What on earth is Mike Ashley’s plan? That is the question echoing around the City every time the retail tycoon emerges as an unlikely buyer of another beleaguered high street brand. It is almost a weekly occurrence these days, and one that leaves journalists, shareholders, and even some of Ashley’s own directors scratching their heads in surprise at the latest twist.
Last Friday evening it was scandal-hit Patisserie Valerie that seemed to be in Ashley’s sights, with Sports Direct putting out a statement to the market in which it revealed itself to be a surprise suitor for the cake chain. It was an unorthodox move from Ashley’s firm (which did not even put out a note to the stock exchange after buying Sofa.com at the start of this month). But it was made all-the-more-strange when, two days later, Sports Direct pulled out, with Ashley complaining that he had been excluded from the bidding process.
The previous week, Ashley was also said to be flirting with a move for HMV, but the music chain’s successful buyer Doug Putman has said there was “hype of a buyer but not one truly ready to put the money down and do it.”
Both of these cases fuel greater speculation over Ashley’s somewhat sporadic spending spree on the high street. One retail source describes Ashley as 20 per cent genius, 60 per cent great retailer, and 20 per cent “kind of unstable”, saying that when the last 20 per cent overtakes him “he becomes a bull in the china shop.”
Yet as unpredictable as Ashley’s movements may be, some say that this weekend’s short-lasting interest in Patisserie Valerie also reflects the tycoon’s wider game as an astute businessman reacting to an opportunistic environment. In one way the moves for Patisserie Valerie and HMV make sense. Both could have been bought as brands on the cheap that the tycoon could have amalgamated within his recently-acquired House of Fraser stores.
While both bids fell flat, they are unlikely to spell an end to Ashley’s headline-grabbing retail plans. As we head closer towards 25 March, when retailers have to stump up rents for the quarter ahead, many high street brands already feeling the pinch on their cash positions could fall. It is the next flashpoint for administrations, and could be when Ashley makes his next move.