Sunday 18 March 2018

Ashley's Sports Direct ups stake in UK's Debenhams

'Maverick strategy' aimed at exerting influence rather than prelude to takeover - analyst

Mike Ashley also has large-scale holdings in French Connection and other retailers
Mike Ashley also has large-scale holdings in French Connection and other retailers

Gretchen Friemann

Sports Direct, headed by billionaire Mike Ashley, has boosted its holding in the UK department store chain Debenhams, raising questions about the sportswear group's strategy, with few in the market tipping a full-blown takeover.

Mr Ashley also controls the Heatons departments stores in Ireland and last month it emerged the Newcastle United owner approached Dunnes Stores to buy a number of the supermarket's premises as part of a wider expansion drive in the Republic.

In the wake of this latest share raid, Sports Direct's total voting rights in the UK chain have increased to 21.04 pc from 20.27pc.

Ashley has amassed his stake via a combination of share options and contracts for difference and holds a direct stake of more than 10pc.

However the strategy behind this latest shift up the register remains unclear.

Mark Photiades, director of equity research at Cantor Fitzgerald Europe, argued a takeover was "highly unlikely" and described the fractional ownership as partly a display of commitment to Debenhams.

He pointed out that Mr Ashley, who first snapped up an interest in the chain in 2014, used the greater influence to help negotiate concession space in Debenhams.

According to Mr Photiades the share raids constitute a "slightly maverick strategy" that affords the retail baron a "degree of influence" and pointed to the rash of rivals in which Mr Ashley also holds large-scale holdings, including French Connection. Despite this tendency to amass stakes in struggling peers, Mr Ashley rarely strikes.

The exception was in 2010 when he lobbed in a 62p-a-share offer for stricken outdoor retailer Blacks Leisure.

The billionaire also held a 21pc stake in the company but lost money on the investment after the brand slipped into administration and was scooped up subsequently by high-street rival, JD Sports.

As Mr Photiades pointed out, yesterday's change in the Debenhams stake still leaves Mr Ashley some distance still from the 29.9pc threshold that would trigger a takeover offer.

He also argued the market may view such a move as "unwise" since Sports Direct needs to "get its own house in order".

The brand's posted grim a set of results recently as the currency swings, problems at its international stores and costs related to a wage scandal corroded earnings.

Irish Independent

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