Sports Direct buys 4.6% Debenhams stake

George MacDonald, Retail Week: "Mike Ashley clearly saw an opportunity"

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Sports Direct, the retailer run by billionaire Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, has bought 4.6% of Debenhams.

Sports Direct said the £46m purchase would allow the companies "to explore options at an operational level".

Debenhams, which issued a profit warning after poor Christmas trading, said it was "open-minded" about the move.

Sports Direct has 409 UK stores, and owns brands including Dunlop, Slazenger, and Karrimor.

Debenhams share price rose more than 5% in early trading after Sports Direct's announcement.

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The department store chain, which has 240 stores in 28 countries, warned on the last day of 2013 that it expects pre-tax profits for the six months to April 2014 to be £85m, down from £115m in the same period the previous year.

Sharp

Michael Sharp, Debenhams' chief executive, said at the time that the retail environment had been "extremely difficult" and "inevitably had an impact on both our sales and profitability".

The chain is struggling to compete in the online sector and days after its profits warning its chief financial officer Simon Herrick said he would be leaving the company.

Rahul Sharma, from the retail consultancy Neev Capital, said that Debenhams had suffered from an identity crisis.

Start Quote

When [Mike Ashley] sees something he wants to do, he goes for it”

End Quote Rhaul Sharma Neev Capital

"Debenhams traditionally thrived on big promotions in the run up to Christmas, but last year everyone on the high street did the same thing. It didn't offer anything different. Its online offering was also weaker than it needed to be."

He added that there had been "problems of communication" between the management and investors.

Sports Direct was taken public by Mr Ashley in February 2007 and saw its share price rise by 86% in 2013, propelling it into the FTSE 100.

Lean

Neev Capital's Mr Sharma said that Sports Direct is "fairly unique" in that it is run differently from most other retailers.

"Mr Ashley runs it like a portfolio. It is very much his company, and that is unusual for a High Street shop chain. When he sees something he wants to do, he goes for it.

"Sports Direct has changed the way that UK consumers shop for sporting goods and the suppliers and brands aren't always happy about it. There are well-documented disagreements with brands such as Adidas and Mr Ashley over the way he wants to sell products."

In 2012 Sports Direct bought 20 stores from the administrators of one-time rival JJB Sports.

There was also speculation in early 2013 that Mr Ashley may be interested in making a bid for House of Fraser or the collapsed retailer Republic.

Mr Ashley is a well-known figure in the business and sporting worlds, and there have been fractious relations between him and some fans of his Newcastle United.

In October 2013, hundreds of Newcastle United fans marched through the city to protest against the way Mr Ashley has been running the club. They were unhappy at the club's lack of signings and its sponsorship deal with pay-day loan company Wonga.

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