Tables in a downstairs function room of the three-star hotel are arranged in a horseshoe shape to accommodate the main players (billionaire founder Mike Ashley and chief executive David Forsey are typically there), who discuss the contents of a pack of financial documents detailing the company’s recent performance. Freshly inducted middle managers tend to fear a grilling before they are allowed to hit the bar. Yet, at the Lion, they worry less about probing questions from Ashley or his avuncular sidekick Forsey. The person they cower before is a tough “workaholic” 47-year-old multi-millionaire called Karen Byers.
If you have heard of her, you are either prone to hanging around the retailer’s Derbyshire headquarters (where occasionally she shows up for work dressed in a sport Direct tracksuit), or you are exceptionally well versed in the detail of retail. Since the company floated in 2007, Byers has warranted only six newspaper mentions outside the trade press (two each in the Telegraph and the Guardian, plus one in the Times and the Daily Mail), which is astonishing for a woman in her position: she has spent about 15 years as the head of retail at an organization with more than 500 UK stores, a workforce of about 30,000 people, and which was a FTSE 100 company until this month.
The most recent of those six Byers namechecks came last week when Ashley attempted to reverse the barrage of negative publicity following poor trading, two profit warnings, and a Guardian investigation into working conditions at the Shirebrook warehouse, gave a rare interview. “Karen Byers runs Sports Direct,” he told the Times. “She runs the retail; all the money comes out the retail, [the warehouse workers and store managers] are her army. She is the person who sets the rules. Not me.
“She is not on the board because we won’t waste her time. We always say, whatever happens, keep [her] going, and we will all be all right. We will go through a dip now for a few years, and [she] will bring us out the other side. Not Dave [Forsey], not Mike Ashley, and not Sean Nevitt [head of buying].”
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There seems to be little doubt that Byers has been a crucial part of the Sports Direct growth story since joining the group 24 years ago as a shop manager; after getting her break by selling Ashley a pair of jeans in a store, he was buying. One colleague said: “She is probably one of the best retailers in the UK. She is probably the only woman who Mike is scared of. What goes on in the stores, that’s what Karen does.” However, skeptics might suggest that the thrusting of Byers into the media limelight is part of a more calculated – and tested – move.
Two years ago, shortly after the sportswear chain had been promoted into the FTSE 100 and was being criticized for apparently being controlled by a single autocratic boss, the Financial Times began researching a feature on the company. On tour around a sport Direct store, the newspaper’s journalists bumped into Byers, which would have been a tremendous piece of good fortune had it not been carefully orchestrated. “We wanted to show bench strength,” as one insider puts it now.
Fast forward to the present, and the company has different problems. The group’s shares had almost halved since December when the retailer first admitted to sliding sales. The Guardian revealed how the retailer’s temporary warehouse workers were receiving effective hourly pay rates below the minimum wage. There have been other concerns about the army of zero-hours staff, and MPs are pursuing Ashley on the business, innovation, and skills select committee, demanding that the man running the show comes to Westminster to answer questions. His refusal has created a huge row. Suddenly, Byers is being rolled out again, this time as the person controlling the company, if Ashley is to be believed.
“We all do our fair share,” Byers said on Friday. “We all do different things.” She was front and center at Ashley’s side in footage shot last week by Sky News cameramen, who were also part of the “selected media” entourage invited to Shirebrook to launch the group’s charm offensive. Yet, if you speak to some at Shirebrook, she seems to portray an image that can be as irascible as charming. Between being “a complete smoothie” and handing out Jack Welch management books to new starters, she is prone to “tearing a strip off” subordinates.
One explains: “Mike is a bloke who doesn’t care about making an extra couple of million quid – it just doesn’t make any difference to him … if her shares go up, she’s made an extra million quid. She really treats it personally, as if it’s her company like a small business owner would. “She’s the one that drives the warehouse conditions, and she’s the one that drives the store minimum wage, which are the two big issues for the company. Alongside that, she’s the one who brings the control. You could easily have a lot nicer, softer management style, but it would probably be a lot more expensive and a lot less effective.”