Mike Ashley - maverick or monster?

Mike Ashley (left) Image copyright PA
Image caption Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley (left) arrives at the High Court to give evidence

"I am not Obi-Wan Kenobi controlling the Deathstar."

That was Mike Ashley's response to the suggestion that he runs the retailer Sports Direct with absolute power.

He may not be a Jedi master - in fact he described himself as "fat as a barrel" - and the retail empire he runs may not be a planet destroying machine but he is no ordinary businessman and Sports Direct is no ordinary company.

Mike Ashley is often mentioned in the same breath as Sir Philip Green. The now defunct BHS was part of Green's family-owned company Arcadia.

But unlike Arcadia, Sports Direct is a public company. That means that you or I could buy shares in it. But it's not one shareholder, one vote. Mike Ashley owns nearly 70% of all the shares which means he ultimately calls the shots.

He often buys them as well. According to the complainant in this unusual case, at a previous meeting he punctuated 12 pints of lager with vodka chasers in a drinking competition that saw his challenger admit defeat before the victor vomited into a fireplace.

The case itself is this. Jeffrey Blue - a former investment banker at Merrill Lynch who in 2007 helped sell a chunk of Sports Direct to outside investors - believes he was promised a payout of £15m if he helped double the share price of the company from £4 to £8.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Finance expert Jeffrey Blue helped to sell a chunk of Sports Direct to outside investors

Mike Ashley says that whatever was said on that boozy night, it was nothing more than bar room banter. He also maintains that the fact Sports Direct shares did double in just over a year was 99% down to the financial performance of the company - not from Jeffrey Blue's efforts to make investors less nervous about investing in a company which had a controversial reputation.

One of Mr Ashley's best lines today was this: "If I had good sales numbers, I could have turned up nude to a party and the shares still would have gone up. If I had bad sales numbers I could have turned up at a monastery and they still would have gone down."

Behind the ribaldry and the nearly suppressed giggles in the courtroom was a serious point about company stewardship and culture. A subject that has become highly politicised in recent months.

'Booze-fuelled nights'

Sports Direct has been heavily criticised for its record on employee working conditions at its HQ in Shirebrook.

Mr Ashley also freely admits that it was common practice to have monthly management meetings at pubs (during which Mr Ashley himself admitted today he would have four to six pints of lager).

He says that he made important decisions about the future of Sports Direct every minute of every day - in the bath, in the car, on the loo. Were some of them in the pub? Probably.

For my money - one of his most interesting comments was this: "Did we have booze-fuelled nights at Merrill Lynch while we were trying to sell shares to the City - oh yes. Splish splash bosh."

He may not get his Star Wars or Jamie Oliver quotes quite right but he raises an interesting point about the potential for double standards in the corridors of financial power. When things are going well and the force is with you it seems you can turn up naked, or drunk.

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