The not-so-wiseguy owner of Sports Direct told MPs little of substance but revealed a great deal about himself.
Sports Direct Executive Deputy Chairman* Mike Ashley finally appeared before the Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to answer questions about his company’s employment practices. After a career spent shunning the spotlight, he’s an enigma no more…
Mike Ashley, it turns out, is exactly as you imagine him to be, only more so. He speaks like Harry Redknapp with ‘roid rage and carries himself like a not-fully reformed convict ever-alert to infiltration by undercover policemen. If you asked someone to watch five minutes of him talking and then asked them his profession, I suspect many would peg him for a loan shark or perhaps the owner of a thriving fly-tipping business somewhere in south London.
Mike Ashley has two modes: suppressed anger and pitiable bafflement.
But if you want to truly understand Mike Ashley, watch the Sopranos. He is Tony Soprano**. He has exactly the same stunted, bullying man-child mentality of New Jersey’s finest extorter. He’s alternately aggressive and self-pitying. He takes everything personally. He’s continually furious at being disrespected, yet assailed by self-doubt; determined to show people he’s the best, yet crippled by embarrassment about his lack of education and his inarticulacy.
In a frequently excruciating few hours before MPs, he was asked to respond to innumerable serious allegations collated by Unite, the union representing his workers. Like Tony assuaging an angry Pauly, he takes everything on his shoulders – he admits everything – but, even as he’s apologising, he’s explaining it couldn’t be helped and wasn’t his fault.
Alternatively, if you’ve ever had trouble with a tradesman, watching Mike Ashley answer questions is like hearing a builder explaining why your extension has fallen down and how there was nothing he could do about it. His words say how very sorry his is, but his face, shoulders and hands dare you to demand he puts it right.
One MP tried and Mike spluttered like he was being told off by Uncle June. “Now you’re not being fair. You’re twisting my words! You’re not being fair!” Later, when the same MP, Paul Blomfield, pushed him again, he began pleading as if the discovery of a suspected informer meant he was going to have to execute one of his own men. “Stop it Paul! Stop it! Paul, let’s keep it positive. Let’s keep moving forward!” he implored.
He has that same wounded Soprano fury. Surrounded by people who don’t understand and appreciate him, he broods silently, struggling against his temper to remain calm, until he can bear it no more and the words pour out in a torrent. He can’t shut up. He talks and talks – like a demented version of Just a Minute where the aim is to keep going forever with endless repetition and no specific subject. Competitors can buzz in if they think he lapses into clarity or makes a single concrete promise.
Here, then, is a classic lonely Big Man, someone who claims to be “ultimately responsible for Sports Direct’s biggest successes and biggest failures,” and yet his inadequacy is apparent to all. He frequently evinces complete bafflement at the sheer size and complexity of his own company. “Sports Direct grows itself. It becomes its own thing,” he explained. He couldn’t understand why, when he ran staff satisfaction surveys, people didn’t want to fill them in. He couldn’t understand why so many ambulances were called to his premises. Maybe his managers are “over quick” to call them, he ventured, suggesting that it would be more sensible to offer a cup of water and a sit down first. You know how they get, he almost said. This from a businessman who’d sat and watched a union official claim that, far from being too quick to summon ambulances, Sports Direct was a place where workers have had strokes, births and miscarriages rather than seek medical help.
For the rest of the session, Ashley alternated between impassioned choruses of Don’t Stop Believin’ and responses that amounted to no more than ‘Forgetaboutit’ or ‘Whatcha gonna do?’. He claimed to be shocked by the litany of employee abuse presented by Unite, but stubbornly insisted Sports Direct was our thing and that he could do a better job for his employees than any union. So much so that, despite being committed to tackling these abuses, and under pressure from MPs, he still refused to meet with Unite other than at his Annual General Meeting.
As his anger ebbed at the effrontery of these people questioning him, he looked, momentarily, exhausted. “Has Sport Direct outgrown your ability to manage it?” asked an MP. “Probably… a long time ago,” he responded. “Some of the things you’ve said to me today would make me think definitely,” he added. This is an amazing admission for someone who’s the major shareholder and de facto CEO of a public company.
But, like the Sopranos, behind the tragicomedy of Mike Ashley’s inferiority complex and his motley band of sports jersey boys, there are real victims. “There is a culture of fear. People are scared,” said Luke Primarolo of Unite, giving evidence before Ashley. “It is a gulag; it is Victorian; a workhouse not a warehouse.”
Sports Direct, despite running its warehouse 52 weeks a year, uses zero hours contracts or 336-hour annual contracts. Why only 336 hours a year of guaranteed work? It’s just over the threshold that means employees are prevented from working for anyone else. Many staff are encouraged to buy additional insurance or get their wages on prepaid cards. Cards for which there is a £10 issue fee, a £10 monthly fee and a 75p charge every time they withdraw money at an ATM.
Watching the evidence from union officials and employment agencies, it seems that workers at Sports Direct haven’t just been bullied, badly paid and worked into the ground, they’ve been basically surcharged for the air they breathe. At every step, the company has had its hand in its workers’ pockets, taking another cut.
When Sports Direct’s boss of bosses tells MPs, “I’m going to put my foot in my mouth and say what’s in my heart,” there’s a temptation to laugh. Indeed, in decades to come, people may wonder how Mike Ashley was allowed to own and run a public company and a football club.
But, for now, he is a billionaire, Newcastle have been relegated again, Rangers can’t escape his tentacles and a worker at Sports Direct gave birth in a toilet because she was too frightened to call an ambulance.
Welcome to modern Britain.
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*Why Deputy Executive Chairman and not CEO? Mostly likely because it allows him to sidestep reporting requirements and dispatch other executives to face public questioning.
** Note to Mike’s ever-busy lawyers: I am not suggesting for a single minute that he is a criminal. (Although he did admit to having broken minimum wage legislation.) I am not even referring to what I regard as his dubious business practices. No, I am simply saying that, psychologically, he is startlingly reminiscent of Tony Soprano.