LONDON — British high street tycoon Sir Ralph Halpern, who helped transform the country’s retail industry in the booming ’80s and ’90s, died Aug. 10 at age 83.
He was instrumental in the founding of Topshop in the mid-’60s and chief executive officer of the Burton Group from the late ’70s to early ’90s, which owned Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and department stores Debenhams and Harvey Nichols.
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Halpern was born in Austria to Jewish parents who fled the Nazi regime in the ’30s to emigrate in England with no fortune. His mother, Olga Halpern, was a fashion designer in Vienna and his father Bernard, a retailer and banker.
The family lived in north London, moving from Belsize Park to Hempstead. Halpern attended the private school St. Christopher in Hertfordshire, which has an entirely vegetarian diet for students and staff due to funding from the Theosophical Society. The school’s notable alumni also include restaurant critic A. A. Gill, manager of The Rolling Stones Prince Rupert Loewenstein and professional golfer Neil Coles.
Halpern started his career in fashion at his father’s textile firm and then joined the department store Selfridges as a trainee for 5 pounds a week.
He left the company to join Peter Robinson, a chain of department stores owned by the Burton Group that ceased to exist by the late ’70s. Halpern rose up through the ranks from managing a Burton branch in the north of England then moved back to London as merchandise manager at Peter Robinson, where he met Joan Donkin.
The couple got married in 1967 and divorced in 1999. They have one daughter, Jenny Halpern Prince, founder and CEO of the PR agency Halpern.
“Our father left an irreplaceable mark on the spirit of entrepreneurship and the U.K.’s retail landscape. And he did it in his own, very special way,” Prince said in a statement, adding that, “he has been the inspiration to me growing up and his mantra of JFDI (just f–king do it) has been instilled into our culture at Halpern at all times. He was my hero and he will live through me and my family forever more.”
As CEO, Halpern built Burton Group into the dominant force on Britain’s high street. The group rode the wave of Britain’s economic boom resulting from the deregulation of the stock market and reported growing profits and sales quarter after quarter. The smooth-talking, dapper Halpern ruled Burton with a firm grip, easily fending off criticism at press conferences with the occasional arrogant smirk as his admiring executive team would sit front row gloating over their success.
In the mid-’80s he called upon business tycoon Gerald Ronson, one of the “Guinness Four” in the Guinness share-trading fraud scandal, to help him buy Debenhams in a 566 million pound deal that outbid Mohamed al-Fayed’s House of Fraser group. Debenhams also owned the department store Harvey Nichols, a competitor to al-Fayed’s House of Fraser, which owned Harrods. Halpern helped reinvigorate Harvey Nichols, positioning it firmly as the second leading department store in the British capital after Harrods; the-then less-glamorous Selfridges was decidedly third.
Halpern was one of the top earning CEOs in the U.K. — he was the first to earn more than 1 million pounds in a year. The Burton group’s market value rocketed from 50 million pounds to 1.8 billion pounds during the three decades he was in charge.
Not even a scandalous affair and lurid tabloid headlines could seemingly slow him down. In 1987, Halpern was caught in an affair with 19-year-old model Fiona Wright, who sold her account of the romantic entanglement to Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspaper News of the World. The tabloid gloatingly revealed numerous seamy details about the affair, including that Wright would rub anti-baldness cream into Halpern’s head and that he would boast about their love life by saying, “Five times a night.” It was only a matter of time before the tabloids began referring to Halpern as “Five times a night Burton’s boss.”
During that abrupt affair, Halpern was living with his former secretary Laura Blume, whom he married in 2003 and divorced in 2007. He and Blume were again in the tabloids in the year 2000 when they had a child, Sammy, when Halpern was age 61.
Despite the affair, Burton’s shareholders continued to back Halpern as the group’s profits and sales went from strength to strength. A year before the affair, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had knighted Halpern for his services to the retail industry.
The run couldn’t last, however. Burton began to struggle other competitors like Next emerged and, in 1991, the board pushed him into early retirement at the age of 50 as Burton’s property costs skyrocketed. He left with a 2 million pound golden handshake and was succeeded by the American executive John Hoerner. The new CEO sold off Harvey Nichols and proceeded to tighten Burton’s operations, including in 1998 changing its name to Arcadia Group having spun off Debenhams into a separately listed company. Hoerner himself would ultimately be ousted in November 2000 by his former protege, Stuart Rose. In 2002, Arcadia was acquired by Tina Green, who made her husband Philip its chairman.
Halpern’s business acumen marked a key era in the British retail industry — one that was at its peak with his peers, such as Primark founder Arthur Ryan; George Davies, founder of Next; Sir Richard Greenbury, who took Marks and Spencer to its first 1 billion pounds in profit, and Habitat creator Sir Terence Conran.
Halpern is survived by his daughter Jenny, son Sammy and grandchildren Charlie, Sambelle and Marcus.
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