How Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley turned £10,000 loan into £2.5billion empire
Brash billionaire Mike Ashley controls a rapidly growing retail empire and has even claimed he can “save the high street”.
The boss of Sports Direct , 54, snapped up stricken House of Fraser and Evans Cycles late last year, staged a boardroom coup at struggling Debenhams, owns stakes in a host of well-known names and is in the running to buy music chain HMV.
But the tracksuit tycoon’s journey to the business big league began in a small shop opposite a pub more than 30 years ago.
The Mirror tracked down his first store – now a shop selling security equipment – in Maidenhead, Berks, which he opened at the age of 18, with the help of a £10,000 loan from parents Keith and Barbara.
Ross Wilson knew Mr Ashley at the time as they were both talented squash players and recalls how, even at 16, Ashley was driven to succeed.
“Mike was someone who wanted to rule the world,” accountant Mr Wilson, 64, told the Mirror.
“I knew him very well through squash. He was very competitive. He liked winning and he was very clear where he was going in life.
“Even at that age, he wanted to be in business and he wanted to succeed.”
Sources say it was while Mr Ashley was working in a Maidenhead sports club that he hit upon turning a sideline into the start of a business.
One of his early employees says: “He learnt that you could make good money from restringing rackets.”
She describes Mr Ashley, whom she worked for when he later opened a bigger shop just up the same road in Maidenhead, as a “good boss”.
Yet he is now seemingly liked and loathed in equal measure. Many of Newcastle United ‘s Toon Army, which he bought in 2007 and apparently tried to sell on various occasions, can’t wait to see the back of him.
And he has clashed with unions over working conditions for his staff, with an investigation in 2015 claiming locals near Sports Direct’s vast Shirebrook depot, in Derbyshire, knew it as “the gulag”.
It’s a far cry from his beginnings. Michael James Wallace Ashley was born in Walsall, West Midlands, in 1964, where his dad, Keith, was a manager at a food distribution depot.
He has a brother, John, who has been heavily involved in the building of Mike’s empire.
The family moved when the boys were young to Burnham, Bucks, a village on the edge of Slough.
Mr Ashley went to co-educational Burnham Grammar School and old schoolmate Martin Blackmun says of him: “He wasn’t one of the popular kids and never had a girlfriend but he wasn’t a nerd either.”
Swedish glamour arrived at the school in the shape of future weathergirl and TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson and her sister, who moved there.
“Everyone wanted to go out with them – I bet Mike did,” says Mr Blackmun.
He may not have succeeded then but, years later, Mr Ashley met and later married Linda, a Swedish-born economics graduate.
They wed in 1989, were married for 14 years, went through a £50million divorce and have since rekindled their relationship.
The couple have three children – Oliver, 28, Anna, 27, and Matilda, 21.
Mr Ashley gradually opened a large chains of shops and, in 1997, changed the company’s name to Sports Soccer.
One of his knacks was buying big-name moribund sporting brands such as Dunlop, Slazenger, Lonsdale and Karrimor and breathing new life into them.
The company, renamed Sports Direct, floated on the stock market in 2007, netting Mr Ashley £929million.
But his highly unorthodox style has seen him clash with the City.
A High Court case in 2017 heard claims he hosted management meetings in a pub when, on one occasion, he drank 12 pints and vomited into a fireplace.
His wealth is now estimated at £2.8billion and as well as the private helicopter, which he uses to commute to Shirebrook, he and Linda have also owned a string of luxurious homes in this country and around the world.
He is also known to love gambling.
On one trip to the casino he is said to have won £1.3million on a single spin of the roulette wheel. However, there was also the time it was claimed he lost £1million in two hours in a Newcastle casino.
What Mr Ashley plans to do with House of Fraser, plus potentially Debenhams and embattled HMV, is also a bit of a gamble, according to seasoned industry watchers.
One former adviser told the Mirror: “He is an opportunist, a deal-maker but also a first-class retailer. But I can’t second guess him – I have given up trying to do that.”
And he had this assessment of the tycoon: “He is a flawed genius. One of the flaws is that he is not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s also flawed in that he has lots of baggage.”
Last November, Sports Direct issued a statement declaring that “Mike Ashley has vowed to save the high street”. Yet a month later, he said he is “not Father Christmas” and that the high street is “dying”.
Whatever the case, and whatever his plans, Mike Ashley has certainly come a long way from that first small shop in Maidenhead.
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