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COMMENT: Self-made tracksuit tycoon Mike Ashley sums up the changing face of struggling retail sector

By Simon Penfold | Opinions | Published:

Many who have worked or shopped at Wolverhampton's Beatties stores over the years will be horrified at the idea that it is now owned by Mike Ashley, the brash tracksuit tycoon who has built Sports Direct into a £3 billion a year business.

James Beattie and right, Mike Ashley

It would certainly be hard to find a greater contrast to James Beattie – known to his staff as JB – the last member of the founding family to run the Wolverhampton department store chain.

Respected and admired by his staff, James Beattie – grandson of the James Beattie who founded the firm in 1877 – was educated at Repton public school and a hugely active member of the local community. He fostered a family feel at the business and was a firm believer that: "The customer may be technically wrong, but it's important to keep him, or her, happy."

That approach sustained the business for over a century and made it a much-loved part of Wolverhampton life.

He successfully built the business founded by his grandfather, serving as managing director between 1948 and 1979 and continued as chairman until retiring in 1987, the year before he died aged 73. In his will he left a quarter of his £9m estate to long-serving Beatties' staff.

But Mr Ashley is the face of the high street in the 21st century. Tough and aggressive, he has seen off rivals such as JJB and Allsports while building Sports Direct into an international business with sales of more than £3.3 billion a year.

Along the way he has come in for harsh criticism about the way he treats his workforce while his behaviour has raised eyebrows, reportedly vomiting into a fireplace after one alcohol-fuelled senior management meeting.

And he has had a notoriously difficult relationship with fans of Newcastle United, the football club he bought in 2007.

But he has tapped into a hugely lucrative vein on the high street, selling leisure sportswear at the chain he started with a single shop at the age of 18 back in 1982.

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In a retail world that has seen a string of chains struggling this year, with hundreds of shops closing and thousands of people losing their jobs, Sports Direct has largely maintained sales.

But its most recent profits took a big dip, falling by nearly three-quarters after the retailer took an £85m hit on its investment in the Debenhams department store chain.

Mr Ashley owns nearly 30 per cent of Debenhams and had an 11 per cent stake in House of Fraser before buying it all yesterday.

Those stakes were seen as part of Mr Ashley’s drive to move Sports Direct upmarket and become known as “the Selfridges of Sport”.

Quite what Mr Beattie would make of it all is anyone's guess.

Simon Penfold

By Simon Penfold
Business Editor - @SPenfold_star

Business Editor based at the Express & Star's head office in Wolverhampton, looking for stories big & small.

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