Mike Ashley has made long-time Sports Direct staffer Karen Byers global operations boss as he steps into Dave Forsey’s vacated chief executive role.

Mike Ashley has made long-time Sports Direct staffer Karen Byers global operations boss as he steps into Dave Forsey’s chief exective role

Ashley may have lost his “right arm” following Forsey’s resignation, which comes after months of mounting criticism of Sports Direct’s working practices and corporate governance, however, it looks like Byers will provide a much-needed crutch for the entrepreneur.

Like many of Mike Ashley’s close-knit management team, Byers has kept a low profile in the industry.

When prompted for comment one recruiter, well versed with retail’s movers and shakers, shouts across their office to see if anyone has heard of Byers. “No,” is the response. “And we know absolutely everyone in retail operations so that tells you something.”

Byers keeps her head down and isn’t one for networking. Her focus is the job rather than schmoozing with her peers. 

One former Sports Direct colleague sings her praises: “She’s probably one of the most hardworking, ferocious retail operations executives you will ever meet.”

Is she one of those execs that does 50 to 60 hour weeks, I ask. “That’s just the first half of the week,” he responds, seriously. ”KB can easily work 100 hours a week.”

Hidden powers

While Byers’ name doesn’t have recognition in the wider industry, she’s wielded great power at Sports Direct for a while. Ashley himself has revealed how important Byers is to his empire. “Karen Byers runs Sports Direct,” he told The Times earlier this year. “She runs the retail, all the money comes out the retail, [the warehouse workers and store managers] are her army. She is the person who sets the rules. Not me.”

“She runs the retail, all the money comes out the retail … She is the person who sets the rules. Not me.”

Sports Direct chief executive Mike Ashley

A former colleague of Byers echoes this. “She’s one of a few people that Mike Ashley either respects or is afraid of. He would always speak highly of Karen and wouldn’t interfere in what she was doing at store level.”

The colleague describes her as a driven, decisive go-getter and says how she handled Sports Direct’s Republic acquisition in 2013 is a great example of her resolute approach to business. “When they were still negotiating the deal she had her own people inspecting the 120 stores Republic had, and built a portfolio of photos and a comprehensive store database before the deal was completed.” 

Byers, who worked at River Island prior to Sports Direct, joined the sports retailer about 25 years ago as a shop manager after reportedly selling Ashley a pair of jeans in a store he was buying.

Prior to her promotion, she was head of retail, where she managed around 24,000 full and part-time staff.

Team player

Jonathan Pritchard, an analyst at Peel Hunt, has met Byers and describes her as a strong character.

“I’ve met her a couple times; she seems incredibly strong, she’s very on-message. They obviously form a tight-knit team who know what they’re trying to achieve. She doesn’t suffer fools – she expects a high standard. She’s looked after retail operations for around seven years and now I guess she’s the number two in there.”

“[Byers] doesn’t suffer fools – she expects a high standard. She’s looked after retail operations for around seven years.”

Peel Hunt analyst Jonathan Pritchard

Although Pritchard admits he doesn’t know her well, he says her length of time at Sports Direct is clearly testament to both her character and how well respected she is by Ashley. “I would imagine anybody who has survived in that organisation for more than five minutes must be pretty good and focused. She must live Sports Direct. I can’t imagine it being a 35-hour job and then you go home. It’s one of those places that you work so hard that you’re only friends with your colleagues,” he says.

Byers steps up during a difficult time for Sports Direct. The retailer is under the cosh thanks to falling profits and continued criticism over its working conditions. She may have to pull many a 100 hour week to help Sports Direct out of its current mire.