost every debate focussed on improving productivity, most focussed on the use of Blockchain as the means. I wrote last week that I see Blockchain, not as a means of putting people out of work, but as a way of increasing corporate profits so they can invest in new and better jobs (and the training for people to upskill to them).

I feel personally accountable for making this happen. I don’t know why I feel like a Blockchain evangelist – I can’t write the code and I don’t understand the processes which are being replaced, but I feel I can do something to excite the firms I work with from First Actuarial to L&G to adopt the new technology and improve productivity.

I don’t think there is much point in locking yourself in the Barbican all week-end if you aren’t going to get productive about what you’ve learned. I don’t want to see Britain sink post Brexit , I want to see it swim. I want to make the part of the world where I work more productive. I want to see the end of zombie practices (which I see plenty of when I go to our and other people’s offices), I will not be afraid to point this out to my colleagues and my collaborating employers.

I am proud that Pension PlayPen has already taken over 4000 employers to a good pension decision as part of auto-enrolment. I’m proud that they’ve taken decisions more productively and more economically than they would have done elsewise. I’m very proud that we’ve helped over 4000 employers have seen the value of valuing their choice of workplace pensions.

A very small cog

Being around brilliant people – from 15 to 80 – gives you a sense of your own lack of importance. There were people I met this weekend who were superior to me in intelligence, wit , articulacy, knowledge and application. I felt a very small cog indeed.

But that was and is salutary; it made me realise that not only was I accountable for change but that I was and am a small cog in a large machine – the enterprise engine of the nation.

I didn’t care if the people I spoke with were academics or business people, students or pensioners; I was too interested to bother with their status, I wanted their knowledge and to share in their enthusiasm.

I may be a little cog – but the mechanism is mighty and I’m determined to play my part! BHS was a dead business, those working for it – working unproductively. We need to change and change means getting rid of dead businesses and dead practices. It takes a few Hilary Salts to see that – articulate that – and change the way we work.

But I’m confident we have more than a few!

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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3 Responses to Was BHS a blessing?

  1. George Kirrin says:

    A better word than “blessing” might be “lesson”, an opportunity to learn from our omissions and oversights, and tighten up the law when it comes to changes of ownership of companies/businesses sponsoring underfunded DB pension schemes. Yes, we’re re-bolting one of the doors, but we need to.

    As for Merryn, who’s apparently viewed as right of centre up there in her adopted Edinburgh (maybe there weren’t as many lefties in the room as you feared, Henry), she shouldn’t still be harping on about flawed productivity measures based on highly imperfect “national” accounts and estimated headcounts, surely?

    By all means look for evidence of underinvestment and the impacts of low interest rates (but don’t ask those deniers over at the Bank of England), just don’t attach them to “productivity” based on per capita, rather than per capital, and which ignores so many aspects of the 21st century’s digital and globally interactive world.

    Sounds like I missed a Battle over Old Ideas.

  2. henry tapper says:

    Oldies but goldies George

  3. Pingback: Rudd’s posturing – no help at all | The Vision of the Pension Playpen

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