“He’s the next generation,” Mike Ashley claimed, throwing up his left arm and pointing to the young man sitting beside him. 

The person being anointed as the sports tycoon’s heir apparent during a rare Sports Direct press conference back in July 2019 was Michael Murray. 

Ashley’s future son-in-law and head of elevation at the billionaire’s rebranded Frasers Group has, since then, been seen as the natural successor to the throne.

But the City was still shaken by Wednesday’s news – first reported by The Telegraph and confirmed by the retailer on Thursday – that Ashley was preparing to hand the baton to Murray next May and take a back seat.  

It won’t be the first time that Ashley has tried stepping back from leading the business, of course. 

Dave Forsey, who spent more than three decades at Sports Direct, served as chief executive for a number of years after Ashley moved into the role of executive deputy chair.   

But he resumed control in September 2016 after a probe by MPs likened working conditions at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse to those of a Victorian workhouse. Forsey fell on his sword, as Ashley admitted he had taken his “eye off the ball” on the day-to-day running of his empire.

“I’m going to fix it and I will,” Ashley told the BBC at the time. 

Calculated gamble

This time, the succession plan feels different. The relinquishing of power to Murray marks the next logical step for Ashley in fulfilling that bold pledge to “fix” his business.  

Stepping back is not a sign of weakness, nor of admitting defeat, but of good leadership – words not always associated with Ashley during his time at the helm of Sports Direct and Frasers Group.

Ashley is an entrepreneur, a gambler, an astute and ruthless businessman. Over the past 40 years, he has built his business from a single shop in Maidenhead into a sporting powerhouse. For that, whether you like him or loathe him, Ashley deserves great credit.

“Appointing Murray – a 31-year-old who, until now, has only served as a consultant to Frasers rather than a full-time executive – represents another gamble on Ashley’s part, but it is a calculated one”

But what Ashley is not, and never has been, is a natural plc chief executive. He is not a polished performer who can sweet-talk the City and shareholders. He shoots from the hip, acts on gut instinct and takes risks – who else would have forked out £90m to drag House of Fraser out of administration?

Appointing Murray – a 31-year-old who, until now, has only served as a consultant to Frasers rather than a full-time executive – represents another gamble on Ashley’s part, but it is a calculated one. 

It is a clear statement of intent that, to genuinely make Frasers Group fit for the future, young blood, fresh thinking and a new style of leadership are required.

New team

In the wake of the Shirebrook scandal back in 2016, Ashley himself told a parliamentary select committee that he had lost control of his sprawling high street empire. He likened the business he founded to a “dinghy” that had grown into “an oil tanker”.

He was aware even then that help was needed if that oil tanker was to turn a corner and shift from the ‘pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap’ mentality that had served him so well in the past into something that could offer much more than just low prices to consumers. 

As Murray told journalists after leading a tour of Sports Direct’s revamped Oxford Street store in June, Ashley “did not want his handwriting on the future” of the group.

It is Murray who has therefore led the retailer’s elevation strategy, working alongside other young executives including finance boss Chris Wootton, David Epstein, the managing director of its Frasers and House of Fraser department stores, and Liam Rowley, head of strategic investments.

Building support

Ashley analogised during that last formal media appearance in the summer of 2019 that it was this cohort of up-and-comers who were “putting the beautiful, shiny new car on the outside” of the Sports Direct “engine” – not him.  

Those plans, focused on refitting Sports Direct stores in key locations, while also rolling out its upmarket Frasers and Flannels formats, were initially met with scepticism. Major brands, including Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, remained wary of providing Frasers Group with their best products through fear of how they would be merchandised, while analysts pondered how the group could afford to “elevate” all of its shops.  

But the level of buy-in from key stakeholders is building. 

Murray told me in June that Sports Direct worked closely with Nike on the Oxford Street fit-out, for instance, and said major brands “absolutely love the elevation strategy”. He added that new store openings were giving brand partners “confidence in our commitment and our determination … to be the number-one sporting goods retailer across Europe”, and said “product is always improving” as a result. 

“They are emerging from Ashley’s shadow and beginning to prove the sceptics – myself included – wrong”

Investors appear to have been convinced, too. After crashing to 221p in August 2019, and 185p last April after the coronavirus pandemic struck, Frasers Group’s share price has rallied above 600p this summer – heights it hadn’t reached since December 2015.

That is testament to the work Murray, Wootton, Epstein, Rowley and co have done with stores, suppliers and shareholders. They are emerging from Ashley’s shadow and beginning to prove the sceptics – myself included – wrong.

The beginning of “a new era” was how Murray hailed Sports Direct’s £10m Oxford Street revamp. As he prepares to take the helm, that claim has now taken on a whole new meaning – and it is a youthful, exciting new era that Frasers Group’s customers, employees, shareholders and the communities in which it operates should all embrace.

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