Sports Direct's open door policy just isn’t open enough. The under-fire British retailer is to let in press and other "observers" (maybe even trade unions) to its annual meeting in two weeks. It's also offering site tours of its much-maligned Shirebrook facility, center of allegations about Victorian working practices.
Yet this hard-won willingness to engage hasn't extended to heeding the concerns of many investors about how the company's managed by majority shareholder Mike Ashley, and what you could loosely term his board.
The Investor Forum, a pressure group for good governance representing 14.5 trillion pounds ($19 trillion) under management, has gone public in calling for an independent review of Sport Direct's entire corporate governance framework, after hitting a brick wall with its board.
Its intervention might seem a little weak on the surface. After all, the Forum's not joining disgruntled minority investors in targeting chairman Keith Hellawell, a one-time police chief and government drugs czar. At least not directly.
But the very fact that it's doing this in public is noteworthy. Its usual modus operandi is to work behind the scenes with companies to get them to buck their ideas up. In Sports Direct's case, it's been helping out fund heavyweights Legal & General, Aviva, Standard Life and Fidelity. So speaking out is a probable sign of exasperation.
There are also implied threats from the Forum that should give the company pause. It says a refusal to carry out the review would raise questions about the non-execs and whether they only really care about Ashley, who holds 55 percent of the shares. That’s a serious matter. The Forum also wants a commitment to implement any recommendations from the review, which could feasibly include a call for a new chairman.
If Ashley's true to form, he may just decide to ignore everybody and plow on regardless. But, if he's sensible, he may just recognize that he'll never get a better chance to clean house. A recent encounter with British lawmakers went better than expected, especially compared with the travails of fellow rag trade baron Philip Green.
Ashley is facing a resolution at the annual meeting calling for another independent review, this time of those employment practices. Meanwhile, shareholder advisory body Pensions & Investment Research Consultants, recommends that investors vote against the re-election of both Ashley, who acts as deputy chairman, and Hellawell.
All the fuss clearly affects trade at Ashley's shops. Sports Direct's share price is hurting and so is his pocket. The value of his stake has fallen from 1.8 billion pounds at the start of this year to little more than 1 billion pounds today.
If Ashley really wants to own a public company, with all of the benefits that brings, Sports Direct should start acting like one. He's said he'll look at the board so he could throw investors a bone by addressing their concerns on the chairman role. If he doesn't like the hassle, as I've argued before, he should take it private.
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