Unsporting tactics secure Ashley bonus

Uncertainty about how much SportsDirect founder will actually receive

Thu, Jul 3, 2014, 01:44

At the third time of asking, Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley finally won shareholder approval for a bonus – but the outcome could hardly be deemed a ringing endorsement of the proposal.

Of those allowed to vote at the company – a number that did not include Ashley, who owns 58 per cent of the shares – the proposal to allocate 25 million shares to around 3,000 staff between 2019 and 2021 secured just 60 per cent support.

At the current share price, that is a bonus pool of around £180 million. The problem is that nobody is quite sure how much Mr Ashley is likely to receive – most recently, a bonus proposal last April aimed to deliver him up to £70 million.

It appears the only way that Mr Ashley could secure his much sought bonus was to subsume it into an motion on the broader staff bonus scheme. Had shareholders voted it down, they would have deprived up to 3,000 floor staff and managers of a significant financial boost. To his and the board’s discredit, they eschewed even the transparency of stating how much of the total pool was earmarked for the company vice-chairman.

In the circumstances, getting 40 per cent of eligible shareholders to vote against a widely popular scheme to incentivise ordinary staff is indicative of just how upset investors are with the tactics of Mr Ashley and the board.

Even the normally relatively supine Institute of Directors in Britain took it upon itself to express concern about “weak underlying governance” at the company and said there was “no effective check on Ashley’s power”.

Quite how Ashley and his boardroom lieutenants have found themselves in this position is a bit of a mystery. Everybody admires his endeavour in building the company to become a major player in the highly competitive sports retail market. He continues to work actively in the company but takes no salary or expenses.

However, he is also the dominant shareholder, one who has made millions by selling shares in it – notably on the two previous occasions over the last three years when shareholders had the temerity to resist his request for a bonus.

There is a price for running a public company, and a large part of that comes in accepting a level of oversight, governance and transparency that would not be required as a private enterprise. That is the quid pro quo for tapping investors for funding by way of an IPO and it is not at all unreasonable.

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