Tycoon nets £100m in shares sale

Sports Direct says it is 'certain' to meet its full-year earnings target

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has sold a 4 per cent stake in Sports Direct International

First published in National News © by

Sports retail tycoon and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has raised £100 million after selling a 4% stake in his company.

The share placing caught the market by surprise, leaving FTSE 250 Index-listed Sports Direct International as much as 7% lower and sparking speculation over his plans for the cash haul.

It comes amid mounting rumours over Mr Ashley's drive to expand his retail empire, with the entrepreneur said to be interested in the House of Fraser department store and collapsed fashion chain Republic.

Recently hailed a "high street hero" after the group reported a 21% leap in sales over the Christmas quarter, the disposal of 25 million shares will still leave Mr Ashley with a stake of about 64%, down from around 68%.

But the discounted price of £4 has raised eyebrows, while there are fears Mr Ashley was calling the top of the share price after a recent rally that has seen the stock jump 46% over the past year. Sports Direct's brands also include Firetrap, Dunlop, Slazenger, Everlast, Lonsdale and Karrimor.

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said he believed Mr Ashley's share sale was made in response to requests to free-up stock to investors. He said: "I think he's doing it to improve liquidity in the stock - he doesn't need the money and if he was intending to bid for retail assets, he would do that through Sports Direct."

The move may also fuel hopes among Newcastle United fans that Mr Ashley is planning to bolster the squad with more new players in the summer, having recently secured five new signings.

He caused ill-feeling in the stock market after Sports Direct shares plunged following its flotation in February 2007, which saw him sell a 43% stake for more than £900 million. Having listed at 300p, the shares fell as low as 33p after a string of profit warnings. Mr Ashley has since gained the confidence of the City, with last week's sales update confirming the group's grip on the sports retail market.

The company said it was "certain" to meet its earnings target for the year to April of £270 million, which is the latest benchmark on a staff bonus scheme that recently delivered a £15,000 shares windfall to 1,750 workers.

But Sports Direct's plans to resurrect a bonus scheme for Mr Ashley are causing some contention, given that it could trigger a multi-million pound payout for him. A previous scheme which would have delivered a £26 million windfall was rejected in a shareholder vote last summer. Sports Direct is now reviewing feedback and will suggest another scheme to incentivise Mr Ashley, who has not taken a salary since the 2007 stock market debut.

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