Investors have blamed Keith Hellawell for a string of management and governance failures at Sports Direct and accuse him of being unable to control Mike Ashley — the retailer’s billionaire founder, chief executive and 61% shareholder.
Mr Hellawell, a former police chief constable and government drugs czar who has chaired Sports Direct for eight years, received the backing of just over 53.2% of votes cast by the company’s independent investors at its annual general meeting.
The 75-year old only kept his job last September and at another vote in January thanks to Mr Ashley using his majority shareholding to secure his chairman’s re-election.
Mr Ashley was not present at this year’s AGM, held at Sports Direct’s offices in Shirebrook, central England. Just 15 shareholders attended the 35-minute meeting.
The result of the ballot was revealed after the meeting and Mr Hellawell declined to take any questions from media.
Sports Direct was heavily criticised last year by UK lawmakers for its treatment of workers, including paying some less than the minimum wage for shifts at its main warehouse.
During the meeting, Mr Hellawell defended the firm’s record.
He said Sports Direct employed 29,000 people and had paid £300m (€327m) in employee bonuses. It paid staff sick and holiday pay and saw a high rate of job retention and applications.
“If we are so bad one wonders... why people would want to come and join us and stay with us,” he said.
Given its recent history of bad publicity, Sports Direct may have struggled to find a high calibre replacement for Mr Hellawell. It took three years to recruit a permanent finance director. Sports Direct said it remained optimistic on its trading outlook, reiterating guidance for growth in core earnings.