millionaire Mike Ashley is one of the most famous men in the British business after building a vast high street empire and owning a Major league football team for over ten years.

However, the Sports Direct founder plans to ditch his Frasers Group car, which is now run by his son-in-law.

Mr Ashley handed over the role of group chief executive to the 32-year-old Michael Murray last year, but stayed on as director.

However, the billionaire retail tycoon said on Tuesday he would step down as a director after the group’s annual shareholder meeting on October 19, although he would remain as a controlling shareholder in the firm.

Here, the Pennsylvania news agency takes a closer look at the edgy man and his colorful history at the forefront of Britain’s changing high street.

– Background

Mike Ashley left school at 16 before entering the fitness industry as a squash coach.

But in 1982 he decided to try his hand at retail, opening his first sports shop, Mike Ashley Sports, in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with the help of a £10,000 family loan.

He steadily developed trade and, supporting new regional openings, expanded into London in the early 1990s after an infusion of private money.

His chain of stores, now renamed Sports Soccer, had about 100 locations by the turn of the new millennium.

The next few years saw a series of rebrandings, during which the chain briefly became Sports World before finding its current name Sports Direct.

In February 2007, Mr Ashley floated the business as a public company on the London Stock Exchange, valuing it at £2.5bn, although the founder retained a controlling stake.

– Recent business history

The group built its retail stock after the IPO, with Mr Ashley becoming a much more recognizable figure after buying a majority stake in Newcastle United later that year.

He has been criticized for owning the club and lacking investment, but last year completed a £340m sale to a consortium led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund after a lengthy process.

Sports Direct’s initial period of strong growth was supported by the acquisition of sportswear brands to sell in its stores, including Dunlop, Slazenger and Karrimor.

Its stock peaked in 2014 after a period of strong growth that slowed but has rebounded in recent years.

Over the past four years, the group has acquired a variety of struggling British retail firms, including Evans Cycles, Jack Wills, Game, Sofa.com and House of Fraser.

In 2020, the group was renamed Frasers after the department store brand as it embarked on an “elevation strategy” designed to give the retail group a more upscale image.

– Leadership style

Mr Ashley has developed a reputation as a strong-willed leader who pulls no punches and has seen him clash with government ministers and start court battles.

Retail analyst Richard Hyman said the tycoon is not afraid to make decisive and bold decisions to give him an edge in the sector.

“History shows that he will be clear and decisive in his actions,” he said.

“Not every move he’s made has been perfect, and he’s fully aware of that, but he’s not averse to putting his neck on the line.”

In recent years, fund managers with investments in the company have described Mr. Ashley as “Elon Musk-esque” and “Donald Trumpian.”

The chief can also legitimately be compared to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the press regulator said after a spat between him and The Times newspaper.

In 2018, the tycoon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organization (Ipso) after a newspaper said he shared many characteristics with North Korea’s supreme leader.

However, Ipso concluded that it was an “apparently polemical comparison” that was “a matter of comment and interpretation” and The Times was able to show that it was made “on an adequate factual basis”.

– Disputes

In 2016, a parliamentary inquiry accused Mr Ashley of running Sports Direct as a Victorian workhouse following reports by The Guardian newspaper of labor abuses.

A report by the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said the company used “appalling working practices” and treated “workers as commodities rather than people”.

The group has also been heavily criticized for using no-hours contracts.

Mr Ashley has largely held office, but a court hearing in 2017 provided a colorful insight into his employment practices.

London’s High Court heard the businessman once hosted a management meeting in a pub where he drank 12 pints and threw up in the fireplace.

During a hearing into a legal action by finance expert Geoffrey Blue, the court heard that Mr Ashley would hold important meetings during “closures” at the Green Dragon pub in Alfreton, near the Sports Direct warehouse.

Sports Direct recently faced intense scrutiny after it deferred its 2019 results amid a £605m dispute with Belgian tax authorities.

The firm also came under fire at the start of the pandemic after it sought to be seen as an essential company so that its employees could continue to work.

Days after facing scorn from unions and ministers, Mr Ashley wrote an open letter to apologize for his “reckless” response to the pandemic.

– Plans for the future

Mr. Ashley’s decision to leave the board appeared surprising on the surface, but others at the firm had previously emphasized a desire for him to be more “hands off” from its operations.

Mr Murray told the Financial Times earlier this year that his father-in-law now spends “three to six months a year” outside the UK and “never wanted to be a chief executive”.

The move to step down from the board, however, will not completely sever Mr. Ashley’s relationship with Fraser.

He will remain the group’s majority shareholder with a nearly 70% stake in the company.

The founder said on Tuesday that he remains “100% committed to supporting Fraser and Michael’s plans and ambitions” and will continue to act as an adviser to the business.


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