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As famous for beer as shops, billionaire shakes up Debenhams

Jan 14, 2019 3:38 PM

[LONDON' Billionaire Mike Ashley, the UK sports-store owner whose thirst for beer matches his appetite for deals, is throwing his weight around in a bid to seize Britain's retail crown.

The Sports Direct International Plc owner, 54, who infamously vomited into a bar fireplace after challenging a subordinate to a drinking contest, led shareholders in toppling Debenhams Plc's chairman Thursday after the struggling department-store chain turned down a 40 million-pound (S$69 million) loan he had offered.

The ouster of Chairman Ian Cheshire and removal of Chief Executive Officer Sergio Bucher from the board drove Debenhams' stock to the lowest since 2006 and spurred speculation Ashley, who owns about 29 per cent of the company, may look to snap up the chain after he rescued another ailing retailer, House of Fraser, in August.

"The danger now is that Mike is allowed, in all the confusion, to buy the company on the cheap," independent retail analyst Nick Bubb wrote in a note.

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Starting Young

While some analysts doubt the logic of such a step, it wouldn't be the first opportunistic move by Ashley in a career that started at 17, when he opened a sports shop backed by his parents. That was in 1982. By the 1990s, the store had grown to more than 100 outlets, and in 2007 Sports Direct held an initial public offering. It also holds stakes in U.K. retailers Game Digital Plc and French Connection Group Plc, and in 2017 bought Eastern Mountain Sports and Bob's Stores in the US

Not all of his efforts have met with success. In 2016, Ashley tried to buy the now-defunct BHS department-store chain from Philip Green, the original king of the U.K. high street. Green, 66, refused because of a grudge against his younger rival, according to the man who ultimately did purchase the group, Dominic Chappell, though Green denies this. As Topshop owner Green fights-off a scandal related to the #MeToo movement, Ashley appears poised to take his place as the U.K.'s most prominent retail entrepreneur.

"The pursuit of the crown is not the thing driving him, even if it's the direction of travel," said Richard Hyman, an independent retail consultant. "It can be a poisoned chalice. He's more focused on the business."

Ashley and Sports Direct could not be reached for comment.

The upheaval comes at a difficult time for British retailers, as once-cherished brands like Debenhams and John Lewis Partnership Plc fight the growing threat of Amazon.com Inc. and concern over the U.K.'s departure from the European Union. Debenhams said Thursday it's in talks with lenders as it faces at least 300 million pounds of debt coming due next year, while John Lewis warned last week it expects full-year profit to be substantially lower this year.

Ashley, who is also trying to sell his Newcastle United soccer club, is aware of how badly the industry is suffering. His personal holdings were down by about $1 billion in 2018, not helped by a seemingly unscripted confession in December that November sales had been "unbelievably bad," which shaved about 15 per cent off Sports Direct's stock that week.

He will have to be careful about the decisions he makes now if he wants to avoid further fallout to his empire. Neill Keaney, an analyst at research provider CreditSights in London, said Debenhams has the "maneuverability of an ocean liner" due to its leases, which are on average 17 years.

No stranger to scrutiny, Ashley has had to fight to rebuild Sports Direct's reputation after a 2015 newspaper investigation uncovered substandard working conditions in a company warehouse and an accounting probe started into its 2016 results.

In 2017, he successfully fought a very public lawsuit over a former employee's claim that he'd made a legally binding 15 million-pound bonus deal in a London pub. The case gave insight into Ashley's colorful management style, which included heavy drinking sessions with colleagues and under-the-table naps in client meetings.

The industry's woes haven't stifled his hunger for more assets while he promotes radical changes to salvage Britain's shopping districts. He told lawmakers last month that they should introduce a new tax that would favor bricks-and-mortar stores. And, despite the losses, he's still one of Britain's richest men, with a US$2.9 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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