Mike Ashley: building the Harrods of the high street

Mike Ashley, the billionaire bruiser who founded Sports Direct, is gradually taking his brand upmarket. His track record suggests we shouldn’t dismiss his chances of reviving House of Fraser. Jane Lewis reports.


Mike Ashley: trying to become respectable
(Image credit: © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP)

"My ambition is to transform House of Fraser into the Harrods of the high street," said Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley as he added the stricken department store to his retail empire last week. Tell that to the 169-year-old chain's conservative customers, says Melanie Reid in The Times.

"Given the ghastliness of Mike Ashley", it was a shock to see Jenners the elegant grande dame of Edinburgh "fall into the hands of the Sports Direct philistines". It's rather like seeing "a high-born old lady fall upon penury and face eviction".

Elevating the brand

The rushed rescue of the once prestigious store group certainly feels like "an inadequate way" to resolve its future, says Nils Pratley in The Guardian. "Into administration by breakfast time, into the tender embrace of Ashley by mid-morning." Nonetheless, while heavy job losses still look inevitable, at least prospects for the group seem brighter under the Sports Direct boss than under House of Fraser's former Chinese owner, Nanjing Cenbest.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Ashley, 53, is "obsessed with department stores". He has clung onto his 30% stake in troubled Debenhams and has been gunning to take full control of House of Fraser for years. He may now merge the two. What's more, he is "on a mission to rid himself of a reputation for being a one-trick retailer who can only run cheap n' cheerful shops".

His new "Harrods" line echoes his "Selfridges of sport" ambition for Sports Direct the common theme is "elevation" of the brand. "Mike has secretly been trying to become respectable for years," an acquaintance told The Observer. Although he made his fortune selling discounted tracksuits and trainers from stores rammed with stock, he wants to shed his "Mr Tracksuits" reputation. Recent acquisitions of "more upmarket brands" include the designer fashion chain Flannels and lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.

Renowned for being "secretive and publicity-shy", Ashley has certainly come a long way since his early days as a squash coach, says The Times. Born in Walsall and raised in Buckinghamshire, he left school at 16 and got his first retail experience in the shop of a Maidenhead squash club.

He was still a teenager when, in 1982, he opened his first shop with a £10,000 loan from his parents. Ashley expanded quickly by acquisition, hard work and aggression, says The Daily Telegraph. "He was reputed to block suppliers' cars in the car park until sales were agreed on his terms."

A top British entrepreneur

The acquisition of brands such as Lonsdale and Slazenger helped secure Sports Direct's flotation in 2007, beginning a rocky relationship with the City. Ashley once dubbed his own shareholders "cry babies". And while the collapse of rivals such as JJB, following a sometimes dirty turf war, "further smoothed his path", he has never been far from controversy. The "Victorian" working conditions at Sports Direct's Shirebrook warehouse were the subject of a "scathing parliamentary inquiry".

"Not all Ashley's punts have paid off," says Management Today: his foray into football with Newcastle United has been "a costly distraction", but it would be unwise to write off his chances of success with House of Fraser. "Love him or hate him", Ashley, worth £2.4bn, is one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs for a reason. When it comes to the high street, "he rather knows what he is doing".

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.