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Editor's Comment: Ashley's sorry – now he must clean up Sports Direct's act

Last Wednesday’s Sports Direct annual general meeting provided a fascinating insight into its founder and deputy executive chairman Mike Ashley – not least that he carries around a thick wad of £50 notes.

Ashley and his board tried repeatedly to convince the gathering of cynical journalists that they are aware of the retailer’s shortcomings and are doing their utmost to rectify them. Chairman Keith Hellawell announced a 360-degree review that will aim to improve working practices and corporate governance.

Ashley, wearing a trademark Newcastle United tie, reiterated numerous times how sorry he is. In a fractious altercation with a representative of the Unite trade union, he erupted: “I made a commitment to make a difference. Don’t pull me down while I’m trying.”

Hellawell later defended his colleague’s loss of temper, stating: “If you’re attributing one outburst to overall negativity then you’re wrong. Mike has been working 12 to 15 hours a day to resolve this issue.”

Ashley erupted: I made a commitment to make a difference. Don’t pull me down while I’m trying

The impression overall was that Ashley’s remorse was genuine, and his willingness to hold up his hands and admit fault is a good PR move – although the £50 notes that he pulled out from his pocket during a staged search stole most of the next day’s headlines. The 360-degree review is a welcome decision and I expect we’ll see a lot of positive progress over the next 12 months.

During the AGM, Ashley admitted that the negative publicity has probably had an impact on store sales. And it has proved fortuitous for JD Sports Fashion, which this week announced another record set of results. JD has no doubt benefited from the bad press surrounding Sports Direct. However, it will not be able to rely on this for long: Sports Direct is tackling its image problem head on, and it also plans to target more premium brands through its investment in Flannels fascia, directly targeting JD’s customers.

Elsewhere, it will have come as no surprise to many in the industry to hear that Laura Wade-Gery is leaving Marks & Spencer. Wade-Gery, who joined M&S from Tesco in February 2011, was appointed by former chief executive Marc Bolland. She went on maternity leave in September 2015 and was due to return to work in January 2016. It was later announced she would take a full year off.

When Bolland announced plans to step down in April 2016, Wade-Gery was given odds of 6/1 to replace him by bookmaker Paddy Power. But Steve Rowe – at odds of 5/1 – got the top job. So the fact she is not returning was anticipated, although we do not know whether she ultimately jumped or was pushed.

Finally, this week we announced the winners of Drapers Independents Awards 2016 at a prestigious event at The Brewery in the City of London. Huge congratulations to all of our winners in this unique and inspiring sector of the industry.


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