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Race cars, oil and debt: The career of BHS' Dominic Chappell

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He has been described by some as a “millionaire playboy” and by others as the man who brought down BHS. As a man who seems to have rarely disappeared from the headlines over the past few months, the Retail Gazette takes a look at the career of Dominic Chappell — who infamously bought BHS for £1 in 2015.

Accounts of Chappell’s career prior to the acquisition of BHS are somewhat patchy. This is primarily due to the fact that he simply didn’t feature on the radar of big businesses and its leaders. When compared to the league of business at which owners of nationwide department stores operate, Chappell’s career prior to his takeover of BHS was relatively modest.

He was born in Surrey, in a small town called Sunbury-on-Thames. He was educated in the prestigious Millfield public school in Somerset alongside countless high profile sporting names, such as BBC chief political correspondent John Sergeant and drummer of the Police, Stewart Copeland.

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His early career saw Chappell as an aspiring racing driver. It is unknown where his early funding to pursue a career in motorsport was found, but Chappell stated in an interview with the BBC that his family has always been involved in the oil trade in Libya. Associates also report he has access to a family trust fund in Gibraltar.

Chappell’s venture into motorsport lasted from 1986 until 1999 and saw him reach the level of formula three. During his racing stint he competed in three 24 hour Le Mans races, yet failed to finish all three.

It was during this period that he experienced his first, now-infamous insolvency, entering into an Individual Voluntary Arrangement that enables the individual to avoid bankruptcy, attributing it to a failed formulae one team he had invested in.

Following this came Chappell’s first venture into entrepreneurship. In 2001 he set up the Interactive Sportscar Championship (ISC). The concept behind this venture was to fit all the cars with on-board dashboard cameras, offing enhanced TV viewing, which — although now a staple — was the ahead of its time.

RELATED: Former BHS owner Dominic Chappell in tax battle with HMRC

Despite a promising concept, the predictions of popularity essentially brought about its almost instantaneous downfall. Chappell predicted 250,000 subscribers, washing over advice from insiders stating that even Berny Ecclestone’s formula one was receiving just 9000 viewers a race.

The ISC folded after a single race. Noone except the racetrack owners were paid any money, including the winners of the race who were promised £20,000.

“We, as racing teams, are looking for championships to take part in, and he advertised this race championship. It was supposed to be televised and we were told there was a television deal so there’d be some prize money,” Martin Braybook, a racing team director, said at the time.

“But we got to the point of the first race with everyone still questioning whether it was real.”

In 1993 Chappell became director of Eyot, a property firm he ran alongside his father Joe. In the face of his first bankruptcy which came about in 2005 after a dispute with Foxton’s estate agents over an unpaid fee, Chappell remained director until 2008.

However, the company fell into administration in 2008, owing £230,000 to Lloyds Bank.

Perhaps his most famous venture, aside from BHS, was his joint venture to develop the Isle of Wight’s Island Harbour Marina with his father. This development would see 48 new homes, 26 luxury waterside properties plus private moorings and a personal helipad built for himself.

In 2009 after six months of development, the project was put into administration. Loans totaling £24 million were called in in March and administrators were appointed. Sources report that like his motorsport venture, this left numerous businesses and creditors out of pocket. 

His personal assistant at the time told the Mirror: “Initially my job was just to get rid of people calling for money. There were 10 calls every day – people who had done services for him, people who had set up computers, phone lines, caterers who had provided for events.

“One small business was owed £12,000 and it almost ran them into the ground. I was told to tell them cheques had been posted.”

Chappell said all his staff and creditors had been payed and that these claims were “nonsense”.

This property venture plunged the entrepreneur into his second bankruptcy and he was declared unemployed in 2009.

Chappell remained “penniless” up until 2013 when he told accountancy firms chasing him for the £24 million deficit that he had no assets. Upon trying to seize his £300,000 home in Dorset the company withdrew because the equity would not justify the trial costs.

It is unclear how a penniless entrepreneur with no retail experience managed to introduce himself to and secure a deal with Sir Phillip Green, who had owned BHS since 2000 through his Arcadia Group retail empire. 

During the time between his bankruptcy and his acquisition of BHS Chappell stated that he received a £5 million “bonanza” from his oil storage facility in Cadiz, Spain. The sum is said to subsequently have been invested in BHS.

RELATED: Remaining BHS stores to remain open until August 28

Sources say Chappell was introduced to Green through Paul Sutton, who lost £160,000 on the marina development. Sutton has previously submitted a bid for BHS and says he hired Chappell as his driver to try and recoup some of his investment losses.

Green was informed that Sutton had previously been convicted for fraud, and “cut all ties” with him.

The finer details of the acquisition remain unclear, even following the headline-grabbing parliamentary inquiry in the collapse of BHS. What’s clear is that many were surprised at Chappell’s successful bid for the company, as several previous bids had failed.

It is thought Chappell was not clear on the significant deficit that was looming in BHS pensions scheme, and 13 months later BHS fell into administration.

Since then, the 88-year-old British retailer has now all but disappeared from our highstreets. 

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Published on Wednesday 07 September by Ben Stevens

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