A quite spectacular fortnight for Mike Ashley.
As well as his usual grief from both Rangers and Newcastle supporters, the retail billionaire has experienced more stressful pressures from elsewhere.
The recent financial figures released by Sports Direct looked ok in terms of profit, but the fine details instantly showed that sales had hardly moved from a year ago, with almost the entire profit figure a result of selling shares in the currently thriving rival JD Sports – how ironic is that!
The financial figures were preceded by the latest investigation into the dubious way the Sports Direct group operates under Mike Ashley’s leadership, with the Guardian picking up the gauntlet this time.
As for Mike Ashley’s personal finances the last two weeks have been a shocker, as well as for the rest of the Sports Direct shareholders.
On December 1 the Sports Direct share price was 736.5p, 14 days later it has closed at 579.5p.
Mike Ashley owns 55.1% of the SD shares, 330m of them.
That share price fall of over 20% has seen the value of Mike Ashley’s shareholding drop by over half a billion pounds, from £2.42bn to £1.91bn.
Using undercover reporters posing as staff, the Guardian related all kinds of shameful practices…at least by 21st century standards, including lengthy security checks on staff at the end of shifts (in their own time) which effectively means that many workers are effectively receiving less than the minimum wage.
The last general election saw Mike Ashley celebrating after the Conservative win, meaning that Labour’s pledge to end the use of zero hours contracts was blocked for at least the course of the next parliament. With the vast majority of Sports Direct workers employed on these type of contracts, it was a massive boost for Mike Ashley that there would be no crackdown on these type of working relationships that are heavily weighted in favour of unscrupulous employers.
However, on the back of the Guardian investigation, MPs, particularly Labour ones, have kept the pressure up:
Chuka Umunna former shadow business secretary:
“We know enough about the practices at Sports Direct plc, which has a branch in my constituency, to conclude that this company is a bad advert for British business and one with a culture of fear in the workplace which we would not wish to see repeated elsewhere. As the Institute of Directors has said, it is a scar on British business.”
Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who has the Sports Direct Shirebrook warehouse in his constituency:
“That man has not made £6bn because he’s a considerate employer. He’s a monster of a man that doesn’t even reply to MPs’ letters – I’ve sent him many. He’s got £6bn and he’s in the Sunday Times rich list because he’s the type of man that will not take any notice of HMRC unless this really government really means business. This man, Mike Ashley, would fit very nicely on millionaire’s row along with his pals (Conservative front bench et al). So this will be a test of the minister’s mettle – get stuck in.”
MP David Winnick:
“It reminds one, does it not, of the early years of the last century, when workers were treated in such a contemptible way.”
MP John Mann (represents Bassetlaw near Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse)
“Everyone knows in our area you can’t get a job in the warehouse at Sports Direct if you are an English native speaker, despite 3,000 people working there…And might there also be the possibility that there’s tied housing, whereby people are too scared to speak because they are provided with a house to live in and the rent for it and the transport that they have to pay for to get to work. There needs to be a full investigation.”
In response, the Tory Business Minister, Nick Boles, refused to order a specific government investigation into Sports Direct but he said HM Revenue and Customs was free to launch its own inquiry proactively – it did not have to wait for employees to complain.
Share prices do of course fluctuate for many companies but it does feel that this time there is change in the air and that Mike Ashley might not find it so easy to bounce back along with Sports Direct’s share price.
If the share price doesn’t recover, then investors who have seen 20% knocked off the value of their shareholdings, at least in part due to the negative perception of how Mike Ashley runs the business, may be more ready to make things a lot more difficult for the dominant shareholder in the future.
No wonder then that the Newcastle United owner has been increasingly diversifying into other areas, including property development and gyms.
If the Sports Direct brand is becoming ever more toxic due to its association with Mike Ashley, then are we nearing a point where he will be forced to take a less active role and possibly even significantly dilute his shareholding.
If that was the case, then the free worldwide advertising of his Sports Direct empire becomes ever less valuable to the NUFC owner and just maybe, that pledge he made to stay at Newcastle United ‘at least until 2016’ might have some relevance.
Others discount (no pun intended) the idea that the free worldwide advertising is Mike Ashley’s biggest reason for owning Newcastle United, even though his representatives told Sir John Hall this when he bought the club, but if it is then we could be heading for a potential change of ownership that the vast majority of Newcastle fans would welcome with open arms.