Schroders prolongs Sports Direct’s injury time, May's a lady of letters and an idea for Andrew Tyrie's next job

Mark Kleinman
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Sports Direct Founder Faces Commons Select Committee Over Working Conditions
Sports Direct is headed by Mike Ashley (Source: Getty)

Debenhams, Findel, French Connection, Game Group, Goals Soccer Centres: it’s Mike Ashley’s version of a FTSE five-a-a-side match.

After building stakes in a handful of rival public companies in his ambition to sit atop “the Selfridges of sports retailing”, it’s hardly surprising that the Sports Direct tycoon faces accusations that he is too distracted to focus on the day job.

Investors who want a radical overhaul of Sports Direct’s boardroom, though, face disappointment; the shares have risen by more than 20 per cent during the last 12 months. That probably explains why Schroders felt brave enough to vote in favour of the chairman, Keith Hellawell, at this week’s annual meeting.

After backing Ashley at Sports Direct’s 2007 IPO, Schroders fund manager Andy Brough had sold out of the stock, before rebuilding a five per cent stake since last year’s fractious AGM.

Brough has invested smartly, but he has raised awkward questions for colleagues such as Peter Harrison, the Schroders boss, who chairs the Investment Association; and Jessica Ground, a fellow fund manager, who sits on the board of the Investor Forum, Sports Direct’s arch-critic. After being defeated in its efforts to force through real change at the company last year, executives at the Forum are probably feeling even more bruised today.

May’s a lady of letters

It’s a joke, right? That was my reaction when I was tipped off on Wednesday that Downing Street officials were casting around for signatories to a letter backing Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. It turns out my sense of humour is misfiring badly, since a number of blue-chip companies really are going to put their names to a political statement praising the government’s commitment to a transition period.

Oh, but wait: we have no idea how long the transition will be, how it will work, or what will come after it.

Next week, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, will meet business leaders at Chevening House – where there’s likely to be a traffic jam of bosses waiting to tell him that the government is heading for a Brexit car crash.

I’m told executives from Barclays, Burberry, EY, Morgan Stanley, RBS, Rolls-Royce Holdings and Whitbread are among those invited. Their message to Davis should be co-ordinated – and stark. His petty public spat with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is proving to be monumentally misguided. The UK government’s agreement early in the process to separate negotiations over the divorce bill and a future trade deal looks equally so.

Without certainty over a transition, the trickle of companies activating Brexit contingency plans will soon become a deluge. Right now, ministers’ tactics look more likely to have bosses signing letters of complaint than support.

Tyrie’s next job?

Wanted: challenging role for respected former parliamentarian with sharp mind and sharper tongue.

If Andrew Tyrie was tweeting a personal recruitment ad, it might look something like that. Since stepping down as a Conservative MP, Tyrie hasn’t been short of ideas for future employment. He has broached the idea of a new body to improve professional culture in the audit sector, and been tipped as a possible successor to John Griffith-Jones, the departing chairman of the FCA.

Here’s another idea: he should be appointed to lead the creation of a new corporate governance code for the largest private companies. Part of the reforms proposed by the government last month, the code will borrow much of its content from the existing code for listed companies. Given its voluntary nature, it will need a heavyweight advocate and fine judgement if it is to avoid deterring the likes of Sir Philip Green from signing up.

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