Keith Hellawell, the former government drugs tsar who resigned over the declassification of cannabis, has been appointed non-executive chairman of Sports Direct, ending the sportswear group's two-and-a-half-year search for a new boss.
Mr Hellawell will take up the post immediately, spearheading the retailer's defence against a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the sportswear industry.
Sports Direct, along with JJB Sports, is under scrutiny for "suspected agreement or concerted practice to dampen competition in the sports retail market" between June 2007 to March 2009. The SFO began its investigation in September after JJB blew the whistle, asking for immunity in return.
Mr Hellawell's appointment comes just over a year after Goldshield, the pharmaceutical group that he also chairs, was acquitted of defrauding the NHS following another SFO investigation. At the time Mr Hellawell was outspoken in his criticism of the SFO, saying that the £40m inquiry was a waste of the watchdog's resources: "This cannot do anything but damage the SFO's reputation," he said. "It would be fine if this was a one-off, but they have had no major recent successes. It must come as a bitter blow."
Sports Direct refused a request for an interview yesterday, but sources close to the group denied that Mr Hellawell's appointment was linked to his experience of dealing with SFO investigations.
Sports Direct also faces a Competition Commission inquiry into its purchase of 31 shops from JJB Sports after failing to find a buyer for five of them. The Office of Fair Trading had called on Sports Direct to sell the shops amid concerns that competition in their localities would be restricted. The OFT said in August that Sports Direct had not managed to find a buyer for the branches and had made no significant progress towards a deal. As such, it referred Sports Direct's purchase of all 31 shops for further investigation by the Competition Commission.
Mr Hellawell will replace Simon Bentley, who has been acting chairman since May 2007. He will also work alongside the group's executive deputy chairman and 71 per cent shareholder Mike Ashley. Mr Ashley is the owner of Newcastle United, which recently renamed its stadium to Sportsdirect.com@stjames'park, angering many of the club's longstanding supporters.
A former miner, Mr Hellawell spent 40 years in the police, serving as chief constable of both the Cleveland and West Yorkshire forces.
In 1998 he was appointed as the UK's drugs co-ordinator, or drugs tsar, by Tony Blair, but resigned in 2002 when the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced that cannabis was to be downgraded to a Class C drug. It has since returned to being classified as a Class B substance.