Sports Direct chief’s stake makes candidates unwilling to commit

Blacks Leisure is understood to be struggling to find an external chief executive because of the influence its largest shareholder, Mike Ashley, has over the company.

Until there is clarity about his intentions towards Blacks, candidates for the role are unwilling to proceed.

Acting chief executive Keith Fleming has been holding the fort at the sports and outdoor specialist since June this year, after former chief executive Russell Hardy left the retailer.

A source close to Blacks Leisure said: “They are looking at various options for the new chief executive, but it has become obvious that it is difficult to attract someone from outside of the company because of Ashley.” Potential new chief executives of Blacks fear their options may be limited by Ashley’s shareholding clout.

“He [Ashley] has a lot on his plate at the moment, having just completed the acquisition of Everlast, but nobody really knows what he will do next and his attention could quickly turn back to Blacks,” the source added.

Fleming remains in the running to take over as chief executive, despite some shareholders’ doubts about his abilities.

A group of shareholders led by Principle Capital Trust are understood to have called on Blacks chairman David Bernstein to pull in an external chief executive and give the business a renewed impetus. The shareholders are understood to have been unhappy with the management’s inability to exploit value from its brand and high street locations.

However, Bernstein has been caught up with Ashley in the wrangle over Blacks’£40 million Freespirit business. Sports Direct had threatened to call an EGM and oust the Blacks Leisure board if the group sought to offload Freespirit. However, it is thought that Ashley has now softened on this issue.

The same source said: “The management have been working hard to improve product and give clear pricing, but it’s a tough market and there is more to do.”

Ashley, founder of Sports Direct, has a 29.4 per cent stake in Blacks. He is also understood to have bought Scottish outdoor retailer Nevisport this week. And Sports Direct acquired US boxing brand Everlast last week.

Blacks Leisure declined to comment.