Business

Ralph Halpern, high street retailer, dies at 83

Sir Ralph Halpern, the high street tycoon and a leading force in British retail during the 1970s and 1980s, has died at the age of 83, his family has said.

Halpern, the son of Jewish émigrés who fled Nazi oppression, started his career as a trainee at Selfridges but went on to become one of the most high-profile business figures of the Thatcher era as he presided over a huge expansion of the previously staid menswear chain Burton.

He was the creator of Topshop, the women’s fashion chain that became cutting-edge in the 1990s and early 2000s, and at its peak the wider Burton group included many of the brands that would later form part of Arcadia plus the department store chain Debenhams and the luxury retailer Harvey Nichols.

“Our father left an irreplaceable mark on the spirit of entrepreneurship and the UK’s retail landscape, and he did it in his own very special way,” said Jenny Halpern Prince, his daughter.

Lord Stuart Rose, who served on the board of Burton alongside Halpern and later ran Arcadia, said he was “one of the real movers and shakers in the 1970s and 1980s”.

At the time, mainstream fashion retail was dominated by Marks and Spencer, C&A, British Home Stores and a host of small chains and independents; Next and Primark were in their infancy while names such as H&M and Zara had yet to arrive in the UK.

“He was very charismatic, very driven and ahead of his time,” Rose added. “Did we go too fast at times? Maybe. But he genuinely changed the face of the high street and he should get the credit for it.”

The takeover of Debenhams in the mid-1980s epitomised the buccaneering spirit of the times, with Halpern controversially enlisting the help of Gerald Ronson to beat off competition from Mohammed al-Fayed’s House of Fraser group and clinch the £566mn deal.

Halpern was one of the first chief executives in the UK to earn more than £1mn in a year, considered an astronomical sum at the time, while tabloid newspapers feasted on the details of his occasionally colourful private life.

He was ousted from the board of Burton in 1991 at the relatively young age of 50, following profit warnings, and did not play a high-profile Plc role again. At the end of the 1990s he relocated to Florida, though his LinkedIn profile still described him as “chair and CEO at the Burton Group”.

After his departure, Debenhams was demerged into a separate listed company while the Burton group was renamed Arcadia. Both were subsequently taken over — Debenhams by private equity groups, though it would later return to the stock market, and Arcadia by Sir Philip Green’s family.

Neither company exists in physical form today; Arcadia and Debenhams went into administration on consecutive days in 2020 and survive only online, as subsidiary brands of Boohoo and Asos.

Halpern’s passing is the latest in a generation of retailers whose entrepreneurialism and ambition came to define the last two decades of the 20th century.

Habitat creator Sir Terence Conran died in 2020 while Sir Richard Greenbury, who famously drove Marks and Spencer to its first £1bn profit, died in 2017 and was followed by Primark creator Arthur Ryan and David Jones, widely credited with saving Next, both in 2019.


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