Sports Direct has had an annus horribilis, raising questions about Mike Ashley's game plan

Tracey Boles
Sports Direct Founder Faces Commons Select Committee Over Working Conditions
Mike Ashley (Source: Getty)
PORTS Direct has had an annus horribilis, from being slammed by MPs for working conditions in Derbyshire that resemble a Victorian workhouse to a share price plunge of 47 per cent in the year to date.

Corporate governance has been an issue. Mike Ashley, a dominant founder and shareholder, is now CEO. The retailer has been unable to recruit a permanent CFO for more than two years.

There are operational challenges. Sports Direct has one of the least compelling click and collect offers on the high street, charging £4.99 for delivery to store within five to seven working days.

Meanwhile, the outlook for trading conditions in the UK is cloudy; there is little visibility on recovery in Europe.

This Thursday, Sports Direct is expected to report that underlying earnings have fallen 35 per cent to between £140m and £150m in the six months to the end of October. Profit before tax for 2017 is set to be half what it was in 2015.

A hugely disruptive force in the market, Sports Direct should be fixable, but its steps towards recovery are achingly slow at times. Ashley has pledged more transparency and is set to bolster the board with new appointments. But his chairman Keith Hellawell, unpopular with minority investors, is still in place.

The retailer's wounds can seem self-inflicted. It has moved a lack of currency hedging, or protection against swings, to a hedge that cost it £15m.

There are mutterings that Ashley has another agenda, namely returning the company to private hands. With 56 per cent of the shares, he has made a public statement that he has no current intention to take the retailer private. And yet the company has increased its authority to buy back shares from 10 per cent to 14.99 per cent and has bought around 5m shares in the second half of 2016.

Having shareholders means that, to all intents and purposes, Ashley is an employee. That has always appeared hard for him to swallow, least of all on the communications front. If returning Sports Direct to his ownership is his end game, he should just get on with it. Otherwise, restoring shareholder value must be a priority.

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