Shares in Sports Direct plunged to a new eight-year low as investors reacted to the farcical scenes on Friday when Mike Ashley’s company delayed its results until nearly an hour after the stock market closed.
In early trading, shares dropped by as much as 19%, before recovering to be down 9%, or 21p off at 208.8p.
Investors appeared particularly concerned with the revelation that Belgian authorities are chasing Sports Direct for a 674 million euro (£605 million) tax bill following a recent audit.
The company said it will challenge the demand, adding it was “less than probable that material VAT and penalties will be due in Belgium as result of the tax audit”.
Jon Kempster, Sports Direct’s chief financial officer, also resigned – just weeks after Karen Byers, head of retail, quit, and company secretary Cameron Olsen also headed for the door.
Problems at House of Fraser are so bad, Sports Direct added it would give no financial guidance for this year and would have thought again at purchasing the department store a year ago.
Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said: “The admission that the self-inflicted problems of House of Fraser are probably ‘terminal’ and that it makes it impossible to provide any earnings growth target this year was unsettling, as was the news that brand relationships with Nike and Adidas have deteriorated again.”
Sports Direct has had mixed relationships with its key suppliers, with some complaining in the past that Mr Ashley’s stores have been too messy and downmarket.
As a result, Mr Ashley embarked on an “elevation” programme to improve the store layout, which had some success.
But Jonathan Pritchard and John Stevenson, retail analysts at Peel Hunt, were unimpressed.
They said: “Friday’s delays and general nonsense weren’t ‘Just Mike’ or maverick or slapstick, they were an exasperating and rude means of avoiding wide analytical questioning on the very disappointing (2019).
“The home truths about the core Sports Direct business were pretty shocking and management seems to be out of ideas.
“The elevation programme isn’t currying favour with brands and the shopper has moved away from the core SD.
“This is far more important than any tabloid headlines the chief executive may garner, and probably more share price relevant than the Belgian tax claim.”
In its results, the company said sales across the business grew 10.2% to £3.7 billion, but excluding acquisitions, this was down 1.9% on a “currency neutral” basis.
Its key retail business, which trades under the Sports Direct brand, saw sales rise by just 0.3% to £2.19 billion, although on a like-for-like basis, which excludes new stores, it fell 1.6%.
Underlying pretax profits – the company’s preferred measure – fell 6% to £287.8 million.
But there was some hope among analysts that Mr Ashley could turn things around, pointing out that the profits from the main Sports Direct retail business is strong in a tough market.
Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at Markets.com – who branded Sports Direct a “shambles” over its handling of Friday’s results – said: “The situation for Sports Direct is not good, but it’s too early to write off Mr Ashley.
“His mercurial style and talents have always raised eyebrows in the City. Whilst there are clearly many doubts about the elevation strategy, among others, we are in no doubt that Mr Ashley is the master of the stack ’em high approach.”
And analysts at Jefferies were even more positive, urging its clients to buy shares and calling the concerns “overdone”.
“The elevation strategy is working, leading to improvement in ranges, Flannels performance is strong, the core business has been robust against a challenging backdrop and the balance sheet remains strong with net debt actually falling 5%.”