The retail industry is enduring its worst year since the financial crash, with around 4,000 store closures triggering nearly 50,000 job losses.
Many once-loved chains that have failed to keep pace have either gone bust or are on their last legs.
But when the going gets tough, Mike Ashley, it seems, gets his wallet out.
Mike Ashley owns and has shares in a cluster of retail firms like Game and French Connection
As the bears seize on retail stocks and drive their value down, the billionaire tycoon has been out shopping for bargains. And as firms fall, Ashley has been ready and willing to catch them.
After all, as they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Well, retail’s ‘White Knight’ has been up to his old tricks again, seizing on cycling specialist Evans Cycles with a pre-pack rescue deal as it hit the buffers.
His FTSE 250-listed Sports Direct paid £8million for the failed chain – £92m less than private equity house ECI paid for it three years ago.
Aside from only keeping half of its 62 shops open, it’s not entirely clear what Sports Direct’s plans are for the 100-year old bike firm just yet.
But, as he bags his latest slice of the down-and-out High Street, what else does Ashley have in his locker?
Ashley’s sports empire
Ashley launched his sports retail empire in 1982, aged just 18.
Starting with just a single shop in Maidenhead, he has grown the business into the 500-store chain we know today as Sports Direct.
Mike Ashley runs Sports Direct and owns a 61.7 per cent stake in the value sports chain
Through some bold deal making, Sports Direct has over the years become parent company to a host of other retail chains as well as a cluster of well-known sports brands, including Slazenger, Firetrap, Kangol, Everlast, Karrimor and Lonsdale.
Sports fashion fascias in the Sports Direct group include USC – a Scotland based fashion chain originally known as ‘United Sports Corporation’ – and Lillywhites in Piccadilly Circus.
While it may not everyone’s favourite retailer, the group has a current market value of £1.76billion.
It hires over 26,500 people across 20 countries and generates annual sales exceeding £3billion.
And of this sports empire, Ashley holds a 61.7 per cent stake.
More recently, Ashley has turned his attention to the troubled world of department stores.
He already owns Flannels – an upmarket department store chain with 34 shops selling luxury brands including Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Vivienne Westwood, as well as small chains Van Mildert and Cruise.
And in August this year, the tycoon hit the headlines for snapping up House of Fraser out of administration in a pre-pack deal worth £90million.
Sports Direct bought House of Fraser out of administration for £90million in August 2018
Free from the debt that sunk it, Ashley brought HoF into the Sports Direct family, with ambitions of transforming it into the ‘Harrods of the High Street’.
He is currently playing hardball with landlords to keep as many of its existing stores open as possible.
Stemming from that deal is rife speculation that Ashley will attempt to broaden his grasp on the department store market further still with a swoop on Debenhams.
Sports Direct has a near-30 per cent stake in Debenhams which, valued at just £105million after a year of haemorrhaging profits and sales, could soon be ripe for the plucking – especially if its Christmas sales fall short of the mark.
Other High Street stakes
Ashley’s grasp on the High Street doesn’t end there.
True to his reputation for buying up stakes in rival retailers, he previously built up a £12.5million stake in JD Sports.
He sold this in 2016, but since then has acquired a near 20 per cent stake in US sports firm Finish Line, which JD Sports happened to acquire earlier this year – a characteristically strategic move for Ashley.
In July 2017, Sports Direct bought a significant 26 per cent stake in struggling retailer Game Digital.
The idea behind the move was to get in on Game’s new pay-to-play gaming arenas.
Ashley is installing the firm’s fledgling bunkers in some of his bigger sports stores and will pocket 50 per cent of the profits the venture generates.
Game Digital is striving to restore its fortunes with gaming bunkers at some of its stores
Sports Direct also owns a chunky 27 per cent stake in French Connection, which has hung the ‘For Sale’ sign amid falling profits and sales.
The fashion chain, once popular for its FCUK slogan T-shirts but now out of favour, said last month that there are four potential suitors circling. Given his existing backing, Ashley could very feasibly be one of them.
And, in a slightly left field move – presumably in line with his high-end department store aspirations – Ashley acquired naughty knicker company Agent Provocateur, and its 11 UK shops, in 2017 for £31million.
Mike Ashley bought Agent Provocateur last year in a controversial pre-pack deal
What’s next on his shopping list?
With Evans Cycles now in the bag, the acquisitive entrepreneur isn’t likely to stop there. Along with speculation that he may launch a takeover bid for Debenhams, Ashley is believed to be in talks to buy struggling chain American Golf, which would give Sports Direct the stronghold on the UK golf-kit market.
Don’t forget football
But Ashley’s colours aren’t pinned solely to retail.
Despite recent attempts to sell, the tycoon still owns Newcastle United after buying up Sir John Hall’s stake in the football club in May 2007.
He previously owned a 8.92 per cent stake in Rangers International Football Club too, but sold this last year.