The number of retailers that Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley has acquired or invested in has surged 52.5% since 2015.

The notorious retail founder may have been edged out of running Debenhams by the department store’s lenders and lost out on snapping up chains such as HMV, but these setbacks have not stopped him from amassing a hefty portion of the UK retail sector in recent years.

According to data from the Local Data Company (LDC), shared exclusively with Retail Week, the portfolio of stores that Ashley either owns outright or has invested in has climbed 52.5% in the last four years, from 651 outlets in 2015 to 993 by March 2019 – and was up 77.3% prior to Debenhams falling into administration last month.

The increased number of stores Ashley owns or has invested in has been driven by new stakes, including in Game and French Connection, and acquisitions such as House of Fraser, Evans Cycles, and Agent Provocateur.

LDC head of retail and strategic partnerships Lucy Stainton said: “As mid-market and large-portfolio retailing continues to face challenges, without Ashley’s intervention there would be at least an additional 118 stores at risk of closure from the HoF and Evans Cycles administrations in 2018 alone.”

Increase in number of stores owned/invested in by Mike Ashley, 2015-2019

StoreNumber of stores, 2015Number of stores, March 2019
Agent Provocateur 0 4
Brand Max 0 2
Cavendish House 0 1
Cruise 9 7
Direct Golf 20 8
Evans Cycles 0 58
Everlast Fitness Club 0 4
Field & Trek 11 2
Firetrap 1 0
Flannels 7 26
French Connection 0 40
Game 0 263
Goals 0 13
House of Fraser 0 51
Jenners 0 2
Jolly’s 0 1
Lillywhites 1 1
London Marathon Store 1 1
Rackhams 0 2
Soccer Scene 1 0 0 10
Sports Direct 417 422
Sports Direct Fitness 18 22
Sports World 1 0
Sweatshop 43 11
USC 74 39
Van Mildert 8 2
Yeomans Outdoors 37 1
Total 651 993 (52.5% increase)

Regardless of whether or not Ashley’s seemingly random assortment of acquisitions and stakes is part of an as yet unrevealed master plan, Stainton argues his portfolio inevitably gives him significantly more leverage over retail landlords than he had four years ago.

“By increasing his portfolio and UK coverage, Ashley is increasing the weight he brings to the negotiation table for future discussions with landlords over rents and lease incentives, with Ashley owning multiple units across an increasing number of schemes,” she said.

“An alternative strategy could be to sell some of the larger freehold department stores to residential developers, for example, or convert to office space, with many department stores in central locations that would appeal to developers.”

Ashley’s acquisitive streak has increased his foothold across all UK retail locations.

The total number of stores he owns or has a stake in across UK shopping centres has risen 63.5% from 217 in 2015 to 355 in 2019, while the number of shopping centres with at least one store that he owns or is invested in has increased 47% to 251.

The five retail locations with the highest percentage of units owned or invested in by Ashley are all retail parks.

The Forum Centre in Stevenage leads the way with 30% of the units, followed by the Tower Retail Park in Dartford at 16.7%.

Retail parks with the highest percentage of units owned/invested in by Ashley

LocationNumber of Ashley unitsTotal units% of Ashley units
Forum Centre (Stevenage) 3 10 30.0%
Tower Retail Park (Dartford) 2 12 16.7%
Coliseum Retail Park (Ellesmere Port) 3 24 12.5%
Lombardy Retail Park (Hayes) 2 16 12.5%
Crown Point North Shopping Park (Manchester) 4 35 11.4%

When he was at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to discuss “high streets and town centres in 2030” last December, Ashley warned that “mainstream high streets – not the Oxford Streets and the Westfields – are already dead”.

It therefore tracks that high streets are the locations where Ashley owns or invests in the fewest number of stores.

The high street where Ashley covers the greatest proportion of retailers is in Porthmadog in Wales, where he owns one of the of the 87 shops, comprising 1.1% of the total units there.

Analysis: Is Mike Ashley remodelling the economics of the high street?