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JD’s trainer king, Peter Cowgill, loses his crown – leaving big shoes to fill

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<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

He was the self-styled king of trainers, leading one of the high street’s coolest stores, but a string of missteps has led to Peter Cowgill, 69, being kicked out of the business he built.

After a board meeting at the group’s Bury headquarters last Wednesday, he exited with immediate effect – and JD Group’s shares dived by 18%.

Cowgill, the workaholic chair and chief executive of JD since 2004, oversaw a dramatic turnaround in the group’s fortunes, building its market value to 60 times what it was when he arrived, and creating a global brand.

He helped founders David Makin and John Wardle float the business in 1996, left in 2001 but was brought back three years later after profits dived in the wake of the ill-conceived acquisition of rival First Sport.

Since then Cowgill has ridden the casual dressing trend by making JD appealing to women, and by bagging exclusive deals with Nike and Adidas. He spotted the shift online and oversaw a string of audacious deals, starting with the acquisition of rival Allsports in 2005 and, most notably, entering the US market with the acquisition of Finish Line in 2018.

The Bolton lad, who attended De La Salle grammar school in Salford and had his first job with an accountant above a local barber’s shop, has seen his wealth grow alongside that of shareholders. In the past two years alone he has sold more than £53m of JD shares and retains a stake worth nearly £12m.

One well-informed source said the Rubins had felt Cowgill ‘thought he was bigger than the business’

Seen as a stickler for detail who nevertheless likes to end the day in the pub, Cowgill told the Guardian in 2016 that the secret to JD’s success was: “We never rest on our laurels and we are gutted if there’s even a day when our numbers are negative.”

Chris Bird, the former Manchester City boss who was a non-executive director of JD for nine years, said: “He has his hand very firmly on the tiller. He likes to know where every pound goes and has a really good eye for an opportunity.” Cowgill, he said, “revels in the pursuit of greatness … He was finance director when it floated and he came back and brought it back from the brink.”

But shareholders revolted last year after it emerged that Cowgill was paid almost £6m in bonuses despite the company accepting more than £100m in government Covid support.

JD’s board spent Thursday and Friday calming shareholders via conference calls. It is understood Cowgill is leaving after he objected to the board’s plan to split the roles of chair and chief executive, which he has jointly held since 2014.

Cowgill’s exit marks a painful split from long-term backers Pentland Group, the Speedo-to-Kickers conglomerate led by the billionaire Rubin family, who became majority shareholders in JD shortly after his arrival, buying out Makin and Wardle.

Pentland said JD’s “significant growth” came with “the responsibility to ensure the business continues to evolve its internal organisation”. One well-informed source said the Rubins had felt Cowgill “thought he was bigger than the business”.

A string of missteps in recent years have only driven the move for change under a new set of non-executive directors led by Helen Ashton, the former finance boss of Asos who is now interim chair, and Kath Smith, who spent 25 years as managing director of the Adidas and Reebok brands and is now temporary chief executive.

In February, JD Sports and Footasylum were fined a total of £4.7m for sharing sensitive information. A competition watchdog investigation accused them of deleting phone records, and found their chairmen to have held multiple clandestine meetings, including one caught on video in a car park near Bury.

Before that, JD abandoned a bid for Debenhams – only after millions of pounds were wiped off the company’s value when it emerged it was considering an off-piste deal for the ailing retailer. And just months earlier, JD dumped its Go Outdoors subsidiary into administration, then bought it back shorn of expensive leases.

Meanwhile, the competition watchdog will give a further update next month on an investigation it launched in 2020 into potential price-fixing on Rangers football kit by retailers, including JD.

One individual likely to be celebrating Cowgill’s departure is Mike Ashley, founder and majority shareholder of Sports Direct owner Frasers Group. He has spent years wrangling over the sportswear market with his rival.

Ashley, who once bragged that he would “finish off” JD, has clashed with Cowgill over a number of deals. In 2018, Sports Direct revealed it had built up a near 20% stake in Finish Line shortly after JD announced its plans for a takeover of the US retailer. Then in 2020 they were both lined up to buy footwear chain Office before a big standoff over Debenhams, which was snapped up by online specialist Boohoo.

Ashley’s group was seen as key in persuading the competition watchdog to block JD’s acquisition of Footasylum. In a veiled reference to Ashley, Cowgill said in his response to the CMA ruling that the watchdog had been “taken in by the self-serving testimony of one notoriously vocal competitor”. The tracksuit tycoon may have had the final laugh.

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