It has been months since the last scandal to hit sports retailers – perhaps Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley has been on an extended Christmas holiday?
This week, however, the ever-controversial entrepreneur was back in the headlines when Sports Direct announced that it was going to buy its disputed stake in Blacks from the administrators of Icelandic bank Kaupthing in order to block the outdoor retailer’s proposed fundraising – which could scupper Blacks’ turnaround plans.
It is not the first time Ashley has meddled in his competitors’ shareholder meetings. He bought JJB Sports shares and sent a representative to challenge Sir David Jones at JJB’s annual general meeting last year. So concerned were JJB about this, they hired some of the biggest and meanest looking bouncers Wigan had to offer.
Ashley certainly did not make Jones’ turnaround plans easy and he has no intention of making Black’s boss Neil Gillis’ ride a comfortable one either.
Opinion is split over the motivations of Sports Direct – some believe that it may want to make a bid for Blacks to help boost its own Field & Trek business and give its Karrimor brand more exposure.
Others think that could not be further from Ashley’s mind. Why acquire a business with so many stores when he can easily open new shops, probably on more favourable terms?
Some analysts believe it is simply that Sports Direct did not want its stake in Blacks diluted, which would have happened had the vote in favour of the fundraising gone ahead as planned yesterday.
Sports Direct and Blacks are now in talks about how to proceed. It may be that Sports Direct will be happy for the money to be raised in a way which means they will still retain around a 29% stake- and therefore still have some control, which of course Ashley sees as a priority.
Whatever the outcome Ashley does little to dilute his reputation as being a bit of a cowboy. Sports Direct typically refuses to comment on almost any story, making it a hard business to gauge. When, for instance, the BBC broadcast an exposé on the retailer and its supply chain last month, Sports Direct refused to respond in any way.
Sources close to the business said the programme was very one-sided. However with controversial stories breaking again and again, Sports Direct’s refusal to put its side across does little to help the way it is perceived. And little does it seem to care.
Perhaps that is what has made the elusive Ashley so successful – nobody is ever quite sure of his next move or what he is thinking. What is certain is that nothing would surprise the industry any more and that Ashley’s grip over the market, despite his company being part of several serious enquiries, shows very little sign of relaxing.