LONDON — Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley called claims he made big undocumented payments to executives “utter bulls***” in court on Wednesday and called the man who made the claim a “total liar.”
Ashley appeared in court in London to testify in a case brought against him by Jeff Blue, a former advisor to Ashley’s company Sports Direct. Blue claims Ashley promised him a performance-linked £15 million bonus in a pub in 2013. Ashley says it was simply “drink banter.”
As part of his testimony, Blue alleges that Ashley makes personal and regular payments of up to £1 million to key executives at Sports Direct, including former CEO Dave Forsey.
“Jeff Blue knows that’s utter bulls**t,” a worked up Ashley told Jeffrey Chapman QC under cross-examination. “I’m furious at that allegation”
Ashley called Blue a “total liar,” adding: “That has really pissed me off that has.”
‘I’m not Obi Wan Kenobi in charge of the Death Star’
The testy exchange between Chapman and Ashley was typical of the near three hours the Sports Direct founder spent in the dock. Ashley repeatedly said he didn’t understand Chapman’s questions and muddied the waters by contesting phrases like “important” or “often.”
Ashley was combative from the off, answering “No” when Chapman began his cross-examination by asking if it is fair to describe Sports Direct as his company. That is despite the fact that Ashley founded Sports Direct, is the majority shareholder, and currently CEO of the business.
Ashley tried to downplay his role at Sports Direct, saying at one point: “I’m not Obi Wan Kenobi in charge of the Death Star” — an apparent muddled Star Wars reference.
Later, he said: “Stop trying to paint me as this person who decides everything at Sports Direct: it’s not correct.”
Ashley’s role at the company was at issue because of an apparent refusal by Sports Direct to comply with requests to hand over any hard copy records relevant to the case.
Ashley, who appeared in the witness box in a white shirt and dark blue tie, revealed that he doesn’t write emails, letters, or memos at Sports Direct, preferring to do things over text message or verbally.
He was unable to provide mobile phone records from around the time of the alleged deal with Blue in 2013. Ashley said: “I periodically lose my phone, damage my phone, have my phone stolen… whatever happens to mobile phones, happens to me and mine.”
A box of 50 or so replacement phones in his office at Sports Direct has been run down to around 20, he said. The billionaire currently uses a Nokia C2.
‘Let’s all celebrate, splish, splash, splosh.’
A key part of Blue’s argument is that Ashley regularly did serious business while drinking alcohol, often in locations like pubs or hotel bars.
Ashley admitted that he has done business while drinking but “definitely not as a norm, otherwise, I’d have to live in the pub wouldn’t I, as I’m making business decisions all day — at home, in the bath.”
In his witness statement, Blue says he attended senior management meetings during Sports Direct’s IPO process at a pub called the Green Dragon in Alfreton that were “effectively a “pub lock-in” with alcohol continuing to be served well beyond closing hours and fish & chips or kebabs being provided throughout the evening.”
Ashley said: “It is a twist on words to call them a management meeting, saying it was just a drink after work.”
He added that he was unfamiliar with the Green Dragon and suggested Blue had simply attended a few unusual meetings.
“It’s very boring and lonely in Shirebrook [where Sports Direct is headquartered] — that’s why we go to the pub,” Ashley said.
The Sports Direct founder also shot back that Merrill Lynch, where Blue worked at the time of Sports Direct’s IPO, would also mix alcohol and business.
Recalling a meeting on the eve of the IPO, Ashley said alcohol was put on: “Let’s all celebrate, splish, splash, splosh. That’s how the real world works.”
Meetings were held at London casino and members club Fifty St James because “at that time we didn’t have appropriate central London offices,” Ashley said, and the club offered conference rooms.
Ashley would drink up to six pints in evening meetings with senior management at the Red Lion Hotel but he said these were simply occasions where management would update each other on what was going on in different parts of the business — not make big decisions.
“They’re not important business decisions and he [Blue] knows it,” Ashley said. Later he added: “Serious business decisions are not done on drunken nights out”
‘The city may laugh at me for 15 years but I’d do it again tomorrow’
Chapman also tried to show that Ashley makes spur of the moment business decisions, which would support Blue’s claim that a quick bonus promise in the pub should be trusted.
Ashley said that “in certain circumstances” he makes spur of the moment business decisions, for example when he is presented with the opportunity to buy discount branded stock.
Chapman brought up an incident mentioned in Blue’s testimony where he claims Ashley played a game of chance known as spoof to decide whether to pay Merrill Lynch’s legal bill for Sports Direct’s IPO.
At this, Ashley became animated, insisting that Chapman had the wrong perspective.
“I had the opportunity to save Sports Direct £750,000,” he said, raising his voice. “I either had to pay for it or I could spoof for it. Yes the city may laugh at me for 15 years but I’d do it again tomorrow.”
‘If I’ve got great numbers, it doesn’t matter if I go to a party naked’
Part of Blue’s case hinges on his role in improving Sports Direct’s share price. Blue claims Ashley agreed to pay him £15 million if he could help double the company’s share price from £4 to £8, a level it hit in 2013.
Blue claims that he undertook extensive investor relations work to improve Sports Direct’s reputation in the City, helping shares rally.
But Ashley — and bankers Peter Treacy and Simon McEvoy who testified before him — argued that it was the company’s underlying performance that drove the rally.
“If I’ve got great numbers, it doesn’t matter if I go to a party naked, the share price goes up,” Ashley told the court. “If I’ve got bad numbers, even if I sign into a monastery, the share price goes down… It is 99% about the numbers in my experience.”
The visit to the Horse & Groom pub in 2013 was part of Blue’s efforts to land a new corporate broker for Sports Direct after Merrill Lynch resigned. Sports Direct ended up appointing Espirito Santo, the investment bank whose representatives were present at the Horse & Groom. Ashley played down Blue’s influence in this tie-up.
“The reality of the reason I had to go is Jeff clearly didn’t carry the weight and needed me to go,” he said. “I had to go to a meet and greet soirée.”
Ashley added: “I probably would have rather put needles in my eyes than go to that meeting.” He likened it to the “sort of thing like going to a school do for your kids — absolutely awful.”
Ashley’s testimony was cut short by the end of proceedings on Wednesday. He is due to take the witness stand again on Thursday morning. The case is it expected to run until next Wednesday.