Mike Ashley struggles to recall ‘binge’ drinking in court case

Sports Direct billionaire cannot remember conversation at heart of £14m lawsuit

Newcastle United owner and Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley arrives at the High Court in London. (Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire)

Newcastle United owner and Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley arrives at the High Court in London. (Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire)

 

Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley has told the UK High Court he is a “binge” drinker and cannot remember the details of a January 2013 drinking session at the centre of a £14 million (€15.8 million) lawsuit brought by one of his former bankers.

He is being sued by Jeff Blue, who says Mr Ashley promised to pay him millions of pounds if he managed to double the share price to £8 within three years.

Mr Ashley has extensive business interests in Ireland, including department store retailer Heatons, and a SportsDirect.com megastore that opened recently in the former Boyers building off O’Connell Street.

Jeffrey Chapman QC, representing Mr Blue, spent part of Thursday morning trying to establish how drunk Mr Ashley was during the conversation in question that took place at the Horse and Groom pub in Marylebone in London and which the billionaire says he does not remember in detail.

Mr Ashley, a self-described “power drinker” who “likes to get drunk”, said he did not “keep score” of how many pints of beer he had consumed, and resorted to reconstructing the evening in general terms.

“The first pint is, say, five or 10 minutes,” Mr Ashley said, as Mr Justice Leggatt appeared to suppress a smile.

“The second pint is by definition, what, 10 or 20 minutes . . . Before we’ve finished one pint we’ve got the next one coming.”

Asked what he would have been drinking when, after leaving the Horse and Groom, the party arrived at another bar, he replied: “Very difficult. Did I carry on drinking beer or did I go on to Tom Collins?”

In court on Wednesday, Mr Ashley contrasted the unfavourable commentary surrounding his drinking habits with the alcohol-fuelled corporate hospitality offered by City institutions.

‘Splish, splosh, bosh’

“Was everybody drinking as per normal at Merrill Lynch?” he mused, recalling meetings at the time of Sports Direct’s 2007 flotation. “Oh yes they were. Let’s all celebrate, splish, splosh, bosh.”

Asked to refer to documents that have been put before the court, Mr Ashley often suggested that Mr Chapman summarise them instead, or read aloud from them in an indistinct voice. Sometimes he counted out numbers on his hands.

“No one in my position . . . of my abilities” could remember precisely what was said in conversations that had taken place years earlier, he said.

But he displayed a sharp eye for mathematical detail. Quibbling with Mr Chapman’s valuation of a share award he had once hoped to receive, he said: “When you say I earn £64 million, I’m diluting myself.

“You don’t take the dilution, you don’t take the tax”.

Sometimes he met questions with questions, in an evidence session that covered the Sports Direct hierarchy and Mr Ashley’s personal business interests, as well as his drinking habits.

“You say these big words,” he objected, after being asked whether Mr Blue had been a “trusted and close” adviser at Sports Direct.

Influence

A shop manager, he pointed out, was more likely than Mr Blue to “get his neck on the line” in a confrontation with a shoplifter.

Money “doesn’t tend to influence me much in life”, the billionaire concluded. “Because a shop manager can only earn £50,000 a year, you think that’s how we trust people?”

Mr Blue has alleged that Mr Ashley has made personal side-payments to Sports Direct executives, including to the former chief executive, Dave Forsey.

But Peter Cowgill, executive chairman of JD Sports, testified as a witness yesterday that he knew of no such agreement and said he had never told Mr Blue otherwise, as the former banker claims.

Mr Ashley has denied making such side-payments. “He knows that’s lies. Jeff Blue knows that’s utter b******t,” he said in court on Wednesday.

The case continues.

- (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)