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We very much doubt anyone can say Mike Ashley isn’t a succesful Businessman and Entrepreneur. Under his Sports Direct International PLC he also owns The House of Fraser, Flannels and Evans Cycles 100%. Whilst also having large stakes in French Connection and Debenhams. Not to mention his various other connections and ownerships, most famously is that of Newcastle United Football Club.

In the last month he’s been connected to buy outs for Sofa.com, HMV and Valerie Patisserie (albeit he has now withdrawn from V.P and HMV went to a Canadian Consortium). To dismiss this level of control in the industry as something other than clever (and ruthless) business acumen is lazy journalism.

How has Mike Ashley built a Retail Empire as large as he has but been so universally disliked in the media?

Does Mike Ashley care about PR?

A High Court battle between Mike Ashley and an Investment Banker Jeffrey Blue was concluded with the court siding with Mike Ashley. Whilst it was accepted that Mike Ashley had offered £15 million to Jeffrey Blue, the court decided to agree that a meeting in the pub with both people drinking heavily did not constitute a clear verbal contract.

Mike Ashley’s drinking with senior exec’s was plastered all over the media, portraying him as an oafish boss who gets into drinking games with clients and suppliers. However Mike Ashley’s response was interesting as he appears to not care what the perception of him is in the Media.

“It is very boring and lonely in Shirebrook,” Mr Ashley said. “You know what we do after work? We go to the pub after work.”

He actually made sense in front of the MP’s

Back in December 2018, Mike Ashley was asked to appear in front of a select group of MP’s to discuss his buyout of House of Fraser. Now, it wasn’t as bad as the American Politicians interviewing Zuckerberg (which looked like a Monty Python sketch), but it wasn’t far off.

If the government’s plan was to try and humiliate Mike Ashley and force him into a corner. This backfired spectacularly as Mike Ashley was able to use facts and clear common sense to the committee whilst showing his depth of commercial and retail laws and regulations.

His erratic Business dealings might not be so erratic after all

Many media outlets publish Mike Ashley as a “wheeler-dealer” Del Boy character with the Guardian referring to him as a “Flawed Genius“. His attempts to purchase Debenham’s may seem like a grab for the High Street’s flagship brands, however looking at how he managed the House of Fraser restructure shows a more all-round business strategy.

After buying House of Fraser, Ashley stripped out the Head Office staff, moving most functions to the Sports Direct HQ and actually improved the systems at House of Fraser by overhauling their dated technology and software by moving them to inhouse tech at Sports Direct International. After this he went to the Landlords, asking for reductions on rent and shorter 1 year lease terms. Only 3 have so far rejected any reduction and a number of landlords have offered to help improve the look and feel of the buildings to make them more appealing to shoppers.

We can be fairly sure that this will be same strategy he will use should Sports Direct International be successful in its buyout plans for Debenham’s and companies such as Sofa.com etc.

The high street is not as busy as it was, and Mike Ashley is leveraging that to get better rent costs and terms from landlords

Mike Ashley actually pays a lot of Tax

Mike Ashley is one of the UK’s top 50 tax payers with a tax bill of around £30 million pounds in 2018. Whilst it’s not a simple mathematics of saying paying tax = good egg, its clear that people with the resources of Mike Ashley could use much more aggressive tax avoidance schemes to avoid it altogether.

For example Philip Green moved £1.2 billion pounds from BHS in dividends to Monaco to avoid paying any tax on the income. Considering that the company went bust with a £571 million Pension Deficit that he only put £363 million back in, who got more scrutiny in the media before the eventual collapse of BHS?

We’re not the Mike Ashley Fan Club

Let’s be clear, we’re not saying that we should hand over the keys to the Treasury to Mike Ashley or even vindicating some of his business behaviour. The Zero hour contracts were rightly brought up by the Media, as were the bullying claims within his businesses and brought into the light.

However Mike Ashley isn’t the villain of the High Street, but that also doesn’t make him its saviour. He was the Whistleblower in 2000, handing the Office of Fair Trading evidence of business meetings held by sports retailers to fix the price of football shirts. At a meeting with the former Allsports owner, Dave Whelan, the founder of JJB Sports, reportedly told Ashley: “There’s a club in the north, son, and you’re not part of it.”

On one hand you could praise this behaviour as he clearly raised price fixing of Football Shirts to the authorities. However, nothing in his recent past would suggest that Mike Ashley didn’t see the benefits of shopping all this competitors to the Office of Fair Trading.

What can we learn from Mike Ashley, what can we all do better?

Mike Ashley started his business empire at the age of 18, opening a sport and ski shop after borrowing money from his family. In fifteen years he had grown it into 100 stores across the UK.

He disrupted his industry, buying brands such as Dunlop, Slazenger and Lonsdale and decided to fill his stores with the brands he owned. The same disruptive behaviour we see now from companies such as Netflix.

In that growth though, some people got left behind. Workers on zero hour contracts, factory workers in Thailand in appalling conditions (discovered by an investigation by Chris Jackson) alongside the glut of poor reviews on websites such as Glassdoor.com for members of staff.

Is it possible to be successful like Mike Ashley, but without leaving people behind?