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Debenhams shares jump 16 percent as Mike Ashley launches bid to tackle ailing retailer

Key Points
  • Sports Direct calls for general meeting of Debenhams.
  • Meeting to add Mike Ashley to Debenhams board.
  • If appointed, Ashley would step down as Sports Direct CEO.
  • Debenhams "disappointed" with Sports Direct's action.
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Mike Ashley, one of Britain's most famous and unorthodox businessmen, has launched a coup to take charge of ailing department store chain Debenhams, seeking to remove most of the board and install himself in an executive role.

Ashley, the billionaire owner of Newcastle United soccer club, made his fortune from building retailer Sports Direct. More recently he has taken stakes in other struggling retailers and now holds nearly 30 percent of Debenhams.

Late on Thursday, he said he was willing to step down as chief executive of the sports retailer if shareholders at Debenhams backed his push to remove all but one of the existing board members and install himself in an executive position.

Shares in Debenhams jumped 19 percent on Friday.

Ashley's move comes just days after Debenhams, once Britain's biggest department store which dates back to 1778, warned on profit again, saying its restructuring was complicating its efforts to trade.

Debenhams said it was "disappointed" that Sports Direct wanted the board changes, adding that it has been engaging with Sports Direct and other stakeholders.

Ashley in January had joined forces with another retail investor to oust Debenhams' chairman and remove the chief executive from the board.

Sports Direct bought department store chain House of Fraser out of administration last year and analysts have speculated that he might want to put the two department store groups together.

"If Mr Ashley were to be appointed to the board of directors of Debenhams during this business critical period for Debenhams, Mr Ashley would carry out an executive role, and would focus on the Debenhams business," Sports Direct said late on Thursday.

If Sports Direct's plan goes through, Chris Wootton, currently Sports Direct's deputy chief financial officer, would step up to take the role of acting chief executive, it said.

Debenhams has been fighting for survival after failing to keep pace with consumers moving online and to cheaper rivals. Its shares are down 97 percent since a peak in 2015.

Debenhams had previously declined an offer of a 40 million pound ($52.36 million) loan from Sports Direct. The retailer said on Thursday it remained focused on the restructuring of its balance sheet and that discussions were well advanced.

It secured a 40 million pound loan in additional funding from some of its lenders in February.

Retail powerhouse

Ashley founded Sports Direct, a discount sports goods and clothing retailer, in 1982 and has built it into one of Britain's most recognisable retail names.

But Ashley, who owns 61 percent of Sports Direct, was called before a parliamentary committee in 2016 to answer questions over work practices at the group after unions accused the company of creating a "culture of fear" for staff.

Ashley, who initially engaged in a standoff with lawmakers for months by refusing to attend parliament, told the hearing he had been shocked by some of the accusations and would work to fix the business after admitting it may have outgrown his ability to manage it.

During the hearing he said the company may have paid some warehouse staff below the statutory minimum wage by requiring them to queue for security checks on their own time. He also said allegations of employees being dismissed without notice and instances of sexual harassment were unacceptable if true.

Shares in Sports Direct were down 1.1 percent.