LONDON — The billionaire founder of Sports Direct has rejected claims that he often conducts business while drinking heavily and accused his former business partner, who made the claim, of trying to “damage” his reputation.
Mike Ashley said in a witness statement presented at court in London on Wednesday that former advisor Jeff Blue “has made certain allegations in his statement which are intended to damage my and/or Sports Direct’s reputation.”
Blue is suing Ashley for alleged non-payment of a bonus. Blue claims Ashley agreed to pay him a £15 million bonus if he could help double Sports Direct’s share price to £8. The deal was allegedly struck during a meet up at the Horse & Groom pub in London in February 2013.
Ashley claims the bonus talk was simply “drink banter.” However, in an attempt to show that Ashley regularly did business in pubs while consuming alcohol, Blue testified that he had attended meetings where Ashley challenged participants to drinking contests and took directors to casinos after drinking large amounts of red wine.
Ashley admits in Wednesday’s statement: “I have conducted and do conduct business discussions in informal environments from time to time.”
But he adds: “I don’t just turn up to to a venue with someone and negotiate a binding agreement in a few hours over drinks.”
Ashley says the anecdotes in Blue’s witness statement have “no relevance to the case” and says: “The fact that I do not address a specific appoint doesn’t mean that I accept what he says.”
Blue also claims in his witness statement that Ashley made undocumented personal payments of up to £1 million to key Sports Direct executives, including former CEO Dave Forsey. Ashley says: “This is not true.”
Ashley claims Blue’s lurid witness statement is simply an attempt to damage his reputation. Sports Directs’ founder says: “It is clear that this is the main purpose of these allegations as he had threatened to in pre-action correspondence that he would attempt to do so.”
Ashley is due to take the stand as a witness on Wednesday afternoon to give evidence. The Newcastle United owner arrived at court on Wednesday morning looking relaxed, wearing a dark blue tie with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder.
Peter Tracey and Simon McEvoy, bankers who also attended the Horse & Groom pub meeting in 2013, gave evidence in the morning session on Wednesday.
McEvoy, who took the stand first, told the court: “For me, it was basically just a laugh in the pub,” and said he “could not actually believe” Blue was trying to pursue the claim.
Tracey described the bonus discussion as “banter” and said: “Why would you be held to a chat in the pub?”
In his witness testimony, Ashley says: “I was asked by Mr Blue to make it a fun night and sell SDI [Sports Direct International] and myself as potential clients to ESIB [Espirito Santo, the investment bank Tracey and McEvoy represented].
“It was drinking down the pub — I was expecting to have a few drinks and a good time with the brokers, nothing more.”
Describing the night at the Horse & Groom, Tracey told the court: “I wish you could have been there… a billionaire, one who owns a football club, standing there talking about life. It was fascinating. It was great.”
The case is set to run until next Wednesday.