One morning last summer, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose, opened his car door at the entrance to his Baker Street office to find Philip Green steaming towards him. Green claimed he was just passing, but onlookers formed the impression that the stockily built, permatanned, chain-smoking entrepreneur had been waiting nearby, in his chauffeured Mercedes with blacked-out windows, for Rose to arrive.
Green started to drag the M&S boss out of the car by his lapels, shouting, "I want a fucking word with you." During the 20-minute altercation that followed, he rang his wife, Tina, in Monaco and handed the phone to Rose so that Tina could call him (so Rose told colleagues) "the lowest form of life". Afterwards, Green dismissed the incident as a bit of fun: "If I'd been serious, he'd have gone through the window."
It sounds more like a scene from The Sopranos than the sort of tactic normally deployed in a takeover approach to a major public company. In fact, that approach was in the process of being rebuffed - which was why Green was so cross - but playing by his own rules had already brought him ownership of two major high street retailers, Bhs and the Arcadia Group (which includes Topshop and Miss Selfridge), and the fastest £4bn fortune ever made in Britain.
Green is a one-off, and the City's wariness of his short temper and foul mouth is probably one reason why he has made such an enormous pile: unwilling to observe the courtesies that might allow him to take risks with other people's money by raising it through the stock market, he has taken enormous risks with his own. "He puts his balls on the table every time," according to one admiring friend, the restaurateur Marco Pierre White. The most recent result is that he has been able to pay Tina and himself a dividend from Arcadia of £1.2bn.
That does not make him lovable, and neither does the portrait painted by Stewart Lansley and Andy Forrester in this meticulous but rather unsparkling account of Green's rise from West End rag trader in the late 1970s to the Monaco-residing business superstar he is today. He throws amazing parties, but not everyone would want to mix in his crowd, which includes Alex Ferguson, Michael Winner, Bruce Willis and "the Grand Prix set". He has a sense of humour, but not a subtle one - he likes, for example, to apply "the Kalashnikov test" to Oxford Street shops, which means: "You could walk in with a machine-gun, fire off a whole clip of ammunition and you wouldn't hit a customer." He rewards his staff handsomely when they meet his targets, but shouts obscenities at them when they do not. His dealings with the press have often been catastrophic, most notably when the Guardian recorded him ranting about its financial editor, Paul Murphy: "He can't read fucking English. Mind you, he is a fucking Irishman." Green finished up issuing an apology to the entire Irish community for that one.
He does not apologise for many things but he does give to good causes, often making show-stoppingly large bids at charity auctions. However, "judged by the standards of some of the super-rich", write Lansley and Forrester in a concluding chapter which suggests that close study has not endeared their subject to them, "he is not especially generous".
Maybe not, but how he spends his fortune is his own affair. The more interesting question is how Green made it: whether he is an entrepreneurial genius or just a lucky gambler. Some of his early ventures hit the rocks, and his diffi- cult relations with the City and the media date back 15 years to the time of his involvement in a company called Amber Day, when Private Eye tried to blacken his name by alleging connections with, among others, the disgraced financier Roger Levitt. Nevertheless, Green re-tained the loyalty of some powerful backers and went on to win the admiration of his retailing peers - even Stuart Rose. No one has ever accused Green of being a style guru or a sensitive man-manager, but he is a lot more than just a takeover shark: he lives and breathes the much-repeated maxim that retail is detail.
As Sir David Sieff, the former board director of Marks & Spencer, put it: "He know's what's selling, what customers want, when to buy, how much to pay and what everybody else is paying for it." His ruthless reshaping of Arcadia and Bhs is one of the smartest bits of work in the British business scene in the past decade - and the profits from it have bought him everything except serenity.
Martin Vander Weyer is the author of Falling Eagle: the decline of Barclays Bank (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)