Ashley get his way as Bernstein quits Blacks

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The Independent Online

The chairman of Blacks Leisure quit yesterday just five days after Sports Direct, the retailer controlled by Mike Ashley, called for his head.

David Bernstein has resigned from the retailer's board with immediateeffect to avoid a bruising battle with Sports Direct, following a troubled decade as its chair.

His exit coincides with the arrival of Julia Reynolds, who started as Blacks' chief executive on Monday, and comes at a difficult time for the loss-making business. It was forced in July to extend its banking facility by £2m after its sales tumbled by almost 10 per cent over the preceding four months.

Blacks Leisure said that 78 per cent of shareholders had voted to reappoint Mr Bernstein at its annual meeting last week, though Sports Direct did not.

The company said: "David hasdecided that, while this [vote] would normally be sufficient, the challenges faced by the business in such a difficult trading environment required a unified shareholder base supporting the strategy developed by the board."

It said he had made a "considerable contribution to the business and board".

The exit of Mr Bernstein – who was on a salary of £85,000 and will not get a pay-off – will be seen as a victory for Sports Direct, which owns 21.3 per cent of Blacks and has been a constant thorn in its management's side since 2007. That year Sports Direct called for the board of Blacks to be sacked over its plan to sell its Freespirit boardwear business for £35m.

The sportswear giant has heldpotential takeover talks with Blacks three times in the last year and a half. Mr Ashley's company also tried to block Blacks' £20m fund raising last year.

Shares in Blacks fell 1p, or 7.6 per cent, to 12.25p yesterday, valuing the company at just £11.4m.

Retail historians are unlikely to look back kindly on Mr Bernstein's 10 years as chairman. Nick Bubb, an analyst at Arden Partners, said: "It is a sorry saga. You can blame the weather from month to month but you cannot blame the weather for 10 years."

Blacks Leisure – which operates 300 Blacks and Millets stores – has toiled since its shares hit a peak of 564p on March 2006.

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