back to top

7 Things We Learned From The Sports Direct Boss's Testimony To MPs

Mike Ashley is not Father Christmas, he informed MPs as he finally appeared before them to be questioned about the company's controversial working practices.

Posted on

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley appeared before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday after months of refusing to turn up.

He faced a long grilling from MPs on the business, innovation, and skills committee about working conditions at the company's warehouse and its use of agency workers and zero-hours contracts.

During the session, which was live-streamed from parliament, Ashley, who rarely talks to the media, gave a performance that saw many viewers drawing comparisons to David Brent from The Office.

Here are some of the things we learned this morning:

Advertisement

1. Ashley didn't build Sports Direct, it built him.

Mike Ashley: "I didn't build #SportsDirect , Sports Direct built me." Lolz.

He made this comment as the committee hearing kicked off. Some tweeted it comparing him to David Brent, others to Brass Eye.

2. Mike Ashley is not Father Christmas.

Mike Ashley impassioned, leaning across the desk, wild gesticulations "I'm not Father Christmas , I'm not saying I'll make world wonderful"

Apparently Mike Ashley is not, after all, Father Christmas.

He made the startling admission twice during a grilling from the business select committee this morning. "I am not Father Christmas!" he said.

That settles those wild rumours then.

3. He is fond of other analogies, too. Sports Direct, he said, is a bit like an oil tanker. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ashley is being the master of the analogy. We've had oil tankers, airports and Father Christmas so far.

That oil tanker, MPs suggested, might be a bit too much for Ashley to handle.

And the 51-year-old, who also owns Newcastle United Football Club, admitted this may be the case. Asked whether Sports Direct, which he founded in the 1980s after leaving school, had outgrown him, he replied: "Probably, a long time ago."

One MP asked: "If you've gone from a dinghy to an oil tanker, shouldn't you get someone who can drive a tanker?" Ashley replied: "Possibly. I can only do my best."

He also later said he didn't have a magic wand to wipe away all of the problems at Sports Direct and that they'd probably never be fixed.

4. Mike Ashley is a man of the people.

Ashley was at pains to insist the true value of Sports Direct was "the people".

His PR man, Keith Bishop, was also keen to highlight that the boss is a man of the people, despite being a billionaire. Bishop jumped in to make that fact very clear: In fact, Ashley eats in the canteen three times a week AND talks to his staff.

Bishop, who is PR director at Keith Bishop Associates (majority-owned by Mike Ashley), also goes by the nickname "The Bishop", according to a biography on his website.

The Bishop also jumped in when MPs asked Ashley if he was "a kind person".

"I can answer that..." he said.

Advertisement

5. Ashley thinks that the working culture at Sports Direct needs to change. But not the "six strikes and you're out" policy.

For the first time, Ashley admitted to MPs that too many shop-floor workers are on zero-hours contracts (BuzzFeed News understands this accounts for 75% of his staff).

He also admitted that docking 15 minutes of staff pay for those who are one minute late for work was "unreasonable".

However, he stuck by the company's controversial use of a "six strikes and you're out" policy – which means workers can receive strikes for long toilet breaks, for excessive chatting, and even for having time off sick.

The disciplinary action was reasonable "if executed correctly", he said.

He also stuck by the use of agency workers. Asked why the company had not employed more staff directly, he said that the online shopping boom meant "We could not have done it, it would have been physically impossible."

They repeated the question again.

"Now you're not fair, you're trying to put words in my mouth and twist what I'm saying. I'm telling you it was physically impossible [to hire staff]... unless we went to external agencies.... It is extremely labour-intensive."

"I'm not playing a word game with you when you twist the reality – this has so far been positive and now you're being negative. Please," he implored.

6. He is not an employment law expert. And he wants MPs to give him a break.

First Ashley understatement of the day: "I'm not an expert in every area of employment".

He made the comment after admitting he had effectively been paying staff below the minimum wage because they were forced to queue for searches as they left work.

He also admitted he was not involved in every single decision the business has made – including establishing the relationship with the agencies. "I can't be responsible for every single thing," he said – before later admitting that he was, in fact, ultimately responsible for everything.

Ashley repeatedly asked MPs to be "fair" and stop being negative. Otherwise, he said, he'd go back to his advisors and "clam up".

7. He really, really wanted to buy BHS.

Just as the session was coming to an end Labour MP Iain Wright asked him one more thing: whether Arcadia boss and former BHS owner Sir Philip Green, who will also be hauled before MPs this month, had done anything wrong.

"We're not here to talk about Philip Green, that's an unfair question," PR director Keith Bishop replied on Ashley's behalf. "I think that's a no comment," he said, twice, possibly while screaming inside.

Wright changed tack and asked if he wanted to buy the business. Again, it's no comment, Bishop said.

But then, unprompted, Ashley offered: "Oh, I can't resist it: 100% I wanted to buy BHS." Cue laughing from the audience and an audible "oh my god" from Bishop, who was visibly squirming.

vine.co

Mike Ashley, explaining to Iain Wright MP why he wanted to buy BHS, as his PR looks on in horror.

"That's why I'm not City trained, why they can't house-train me, because you just ask me and I keep going."

He then revealed he had, in fact, wanted to form a partnership with House of Fraser and Debenhams before eyeing BHS. "You could have made that a successful business, in my opinion.

"But please don't ask me any more or else I'll get shot."

Sara Spary is a consumer business correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Sara Spary at sara.spary@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

Promoted