Mike Ashley goes looking for Tesco gold, man

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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SAY what you will about Mike Ashley, but the Sports Direct founder and Newcastle FC owner certainly adds to the ­gaiety of the nation. Or perhaps being a contra-thinker is the lifeblood of ­billionaires.

Or maybe Ashley has decided running a highly successful sports retailer and owning a highly unsuccessful football club is not sufficient to float his boat any more.

Whichever it is, the corporate maverick, not long from a diverting row involving facing down the City about his participation in a munificent Sports Direct bonus scheme only to walk away from it after getting shareholder approval, seems to wrongfoot people for fun.

Latest up: he has made a £43 million bet that in-the-doghouse Tesco’s shares will rebound despite the supermarket giant’s unaccounted £250m lost profit item in the bagging area and mounting corporate governance issues that sent the stock plunging.

The complicated punt is with ­Goldman Sachs, with Ashley effectively betting on a recovery in Tesco’s shares – involving an unspecified date and price – and the US investment banking behemoth taking the ­opposing view.

It involves 23 million shares in Tesco, representing a 0.28 per cent stake in the company.

One might ask what does the august retail supertanker brought low that is Tesco make of being made an offstage bet between a bank and a billionaire?

Then there’s the chutzpah Ashley has shown in taking on Goldman, the famous ­financial “vampire squid”, in a game of second-guessing the stock market’s ongoing attitude to Britain’s biggest supermarket group.

Perhaps the possible boredom factor of a retail magnate wanting to enliven things by backing his judgment poker-style is also at play?

Ashley has previous in this: the process is very similar to a “put option”, or wager, he made on shares in department store group Debenhams last January. Sports Direct has nascent business relationships with both Tesco and Debenhams. Play has been made of that in the background mood music for the stock market wagers.

But it is clear Ashley is interested in short-term financial gambling as well as longer-term strategic tie-ups. Life is never dull with him, as Newcastle FC’s woebegone-looking but multi-millionaire manager Alan Pardew would probably testify.

Hampton is just the tonic for Glaxo job

SIr Philip Hampton is stepping down as chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland next year to take the chair at ­GlaxoSmithKline in September after earlier joining the drug giant’s board in January.

Although majority-taxpayer owned RBS is not out of the woods, its outgoing chairman is to be commended on a decent job in overseeing a political lightning-rod bank’s partial recovery from near-oblivion.

Stephen Hester as chief executive from 2008 until last year obviously did the heavy lifting, shedding £1 trillion of assets from the previous over-expansion of Fred Goodwin’s RBS.

But Hampton has helped by being a low-key, politically adroit and remarkably good-humoured presence throughout his chairmanship since Feburary 2009. They were a good double-act, playing a very difficult hand.

Following Chinese irregularities and fines, Glaxo has a current reputational problem. After RBS, Hampton could be forgiven for thinking, bring it on.