Mike Ashley’s appearance today before the Business, Innovation & Skills Parliamentary Select Committee today has all the makings of a classic. The self-confessed loudmouth who had called MPs a “joke” was done up like a kipper, particularly by Labour MP, Paul Blomfield (a star in the making?).
Electric Airwaves published our latest short animated video last week which you can watch here. It addressed why Ashley (and Sir Philip Green who has been called before another Parliamentary Committee this week to talk about the collapse of BHS) was going to get a hard time at the hearing because he doesn’t understand what makes for a good reputation and why he doesn’t have one.
Ashley kept repeating that as Chairman of a large company he couldn’t be expected to know all the detail and control everything. Quite possibly. But the point about having an engaging and compelling story about ‘who you are’ not just ‘what you do’ is that it frames and contextualises what people hear about you. And in a negative situation it can take some of the emotional heat out of it and give you space to put your side of the argument.
Ashley doesn’t have such a story. If he did he would not have been felled by the softly-spoken but brutal question from Labour MP, Paul Blomfield: “Would you call yourself a kind person?”. Ashley’s answer didn’t help (“I’m kind to the right people”) but Blomfield continued that by implication Ashley was before MPs because “ your [not kind] personality is stamped throughout the company”. He went on that it had “created a culture that is ripe for exploitation”. Ashley’s admission said it all: “We shouldn’t have it. I agree with you.”
For many outside of the Committee room, Ashley’s reputation was defined when in committing to end sexual harassment at Sports Direct he finished with: “Simple as that, fellas.” Before glancing at the female MPs present and saying “Not just fellas, girls. Sorry.”
Before even the first question had been asked, Twitter users were commenting on his negative body language and how surly and bolshie he was looking. When asked to introduce himself he did so monosyllabically. He had a moment right there to set the tone of his response but chose to come across as surly and bitter at having to be there.
The language and tone continued. When asked by committee chairman, Iain Wright MP, what the status is for the review that he initiated into working practices at Shirebrook depot six months ago. He responded bluntly “Ongoing”. “When will it be completed?” asked Wright. “Never,” retorted Ashley. Ashley meant it will be a process of constant review but his language and tone allowed the audience to see his comment in a very negative light.
When asked whether he will engage with the trade union, Unite, he responded: “Sports Direct can do a better job for employees than Unite.” The audience – MPs and the public – wanted to hear that he will at the very least listen to them. Hold a private meeting. He seemed not to realise that he was only sat there because of the investigation undertaken by Unite and the Guardian newspaper.
The admission of things that until now he believe were nonsense came thick and fast:
- He believed it was important for him to step in and take control of the review but wasn’t sure that he was the best person for the job. This could have been a moment demonstrating humility if his personal story would have allowed fort it but it doesn’t so nobody would have believed himHis ignorance about what was happening in a depot he regularly toured came across as incredible. “Some things have come as a bit of an unpleasant surprise.
- He carried out a review because of the media attention the company was receiving not because he was shocked at what he was reading about.
- He admitted that too many Sports Direct staff were on zero hours contracts and that some staff should be transferred to full-time status. “When you have 20% full time and 80%part time, you’ve got to look at that and say that balance is wrong”.
- That Sports Direct’s policy of fining warehouse staff for being just one minute late was “unacceptable” but blamed the agencies who the company used rather than take responsibility for how they operated in his depot
- He also admitted that workers had been paid below the minimum wage, and discovered “issues” with some working practices, but said he had “hopefully addressed” some of these. He confirmed HMRC were investigating the firm over the issue
- He was cornered into an admission that perhaps the company had become too big for him to manage “probably, a long time ago”.
- He said “I can accept the criticism of some of the things that you’ve said to me today would actually lead me to believe that it’s definitely outgrown me… that’s shocked me what you’ve said to me today.”
- He pledged to implement a number of changes to working practices within 90 days, promising to write to MPs if the time frame needed to be extended
- He was forced to agree that that MPs could launch an unannounced inspection of his premises at any time in the future “24/7”
- When asked by Ian Wright MP if he had wanted to buy BHS, Ashley – despite being told not to comment by his PR adviser – said he did want to buy it and then explained why
- He said that a reasonable score he would expect MPs to give him in a year’s time would be 5-6 out of 10 because he cannot guarantee he will have fixed all their concerns by then. Hardly inspiring.
An hour and twenty minutes in and Ashley was feeling the pressure. In response to Paul Blomfield MP’s probing that “Lots of companies have grown and give employees permanent contracts. Why couldn’t you?” Ashley started shouting: “You are twisting my words and that is why I was afraid to come here. I’m not playing a word game with you when you twist my words.”
He went on: “I have offered you guys to come any time you want. I’ve offered to come back in a year. It’s impossible I can get everything right. So, stop it please. Let’s keep this positive.” He then threatened to clam up and stick to the suggestions of his advisers that he give one word answers and committed to nothing.
Paul Blomfield MP asked if he’d had media training. “You can’t media train me. I can’t be housetrained. I will put my foot in my mouth”. And didn’t he just?
And by the way, Mike, you can be media trained. You just have to listen and adapt. Understand your audience. Be clear about your story. Make it an emotionally engaging and compelling story. And don’t shout at MPs.