Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

Leave aside the discussions in Parliament on Tuesday that Sports Direct staff could get a black mark on their records for taking too long in the toilet or get docked 15 minutes of pay for being one minute late.

Because for investors, Billionaire Mike Ashley's testimony in front of U.K. lawmakers produced two important disclosures on the inner workings of the company he founded.

Firstly, Sports Direct has outgrown him -- by his own account, it went from an inflatable dinghy to an oil tanker overnight. He acknowledged that the company had probably expanded beyond his ability to manage it (he's also the deputy chairman). 

His testimony in parliament was riddled with protestations that he couldn't oversee every little problem at the company, of which there were many, and which needed further investigation. 

Sports Direct Deserves This Discount
Mike Ashley's firm lags key competitor and broader market as profit expectations worsen
Source: Bloomberg

This naturally raises questions about the performance of chief executive Dave Forsey -- Ashley may be the controlling shareholder, but it's Forsey (whose wife is currently appearing in a TV reality show) who runs it day to day. He's been with Ashley for years, after working on the floor of his first store in the 1980s.

Forsey once said his primary role was to protect Ashley. But there didn't seem to be much reciprocity on Tuesday. Ashley never gave him a mention, either to say he'd done well or that he was on the case with the issues about the way the company treats its staff. 

Forsey is giving up a 3.7 million pound ($5.4 million) bonus, the Financial Times reported, but Ashley's performance today raises wider questions about his future.

The way Sports Direct's operations shifted from supplying 36 pairs of socks to one store to providing one pair of socks to one customer, reveals the broader failings of management. Ashley claimed it could only cope by making liberal use of contract workers, who are now substantially connected to the complaints about how the company treats its people.

But Sports Direct was hardly the only retailer to find itself having to deal with the rise of the internet. Why was it so hard for it to do so without relying on temporary staff? Lawmakers asked Ashley this many times, but he never gave them an answer.

A business model that relies on contract workers instead of embracing automation, alongside permanent staff, is going to be less efficient. Ashley said Tuesday that more-efficient operations will be in place in time for the peak Christmas trading period, but it's not clear why it hasn't been done already. 

Secondly, Ashley, defying the advice of his PR to stay quiet, said he "100 percent" had wanted to buy BHS, the U.K. department-store chain that collapsed last week.

The two points are not unrelated.

To continue to grow, Sports Direct must make acquisitions, and it's missed out on a few recent targets, including BHS and House of Fraser. 

Today's testimony shows not just that these missed targets have perhaps made a lucky escape, but also that Sports Direct doesn't have the management bandwith to cope with an acquisition, and that its future depends on bolstering its operational capabilities.

It is still largely run by the close-knit team who built the group alongside Ashley. It only has an acting finance director. As for the board, a chairman with more experience of running a retailer than former U.K. drug Czar Keith Hellawell would be welcome.

But, there is another possibility: as Gadfly has suggested, Ashley should take Sports Direct private. The slump in the share price has made this even more affordable.

A private equity investor might also be interested in backing him. With no other investors to contend with, that would be a counterweight to the might of Ashley, and a fund with a focus on operating the businesses it invests in, rather than just the financials, might help Sports Direct to be managed more effectively too.

Ashley made multiple attempts today to assure lawmakers that his comments were all made in earnest, telling them, "I'm not being funny." He should think about telling shareholders, and himself, the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net