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Marketing Sports Direct Mike Ashley

Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley: ‘Our push to become a better brand will never stop’

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By Seb Joseph | News editor

September 20, 2016 | 5 min read

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley has said his company’s bid to become a better brand will “never stop” now that he will play an integral role in restoring its battered reputation following damning allegations over the treatment of its staff.

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Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley: ‘push to become a better brand will never stop’.

He made the pledge during an interview with the BBC earlier this morning (20 September), less than an hour after the business announced that a review of its working practices and corporate governance would be carried out by an independent party and not its law firm as it had previously intended. Sports Direct hopes the review will get to the root of the issue amid growing anger at large payouts and high-profile scandals that have tainted the retailer. However, Ashley believes the recent troubles are down to a one or two “rotten apples rather than the “whole barrel”.

He described the business he founded in 1982 as “one Sports Direct family”, a somewhat rosy picture of a retailer MPs accused consigning staff to a “Victorian workhouse” and its own retailers found had “serious shortcomings” in working practices. Reform, steered by Ashley and the board is coming, they have claimed. And more importantly the beleaguered boss will be leading it, with Ashley insistent that he is now working closely with HR, its main warehouse and agencies to fix the issues so that Sports Direct can become the ‘Selfridges of Sport’.

Doubters will likely query the merit of the pledge given the difficult in cementing such cultural changes when the same board that were unable to stop these incidents emerging have been tasked with quashing them outright. But Ashley is adamant that it is right that those responsible for the business try and bring reform. So much so in fact that he has said that if he can’t turn Sports Direct business around then he will step down, though declined to put a timeframe on that window of opportunity.

“A year would be too quick,” he claimed when asked if he would leave if the brand had failed to put its trouble behind it by then. “This job never ends at Sports Direct. You suddenly get to the top of one mountain and there’s another to get to the top. It’s an ongoing process and will never stop.

Continuing with the scale of the challenge, Ashley said its push to eschew the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ image that have defined it for years, would be judged on two criteria – its stores and staff conditions. At the company’s AGM earlier this month, it revealed its ambition to become a more premium retailer, using the luxury department store Selfridges as a proxy.

“There are different types of turning the business around,” he continued. “There’s the storefront; to upgrade the stores and make them bigger, less dense and with nicer displays. Then there’s the personnel side…we need to get better at getting more people from agencies onto Sports Direct’s books. Overall we want a culture at Sports Direct where we are working as one Sports Direct family. That’s what the business was set up as and that’s how we’re going to do it.”

Time will tell whether upcoming changes can convince customers of those values. What’s more Ashley, given he is synonymous with the brand, will need to do more PR like his interview with the BBC in order to repair his own reputation in order to help speed up the repairs to Sports Direct, particularly due to the fact that some observers doubt how little he claims he did know about the alleged working conditions at its warehouse.

"In certain respect, yes, it’s difficult for the boss to know everything that’s going in an organisation, especially one the size of Sports Direct,” said Ben Thompson, a BBC business correspondent on its Breakfast programme.

"But the crucial thing – and this has been raised time and time again – is if he did not know what was going on then he should’ve appointed a team who does and would be able to report to him information that his happening on the ground. Therefore, as the head of that business he can then decide what needs to change and what doesn’t. That’s fallen foul of a lot of the criticism of late.”

Despite the cynicism around Sports Direct’s bid for reform, it has moved quickly to make some changes, having already abolished zero-hour working contracts and introducing worker representation on its board.

But Mr Ashley is insistent that he is now working closely with HR and the agencies the firm uses to fix any issues.

Marketing Sports Direct Mike Ashley

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