How Mr Wigan has put JJB and the City behind him to live the dream

EVAN at 72 Wigan serial entrepreneur Dave Whelan still gives an impression of a man in a hurry. Whelan moves at a sprightly pace between tables in the director&rsquo;s box at Wigan Athletic, the Premier League football club he owns, and his trim figure still hints at a man who played professional football for Blackburn, reaching the FA Cup Final in 1960. But at the moment Whelan is concerned with bedding down the 54 fitness clubs, with superstores attached, he bought from the ailing JJB for &pound;83.4m in March.<br /><br />When Whelan completed the deal he was in the odd position of taking the best parts of the country&rsquo;s former number one sports retailer, he founded in 1971 before leaving in 2007, as well as throwing a life line to the cash-strapped business to help it avoid administration. <br /><br />Throughout the year JJB has reported sales down between eight and 18.5 per cent compared with 2008, due to competition from supermarkets and the current premier sports retailer Sports Direct, run by Mike Ashley, who is also chairman of Newcastle United football club. The only part of JJB&rsquo;s business that was doing well was its fitness clubs, which in January reported sales 8.4 per cent up compared to a year ago.<br /><br />Whelan leans forward in his seat in Wigan&rsquo;s large director&rsquo;s lounge and says: &ldquo;I bought the cream of JJB back.&rdquo;<br /><br />He has plans for the business, renamed DW Sports Fitness, which also became the new stadium sponsor for Wigan taking over from JJB this month. Whelan, who has a personal fortune of &pound;190m, says he will open six shops in the next 12 months and plans to double the size of the business, which employs 1,500, to 100 stores in five years.&nbsp; <br /><br />Whelan says he was sad to see the business he grew from a single Wigan store to 400 outlets &ndash; which at its height in 2002 turned in pre-tax profits of &pound;110m and boasted a market capitalisation of &pound;1bn &ndash; forced to fight off going bust this year. <br /><br />In April JJB posted a 71 per cent fall in pre-tax profits to &pound;10.8m; the firm now has a market value of &pound;66.5m.<br /><br />Whelan left JJB two years ago after selling his remaining 29.9 per cent in the business to Chris Ronnie for &pound;193m who later became its chief executive. Whelan, the largest shareholder, had fallen out with the board over the direction of the business and many of the directors thought he should move on. <br /><br />He says: &ldquo;When I sold out of JJB it was one of the saddest days of my life. I took no part in JJB after I left, that was part of the agreement I signed.&rdquo;<br /><br />Whelan says he was left on the sidelines looking at the firm make a series of mistakes over the next two years, which were compounded by the contraction of the sector due to the downturn.<br /><br />He says the business bought poor rivals such as Qube and The Original Shoe Store, which lost &pound;15m last year. He also criticises the firm&rsquo;s decision to buy stock from Sports Direct.<br /><br />He says: &ldquo;Why by stock from your greatest competitor? Why buy those loss-making companies? I will never understand why Chris Ronnie did those things, or why the board backed him.&rdquo;<br /><br />Things lurched from bad to worse this year when Ronnie was ousted from the firm for losing control of his shares when his backers Icelandic bank Kaupthing Singer &amp; Friedlander went bust. Sales plunged further and executive chairman Sir David Jones, who rescued fashion retailer Next in the 90s, sold more than 70 stores and worked out a complex agreement with JJB&rsquo;s landlords to ease rent payments at its remaining shops.<br /><br />Whelan says: &ldquo;I speak to David sometimes. He was dealt a tough hand. He is determined to get it right, but it will take two years. For instance, the stock systems from the stores I bought will take me six months to get right. But I think JJB will survive.&rdquo;<br /><br />However, a number of analysts say that JJB has lost so much ground on larger rivals such as Sports Direct and JD Sports that by the time Jones stabilises the business a bigger player will buy it.<br /><br />Whelan has been married to his wife Pat for 51 years, but perhaps his second most significant relationship is with multi-millionaire sports retailer Mike Ashley. The UK sports retailing business is often described as an incestuous world with only three of four major players, and Whelan and Ashley have been circling each other for more than a decade.<br /><br />The two first famously clashed in 2000 when Whelan and Ashley met in a Cheshire mansion to discuss the price of replica football shirts in the UK. <br />The details of the meeting is hotly disputed. But Ashley says he was told that shirt prices would not come down as he wanted, and further Whelan is reported to have added that sports retailing was a &ldquo;club&rdquo; that he was not a member of.<br /><br />Ashley told this to the Office of Fair Trading who begin a wide-reaching investigation that in 2003 concluded that JJB, Umbro, the FA, Manchester United and others were guilty to price fixing. JJB was fined &pound;8.3m.<br /><br />Whelan still believes he did nothing wrong. He says: &ldquo;I always believed in British justice, but when you are found guilty for something you have not done it hurts you. I know how people who have suffered great miscarriages of justice feel.&rdquo;<br /><br />His relationship with Ashley is more complicated. He says: &ldquo;I have had some good nights out with him. He is a shrewd and a good business man. But I would not trust him on a deal. In business terms I hold him at arm&rsquo;s length, and I am sure he does the same with me. <br /><br />He adds: &ldquo;But I must say when I first came across him when he had six stores around Maidenhead. I wasn&rsquo;t ruthless enough. I should have undercut his stores and squashed him then.&rdquo;<br /><br />Whelan began his business life in the late 1950s at 23 by opening a small grocer's store while he was still a tough tackling defender nicknamed The Crunch at Blackburn.<br /><br />He naturally took to the cut and thrust of trading. He says: &ldquo;I was streetwise, and I was very good at mental arithmetic. I knew how to calculate prices, and work out very quickly if I could get the margins I needed to run my business.&rdquo;<br /><br />This led to Whelan trading on market stalls before opening eight supermarkets before selling out to supermarket retailer Ken Morrison, owner of Morrisons for &pound;1.5m in the late 1960s. Whelan was 42 at the time and decided to retire. But after five days in a row shopping with his wife he decided to get back to work. <br /><br />He found a local sports shop in Wigan, which he bought for &pound;22,000, and began again. His strategy was mass sales at low prices, and he also opened out the stores putting products on display to encourage customers to try the goods. <br /><br />Even though Whelan floated JJB in 1994, he has no plans to float DW Sports Fitness. He says: &ldquo;I will never become a plc again. It gave JJB the chance to grow quickly. But it places a lot of restrictions on you, in terms of reporting to the markets and disclosure of strategy. Anytime a shareholder wanted a meeting you had to see them, which is right. But it weighs heavy on you. But now I am free and can basically do what I think is right, and that makes it much easier to operate.&rdquo;<br /><br />One of the other projects currently occupying Whelan is the setting up of a Boys and Girls Club with state-of-the-art sports and leisure facilities in the centre of Wigan designed to present teenagers with new opportunities. <br /><br />All the proceeds for his autobiography released this week will be donated to the project, he says. And with that, one of the busiest pensioners in the country is off to another meeting, in something of a hurry.<br /><br />Playing To Win &ndash; The Autobiography by Dave Whelan is published Aurum Press (&pound;18.99) on Thursday 20 August.<br /><br /><strong>CV DAVE WHELAN<br /></strong><br /><strong>Age:</strong> 72<br /><br /><strong>Work:</strong> Professional football player, market stall trader, supermarket owner, roller disco owner, JJB Sports founder, DW Sports Fitness founder, Wigan-based Poole's Pies owner, Wrightington Hotel &amp; Country Club near Wigan owner, chairman Wigan Athletic FC <br /><br /><strong>Education:</strong> Local school in Wigan, left at aged 15<br /><br /><strong>Family:</strong> Married to Pat two children, five grandchildren <br /><br /><strong>Lives:</strong> Parbold and Barbados <br /><br /><strong>Hobbies:</strong> Tennis, skiing, swims everyday, watching Wigan