Last week Retail Week revealed that sports retail veteran Simon Bentley is plotting a return to Blacks. Lisa Berwin finds out more about the man.

In the soap opera that is sports retail, Simon Bentley has been a leading man for many years.

Now acting chairman of Sports Direct, the discounter giant founded by controversial retail tycoon Mike Ashley, he originally made his name at Blacks Leisure.

During the 14 years in which Bentley was involved with Blacks, the business grew from 30 retail outlets to 550 and his acquisition of Millets made Blacks the biggest outdoor specialist retailer in the country.

Now, as Blacks battles to secure its future, Bentley is understood to be considering ways in which he could parachute himself back in to oversee a turnaround.

Blacks might represent a challenge, but it would not be the first time the straightforward and well-liked Bentley has faced testing circumstances. In 2000, just a month after buying Millets, he was badly hurt in a skiing accident that left him without a sense of smell and blind in one eye.

But he refused to let the incident slow him down. Since leaving Blacks in 2002 he has been active in a wide range of businesses. At present he is chairman of several companies and organisations including legal firm Mishcon de Reya, hotels business Maypole Group and five-a-side football company Powerleague.

An avid Tottenham fan, Bentley is very active in the Jewish community, in which he is a trustee of several charities, and takes part in triathlons in Israel every year.

But over the past few years Bentley has been best known as Sports Direct’s deputy, and now acting, chairman. Sports Direct has been at the centre of a raft of controversies since its float in 2007, ranging from its early reluctance to disclose key business information to its failure to conform to corporate governance norms.

“It’s a difficult role, different from the usual public company situation, but he handles Ashley pretty well,” says one source close to the company. “He’s strict on certain things, affable on others.”

Bentley struggles to get his head around how Blacks is in such trouble, those close to him say. The retailer has put part of its operations into administration, is shutting stores and was said to be considering a CVA as a banking covenant breach loomed.

But Bentley’s interest in Blacks would likely raise questions about Mike Ashley’s involvement. Ashley’s name was linked to a possible bid for Blacks earlier this year and ownership of a 29% stake in the business, which is in the hands of collapsed Icelandic bank Kaupthing’s administrator, is claimed by Ashley.

Any return by Bentley to the outdoor specialist is unlikely to be straightforward, but he is nothing if not passionate about the business. With the involvement of new backers, he may be able to pull off a deal.

Many of those who know Bentley hold him in high regard. Roger Best, formerly Reebok’s European head, says he always found Bentley good to deal with.

“He always seemed to look for the mutual advantage with suppliers, rather than just trying to push for better terms,” he says. 

Some sources in the industry question in what capacity Bentley could come back to Blacks and maintain that shareholders support the measures being taken by the existing management.

But having come came back to Blacks after a near-fatal accident, his latest comeback plan seems straightforward by comparison.

Family

  • Married, with four children and four grandchildren

Career history

  • 2007 Became acting chairman of Sports Direct
  • 2002 Left Blacks
  • 1987 Joined Blacks Leisure’s board and became chairman and chief executive
  • 1980 trained as a chartered accountant with BDO Stoy Hayward