JD Sports founder sells 11per cent stake to firm behind Speedo

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The Independent Online

Takeover speculation surrounded JD Sports yesterday after one of the founders of the sports clothing retailer disposed of a large part of his shareholding.

Takeover speculation surrounded JD Sports yesterday after one of the founders of the sports clothing retailer disposed of a large part of his shareholding.

John Wardle reduced his stake in John David Group, the group name for JD Sports, from 26 per cent to 14.6 per cent by selling 5.4 million shares to a company owned by the clothing maker Pentland Group.

The sale, at 185p a share, raised £10m for Mr Wardle, but has fuelled rumours that JD could be taken private. Pentland owns a number of clothing and footwear brands such as Kickers, Speedo, Berghaus and Red or Dead. JD is a very large customer of its goods, and the two are understood to have a very close relationship. Taking an 11 per cent stake could be a precursor to a takeover approach.

A spokesman for the company said buying Mr Wardle's stake represented an "attractive investment opportunity". It is a private company controlled by the Rubin family, which took over in 1932.

JD Sports has been hit by a number of trading difficulties since buying First Sport in May 2002. Integrating its 209 stores has proved disastrous, and pre-tax profits for the year to the end of January fell 80 per cent to £2.1m. This led to a boardroom shake-up, with the executive chairman Roger Best stepping down to be replaced by Peter Cowgill, a former finance director, in March.

But despite renewed rumours of a takeover yesterday, shares in JD Sports fell 3 per cent to 202.5p. Some analysts believe the shareholding by Pentland could just be an attempt to secure distribution of its goods through JD Sports.

Mr Wardle, who founded JD Sports in 1981 with David Makin, said the share sale was to allow him to "diversify his investments" as he gets closer to retirement.

Mr Wardle is also chairman of Manchester City Football Club, but he said yesterday he was still committed to JD Sports and wanted to remain as a non-executive director.

Any bidder would also have to gain support from Mr Makin, who still owns about 21 per cent of the company. He, too, is thought to be interested in selling his stake.

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