Secretive tycoon breaks cover in quest for global expansion

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The Independent Online

Mike Ashley, the secretive owner of the Sports World chain, yesterday admitted that his quest for global domination had forced him to break cover and seek the limelight he so loathes.

Despite owning a sports retail empire worth up to £2.5bn, Mr Ashley, 42, said he lacked the funds to fulfil his global ambitions. "On a global scale, [that] isn't necessarily enough to get you where you want to go, to be honest... Our mission is to be the most profitable sports retailer in the world. That explains our ambitions and our plans."

Interest in the secretive tycoon has risen after he hired the investment bank Merrill Lynch to advise him on a strategy for his 370-strong empire, which includes the iconic Lillywhites store in Piccadilly Circus.

Speaking to the media for the first time, Mr Ashley said he was a "private man running a private business" who had "no desire for a public profile". But he realised it "was not really feasibly possible" to keep hiding from the outside world if he wanted to expand his group. He also released the first photograph of himself, quipping that "if you see it you'll probably realise why" he has hitherto kept a low profile.

The company sees opportunities to open a Lillywhites chain around the world. "It's a very, very exciting time in our industry, with the globalisation not only of brands but of retailing," Mr Ashley said.

As well as the Sports World chain, which he is slowly rebranding as Sports, he owns brands including Dunlop Slazenger and Kangol.

Answering criticism that he has turned Lillywhites from a serious sports store into a pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap bazaar, he admitted: "We could improve the equipment percentage of our business."

As for current trading, he said: "Christmas is cool. We can already tell you that it will exceed our budget."