Mike Ashley once boasted he had “balls of steel”. Frankly, for anyone else to spend £45 million on shares in Debenhams after its Christmas drubbing, you’d need them.
But, because this is Ashley’s empire doing the deal, it’s a far less risky punt. Sports Direct isn’t just pile-’em-high tennis socks at 90p a pair — it also owns designer boutiques in the North selling “Wags’ favourites” such as Gucci, Lulu Guinness and Victoria Beckham.
Further down are its mid-market fashion chains USC and Republic stocking Diesel, Levi’s, Hilfiger. Designers at Debenhams’ ranges could do well through those stores. Top-five shareholder status would do Ashley no harm when negotiating such a deal. Meanwhile, Ashley’s brands such as Lonsdale, Dunlop, Slazenger and Firetrap could easily find new customers in Debs’ stores.
Ashley was disappointed not to buy House of Fraser in 2012. Now HoF is heading into the arms of Galeries Lafayette, Debenhams, with its shares in the discount basket, looks a far less ballsy bet.