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Retail: Sports Direct and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley sells Debenhams stake

PUBLISHED: 11:26 16 January 2014 | UPDATED: 12:39 16 January 2014

Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley is seeking talks with department stores chain Debenhams over possible co-operation.

Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley is seeking talks with department stores chain Debenhams over possible co-operation.

Retail entrepreneur and Newcastle United FC owner Mike Ashley has sold his company’s near-5% stake in Debenhams days after making the share swoop − but is still keen to work with the department store chain.

Sports Direct International has sold its previous stake in Debenhams but has also struck a complex financial arrangement giving it the option to take a 6.6% stake in company amid speculation he is lining up celebrity-sponsored sportswear ranges for the chain.

Sports Direct raised eyebrows on Monday when it emerged the group had bought a 4.6% stake in Debenhams, worth around £46million, in the wake of the department store’s recent profits warning after disappointing Christmas trading.

It said then that the stake would allow the companies to consider ways to work together, and stressed today that it still wants to “explore options” over how the two can work together and is “looking forward to meeting with Debenhams’ senior management team in the near future”.

It added: “Sports Direct reiterates its intention to be a supportive stakeholder and create value in the interests of both Sports Direct’s and Debenhams’ shareholders.”

Mr Ashley, who founded Sports Direct and still owns 62% of the group, wants to introduce ranges endorsed by the likes of Sports Direct brand ambassadors double Olympic gold medal rower James Cracknell and tennis players John McEnroe and Pat Cash, according to the Financial Times. He is also keen to bring his brands such as Dunlop, Slazenger, Everlast and Kangol to Debenhams.

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said the decision to take out a so-called “put option” on Debenhams shares might be seen as a way to boost chances of a deal.

“Presumably he thinks this will give him more leverage in his negotiations with the beleaguered business,” he said.

Debenhams said on Monday it was “open-minded” about working with Sports Direct.

Details and the timescale of the put option have not been revealed, but it effectively allows Sports Direct the right to buy the shares at a future date should the price move in its favour. The group said the maximum cost of such a deal would be around £64m.

Mr Ashley has a history of buying stakes in rival retailers, having snapped up holdings in JD Sports Fashion, now defunct JJB Sports and German sports brand Adidas.

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