Mike Ashley used Sports Direct’s Annual General Meeting to blame the retailer’s recent problems on the trade union Unite.
The meeting began calmly, with board chairman Keith Hellawell telling the audience that the board had “failed our workforce” after a string of recent controversies around low pay and zero-hours contracts.
He said that if he had not gained shareholder confidence by next year’s AGM, he would step down.
The packed meeting changed quickly in tone, however, when billionaire Ashley began fielding questions from the audience.
Trade union Unite’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner challenged Ashley on a new pledge to offer staff 12-hour contracts instead of zero-hour contracts.
He said that most people would probably not take up the offer, because many of them were working for longer than 12 hours per week and didn’t want to see their hours reduced.
Ashley almost immediately took issue with the Unite representative, turning first to address an earlier questioner – who had identified herself as an independent shareholder – and asking her if she was a member of the union.
“Can I just ask the lady who asked the question over there, are you anything to do with Unite?” Ashley said.
She replied that she was an independent shareholder but also a member of Unite.
“So you are something to do with Unite – just so we’re clear,” he said. “I just want to know who’s from Unite.”
He seemed to imply that her initial question had been a plant, and said:
“It’s not actually very open and honest and constructive, is it?”
He then began shouting at Turner:
“What do you think I ought to start with, how many should I do for zero-hours – 12, 20, 40, 80?”
“Why can’t you accept it’s twelve plus?
“This is probably your fault we’re in this mess,” he continued, “because we can’t talk to you.”
“Please don’t do the showboating thing – it will only make me turn away.”
The meeting came after Sports Direct shares crashed in the wake of dire profit warnings and severe public scrutiny.
As it turned out, the meeting was the start of a bizarre day.
Business Insider was afterwards taken on a tour of the factory’s controversial warehouse.
At one point Ashley volunteered to be searched by an employee, to demonstrate that the new procedure was better than the old, much-criticised system. He emptied his pockets at the security station to reveal an enormous wad of £50 notes. Here’s the moment it happened:
“You’ve got a lot of cash there,” a reporter said.
“Yes, I’ve been to the casino,” he replied. “Please don’t print that,” he added.
Later in the afternoon, 52.9% shareholders voted against Hellawell’s re-election, but Ashley’s 55% controlling stake in his company means Hellawell will be able to carry on in the position.
Mike Ashley, who is deputy executive chairman of the board, has also asked for one more year to turn the company around.
The stock ended the day more than 10% down, at £314.44.