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Topshop founder and high street tycoon Sir Ralph Halpern dies at 83

Lauretta Roberts
12 August 2022

Sir Ralph Halpern, known as the "king of the high street" in the 1980s and the founder of the Topshop brand, has died at the age of 83.

Sir Ralph made his mark on British retail as the CEO of the then Burton Group, a position he took up in 1978. The son of Jewish immigrants who had lost their family fortune having fled the Nazis, Sir Ralph joined Burton Group as a management trainee in 1961.

He was directly involved in the establishment of Topshop, which was initially a floor in the Burton-owned Peter Robinson department store. It went on to become a major chain in its own right, taking over the whole of the Peter Robinson department store at Oxford Circus, and was the most influential young women's fashion chain of the 1990s and early 2000s.

As chief of the Burton Group Sir Ralph transformed it from a purveyor of largely menswear to a far-reaching retail empire, developing the Dorothy Perkins, Racing Green and Evans brands among others, as well as introducing Topman, following the success of the pioneering Topshop.

He later added department stores Debenhams and Harvey Nichols to his empire, which at its height contained 2,800 stores, employed 60,000 staff and was worth £1.9 billion when Sir Ralph stood down in 1991.

Sir Ralph, who was knighted by Margaret Thatcher's Government in 1986, was a tour de force and considered to be one of the most talented retailers of his generation with a keen sense of fashion.

He always considered himself to be an outsider in retail and his relentless pursuit of growth and wealth (he was one of the first CEOs to earn a salary of £1 million a year and claimed to be one of the first in the country to own a mobile phone) often rubbed competitors up the wrong way, but investors loved him while the business was riding high.

One of his proteges, and later the CEO of Arcadia (which was what Burton Group was to become) and Marks & Spencer, Lord Stuart Rose, told the Financial Times.

“He was very charismatic, very driven and ahead of his time. 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.

He had a colourful personal life, famously hitting the tabloids for an affair with a model, but it was a series of ill-advised property deals that were to prove to be the undoing of Sir Ralph. He was ousted by the retailer's board in 1991 at the age of 52. He was never to join the board of another PLC, with some suggesting he didn't fit the mould of a typical ex-public school Brit, and later relocated to Miami.

Sir Ralph's legacy largely remains in online form these days. After he left Burton Group the subsequent CEO John Horner demerged Debenhams and created the Arcadia Group from the remaining high street brands. Debenhams was subsequently taken over by a private equity group and later returned to the stock market but, after a long decline, the business collapsed during the pandemic at the end of 2020 and all of its stores were closed in early 2021.

Arcadia went on to be taken over by another retail tycoon, who appeared to model himself on Sir Ralph, Sir Philip Green - Green was to carry the mantle of "king of the high street" during the 1990s and 2000s. However Arcadia too went on to collapse during the pandemic. The Debenhams brand and some of the Arcadia brands (such as Burton and Dorothy Perkins) were acquired by online group Boohoo and are now operated online only. Fellow online retailer ASOS acquired the Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge brands, which are also now digital-only entities.

Sir Ralph is perhaps best summed up in his own words by a brief biography posted on his Linked-in page, which reads: "A lifetime experience of things done right and wrong, all of which make us who we are!"

Sir Ralph Halpern was born on 24 October 1938. He died on 10 August 10, 2022, aged 83.

Main image: Sir Ralph Halpern pictured at the height of his power in 1987. Credit: Alamy.

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