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Mike Ashley: Who is the controversial retail magnate?

·5-min read
Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley. The retail veteran has said he will step down from the board of his Frasers retail empire next month (Owen Humphrys/PA) (PA Archive)
Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley. The retail veteran has said he will step down from the board of his Frasers retail empire next month (Owen Humphrys/PA) (PA Archive)

Billionaire Mike Ashley is one of the most recognisable men in British business after building a sprawling high street empire and owning a Premier League football team for more than a decade.

However, the Sports Direct founder is planning to step away from his Frasers Group vehicle, which now has his son-in-law at the helm.

Mr Ashley passed the chief executive position of the group to 32-year-old Michael Murray last year but stayed on as a director.

However, on Tuesday the billionaire retail tycoon said he will step down as a director after the group’s annual shareholder meeting on October 19, although he will remain as the firm’s controlling shareholder.

Mike Ashley (right) leaving the Sports Direct headquarters in London with chief executive officer Michael Murray (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Archive)
Mike Ashley (right) leaving the Sports Direct headquarters in London with chief executive officer Michael Murray (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Archive)

Here the PA news agency takes a closer look at the mercurial man and his colourful history at the forefront of the changing British high street.

– Background

Mike Ashley left school at 16 before first entering the fitness industry as a squash coach.

But in 1982 he decided to try his hand at retail, opening his first high street sport shop, Mike Ashley Sports, in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with the help of a £10,000 family loan.

He steadily grew trade and, buoyed by more regional openings, expanded in London in the early 1990s following an injection of private money.

His chain of stores, now rebranded as Sports Soccer, had grown to an estate of around 100 sites by the turn of the millennium.

The next few years saw a number of rebrands, during which the chain briefly become Sports World, before finding its current name Sports Direct.

In February 2007, Mr Ashley floated the business as a public company on the London Stock Exchange in a move which valued it at £2.5 billion, although the founder retained a majority stake.

– Recent business history

The group built its retail stock following the IPO and Mr Ashley became a significantly more recognisable figure after he bought majority control of Newcastle United later that year.

Mike Ashley sold Newcastle United last year after a tumultuous ownership of the Premier League club (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)
Mike Ashley sold Newcastle United last year after a tumultuous ownership of the Premier League club (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)

He came under criticism regarding his ownership of the club and perceived lack of investment but completed the £340 million sale to a consortium led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund last year after a lengthy process.

Sports Direct’s initial strong growth period was buoyed by its acquisition of sportswear brands for sale in its stores, including Dunlop, Slazenger and Karrimor.

It saw its shares peak in 2014 after a period of strong growth slowed but which has rebounded in recent years.

The last four years have seen the group snap up a variety of distressed UK retail firms including Evans Cycles, Jack Wills, Game, Sofa.com and House of Fraser.

In 2020, the group was renamed Frasers after the department store brand as it started an “elevation strategy” designed to help give the retail group a more upmarket image.

– Leadership style

Mr Ashley has gained a reputation for a strong leadership approach which holds no punches and has seen him quarrel with Government ministers and launch legal battles.

Retail analyst Richard Hyman said the tycoon is not afraid to make strong and bold decisions in a bid to give him an edge in the sector.

“History shows that he will be clear and decisive with his actions,” he said.

“Not every move he has made has been perfect and he is fully aware of that, but he doesn’t mind putting his neck on the line.”

A Sports Direct store at Wrekin Retail Park in Telford (Nick Potts/PA) (PA Wire)
A Sports Direct store at Wrekin Retail Park in Telford (Nick Potts/PA) (PA Wire)

In recent years fund managers with investments in the company have described Mr Ashley as “Elon Musk-esque” and “Donald Trumpian”.

The chief can also be legitimately compared to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the press regulator said, following a spat between him and The Times newspaper.

In 2018, the tycoon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) after a piece in the paper suggested he shared many characteristics with the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Nevertheless, Ipso concluded it was “clearly a polemical comparison” which was a “matter of comment and interpretation” and The Times had been able to show it was made “on an adequate factual basis”.

– Controversies

In 2016, a parliamentary inquiry accused Mr Ashley of running Sports Direct like a Victorian workhouse after reports of labour abuses by The Guardian newspaper.

The report by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee said the company had used “appalling working practices” and treated “workers as commodities rather than as human beings”.

The group has also come under heavy criticism over its use of zero-hours contracts for workers.

Mr Ashley has largely been a mercurial presence but a court hearing in 2017 provided a colourful insight into his working practices.

London’s High Court heard that the businessman once hosted a management meeting in a pub where he drank 12 pints and vomited into a fireplace.

The court heard during a hearing regarding legal action from finance expert Jeffrey Blue that Mr Ashley would hold important meetings during “lock-ins” at the Green Dragon pub in Alfreton, near Sports Direct’s warehouse.

Mike Ashley arriving in court in 2017 (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Archive)
Mike Ashley arriving in court in 2017 (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Archive)

Recently, Sports Direct faced heavy scrutiny after it delayed its 2019 full-year results when it was faced with a £605 million dispute with the Belgian tax authorities.

The firm also came under fire at the start of the pandemic after it sought to be considered as an essential business so its employees could continue to work.

Days after facing scorn from unions and ministers, Mr Ashley penned an open letter to apologise for his “ill-judged” response to the pandemic.

– Future plans

Mr Ashley’s decision to leave the board appeared surprising from the outside, but others at the firm have previously highlighted a desire for him to become more “hands off” with its operations.

Mr Murray told the Financial Times earlier this year his father-in-law was now spending “three to six months a year” outside the UK and “never really wanted to be chief executive”.

The move to step down from the board will nevertheless not entirely sever Mr Ashley’s relationship with Frasers.

He will remain as the group’s majority shareholder, with an almost-70% stake in the company.

The founder said on Tuesday that he remains “100% committed to supporting Frasers and Michael’s plans and ambitions” and will continue to work as an adviser to the business.