In keeping with the controversy that often accompanies him, Mike Ashley, CEO and 61%-owner of Sports Direct [LON:SPD], caused a stir with one of the more inflammatory stock exchange announcements likely to be issued this month. This time, he accused shareholders of backstabbing.
The claims levelled at those less-supportive investors give rise to suggestions that Ashley could buy them out and take his company private.
If Ashley follows through, he’d be by no means alone.
This year, London Stock Exchange [LON:LSE] has lost, or is in the process of losing, 17 companies, worth a combined GPB 8.8bn, to private hands. This already surpasses the 15 such deals worth GBP 7bn that took place throughout the whole of 2017. Sports Direct has a GBP 1.85bn market cap.
Top Public-to-Private Deals in 2018
Bidder Dominant Country
Seller Dominant Country
Deal Value GBP(m)
Silver Lake Partners
Daily Mail and General Trust Plc
Fidessa Group Plc
ION Investment Group Limited
Advent International Corporation
Vedanta Resources Plc (33.48% Stake)
Volcan Investments Ltd
Chaucer Insurance Group Plc
China Reinsurance (Group) Corporation
The Hanover Insurance Group Inc
Elsewhere earlier this month, Institutional Shareholder Services noted “ongoing operational, governance and risk oversight concerns” at the company, criticising its “apparent unwillingness” to address the worries of independent shareholders.
Ashley’s boisterous boardroom behaviour has often spilled into the mainstream press, with one observer likening his latest outburst to that of Tesla’s [NASDAQ:TSLA] Elon Musk, who last month made threats of his own to pull his company from the public markets. Musk fires off one tweet and before you know it, all the kids are doing it.
Anecdotes of Ashley’s colourful behaviour are plentiful, such as describing himself as a “power drinker” during a High Court battle last year. He successfully defended himself against a former banker and colleague, who claimed that Ashley agreed to pay him GBP 15m if Sports Direct shares doubled in value, by stating he was so drunk he does not remember making the deal.
Though some shareholders’ concerns may hold water, there are two sides to every argument. Ashley took the opportunity in his missive to remind shareholders that “despite significant challenges within the retail sector in the UK and beyond, which have resulted in many retailers failing, Sports Direct has continued to perform well and exceed market expectations.”
Since taking the position of CEO in September 2016, Sports Direct shares have risen 13%, from trading around the GBP 2.85 level to GBP 3.43 today, despite dipping on the back of Ashley’s missive.
Yet, shares in Sports Direct have underperformed the FTSE 250 index over one, three and five years. But on a 10-year horizon, it has delivered annualised returns of around 17% versus the FTSE 250’s 12%.
Perhaps Ashley has a point. Sports Direct may be a business with a controversially outspoken, but generally successful leader, better off in private hands than those of the public.
Ashley hints as much: “It is blatantly apparent that true entrepreneurs will never be accepted in the public arena. The media circus surrounding Sports Direct, including but not restricted to matters connected to our [annual shareholder meeting], only proves that whatever progress Sports Direct makes, it will always be subject to disproportionate scrutiny and misrepresentation.”
It beats blaming Ambien.
Target: Sports Direct International Plc
Source: Proprietary Intelligence
Stake Value: more than 30% inclusive
Grade: Strong evidence
Intelligence ID: 2708480
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