Belfast Telegraph

Sports Direct's Mike Ashley criticises shareholders who refused to back chairman

Mike Ashley has taken a swipe at Sports Direct shareholders who failed to back embattled chairman Keith Hellawell, while heaping praise on hedge fund boss Crispin Odey for his support.

The billionaire chief executive said Mr Odey's decision to back the retailer was "highly significant" when other investors had been "less forthcoming".

The founder of Odey Asset Management shrugged off the fierce shareholder criticism of Sports Direct, telling The Times the retailer was a "natural winner" and he was "very happy" with Mr Ashley despite previously saying the retail tycoon could not be "house trained".

In response, Mr Ashley, chief executive and founder of Sports Direct, said: "I am grateful for Crispin's recent comments about Sports Direct and I'm glad that we will no doubt continue to have an interesting ride together.

"I consider his backing to be highly significant at a time when others have been less forthcoming.

"I'm particularly pleased that we are in agreement over the fact that Keith Hellawell is the right man to help deliver further progress.

"We now intend to concentrate on our medium and long-term goals in order to deliver shareholder value through becoming the 'Selfridges of Sport'."

Independent shareholders vented their anger at Mr Hellawell on Thursday, with 54% voting against his reappointment.

However, the former West Yorkshire Police chief constable and government drugs tsar remains in place after receiving the backing of 80.92% of all shareholders, which includes Mr Ashley, who owns 55% of the company.

Odey Asset Management became the biggest City investor in Sports Direct after buying a tranche of shares last week, bringing its stake beyond 5%.

Mr Odey said previous comments describing Mr Ashley as a recalcitrant puppy were a "little joke" and he was among the "unusual group" of investors who backed Mr Hellawell's reappointment.

Among the shareholders opposing Mr Hellawell and demanding an overhaul of corporate governance at Sports Direct were Legal & General, Standard Life, Aviva Investors, Royal London and Aberdeen Asset Management.

Paul Lee, head of corporate governance at Aberdeen Asset Management, said last week that the result of the vote was ''no surprise'' given the backing Mr Hellawell had from Mr Ashley.

He added: ''The real test will come at the AGM, when Mr Hellawell has said he will step down if he does not receive the support of the majority of independent shareholders."

Last year Mr Ashley was hauled before MPs to be grilled over ''Victorian'' working conditions at the retailer's warehouse, the company hosted a farcical ''open day'' at its headquarters and its chief executive, Dave Forsey, quit - only to be replaced by the billionaire tycoon.

The Newcastle United FC owner also admitted paying some staff below the minimum wage and was taken to task over the firm's controversial use of zero-hours contracts.

Profits at the group also collapsed 57% in the first half of the year, although it did not stop Mr Ashley splashing out on a new corporate jet.