LONDON – Former lieutenants of Mike Ashley, the billionaire founder of Sports Direct, lined up to testify at the High Court on Monday that they had no knowledge of an alleged £15 million deal struck in a pub with ex-advisor Jeff Blue.
Blue is suing Ashley, claiming the retail tycoon reneged on a deal agreed in 2013.
Former Sports Direct finance director Barry Leach and former chairman Keith Hellawell both appeared in the witness box on Monday.
Leach countered claims from Blue that they had discussed the bonus deal in a car, with Leach advising him to get the agreement in writing because he had had problems with Ashley in the past.
Leach said the advice was meant in general and he had no direct knowledge of the deal Blue was referring to.
“My advice to anybody is if you have a deal you’re better off with paper,” said Leach, who left Sports Direct in 2015. “If you’ve got any sort of deal, paper the deal,” he told the court.
Leach, who left Sports Direct in 2014, painted a picture of Ashley as a tough boss who he had a rather fiery working relationship with.
“I worked for Mike for seven years,” Leach said. “Mike’s quite a hard taskmaster and during that period of time, we had disagreements. Part of what I was getting paid for was to disagree so of course I had issues with Mike.”
Leach said that he was not paid the “second half of my second share bonus scheme” because he had left the company.
Blue claims Ashley agreed to pay him £15 million if he could help double the company’s share price from £4 to £8 during a drunken night out in a central London pub, the Horse & Groom, in 2013. Shares hit that level the same year.
Blue said that he only received £1 million as a recognition of the deal the two had struck. Ashley said this was remuneration for different work.
Ashley said in the witness box last week that he was drunk on the night in question in 2013 and doesn’t remember any conversation about a bonus payment.
“I like to get drunk. I’m a power drinker. I’m trying to get drunk. I was trying to get pissed and have a night out,” Ashley said on Thursday.
Blue alleged last week he witnessed Ashley challenge a junior stock analyst to a drinking contest at a management meeting in a pub. Ashley won after 12 pints with vodka chasers, before promptly vomiting into the pub fireplace to cheers from the managers.
Keith Hellawell, the Sports Direct chairman, said on Monday he was aware Ashley had agreed to pay Blue a bonus if the share price increased to £8, but said that the amount was for £1 million and that it had been paid.
Hellawell said he was “shocked” to read in the press that Blue was claiming for £15 million. Jeffrey Chapman QC, cross-examining Hellawell on behalf of Blue, suggested he had confused the £15 million deal with the separate £1 million payment. Hellawell said: “I’m not confused at all.”
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Finally, Peter Wood, a Sports Direct employee for 15 years and the former head of licensing, reporting into former CEO Dave Forsey, countered Blue’s claims that he had heard Ashley talking about the bonus payment in a hotel bar.
Wood said he didn’t recall Ashley saying: “If we can get the share price from here to here, why wouldn’t I pay?” to Blue.
Wood also denied that he told Blue that Ashley had paid Forsey £1 million from his own pocket.
Chapman asked whether there was any idle gossip of Forsey’s pay. Wood said that there was some discussion of how Dave Forsey managed to buy his new house with a salary of just £150,000.
Ashley disputes many of Blue’s claims and says the former Merrill Lynch banker is simply trying to damage his reputation by making outlandish claims in court. Ashley said one allegation – that he personally paid Sports Direct’s former CEO Dave Forsey up to £1 million a year privately – was “utter bulls***.”
The trial is expected to last until Wednesday.