Mike Ashley has blamed unions and MPs for Sports Direct’s long list of problems while simultaneously apologising for them.
At yesterday’s annual general meeting (AGM) at the company’s Shirebrook warehouse – which was open to the public – the billionaire said his critics did not understand the scale of the business.
Ashley accused the assistant general secretary of Unite union, Steve Turner, of “showboating” when he asked the Sports Direct boss about plans to reform working practices.
“This is probably your fault we are in this mess because we can’t talk to you,” said Ashley, who founded Sports Direct and has a 55 per stake in it.
“I made a commitment to make a difference, I am trying, don’t pull me down.
“I accept I have made some errors and I accept I can learn something. Please don’t do the whole showboating thing, it will make me turn away and it’s the people who work in Sports Direct who suffer.”
Unite had played a pivotal role in shedding light on allegations that Sports Direct’s warehouse and retail staff were enduring “Victorian” working conditions as well as not being paid the National Minimum Wage.
Ashley also criticised MPs who grilled him during a House of Commons Business Select Committee hearing in June.
“One thing I am not allowed to say, but I am going to, is I disagree a little bit with what the MPs said,” he said.
“In 2008-ish, maybe nine, the web turnover was circa £10 million. In 2016/17 wherever we are now the web turnover is £500 million.
“It is incredibly labour intensive to pick and pack for the web. The facilities built across the road were built for retail.
“If you are an MP in the House of Commons you can’t possibly understand the scale and the size of this operation. Even if we did it all again, we would still make mistakes.”
Despite lashing out, during a tour of the warehouse – in which he infamously brought out wads of £50 notes during a security check – Ashley admitted he “clearly could have done a better job” with his company.
However, he said did not “knowingly” or “deliberately” run the operation badly, highlighting how Sports Direct’s rapid growth made it hard for him to control it properly.
Earlier in the day, Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell was reappointed despite revelations that a majority of shareholders did not want him back.
The chairman had offered to quit his role over the weekend, but the board of directors seemingly voted against his departure. Ashley also confirmed yesterday that he stood by Hellawell.
During the AGM, 53 per cent of independent shareholders opposed Hellawell’s reappointment, but because Ashley has a 55 per cent stake in the company it was his vote alone that kept him in the job.
Meanwhile, Standard Life Investments – Sports Direct’s second largest shareholder – confirmed it voted against the company’s executive pay report and against the reappointment of all non-executive directors.
It also called for a full and independent, external review of corporate governance.