Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley faces the prospect of an embarrassing shareholder revolt this week with investors set to admonish the firm over corporate governance failures.
Two influential advisory groups have recommended that shareholders in the retailer vote against the billionaire’s re-election as chief executive at the company’s annual general meeting.
Sports Direct’s founder and chief executive stands accused of a string of questionable practices, including handing millions to his daughter’s boyfriend for his role as a property consultant.
Advisory groups ISS and Pensions & Investment Research Consultants (Pirc) have also recommended voting against the re-election of chairman Keith Hellawell because he has lost shareholder confidence, and has failed to appoint any women directors to the board.
Mr Ashley sparked controversy after he paid £5 million to MM Prop Consultancy Limited, a company owned by Michael Murray, boyfriend of Anna Ashley.
Investors have been warned about Mr Ashley’s power over the company because he is the Sports Direct’s majority shareholder, and owns 61% of the group.
As such, he does not face any real prospect of being voted out, but independent investors will have a chance to express their anger over the way the firm is run.
In a note to shareholders, Pirc said: “His position on the board and level of shareholding raises significant concerns about his influence on the board and whether the other directors can objectively challenge and influence the board’s decision-making process.”
ISS said investors should not support the re-election of both Mr Ashley and Mr Hellawell due to the firm’s “apparent unwillingness to fully address the concerns of independent shareholders”.
“These concerns are exacerbated this year by the appointment of Michael Murray – domestic partner of Mike Ashley’s daughter – to a key management role alongside a proposed £5 million payment for his property consultancy work,” ISS said.
Mr Murray has been charged with leading the overhaul of Sports Direct’s property portfolio, part of Mr Ashley’s plan to make the company the “Selfridges of sport”.
In addition, Mr Murray has been made Sports Direct’s “head of elevation”, and has been tasked with building the company’s relationships with high-end brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma.
Sports Direct’s leadership is also still haunted by the findings of a parliamentary investigation into the working practices at its warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, which concluded that the site was run like a “Victorian workhouse”.
The sportswear group now has a member of staff who attends board meetings to represent workers; however, Pirc described Sports Direct’s actions so far as “insufficient”.
“There is still no board-level committee established for employment concerns, and there is no individual responsible on the board for human resources issues,” Pirc said.
The AGM, which will take place on Wednesday, comes shortly after Mr Ashley acquired collapsed department store chain House of Fraser for £90 million.