A perfectly orchestrated British business meeting is no easy feat, but companies are usually willing to spend just that bit extra time and money to get it right.
Arranging the biscuits has thus become an art, artisan coffee, and a wide tea selection a must. (Gone are the days of the English breakfast: these high-powered CEOs want zingy peppermint to start their day). For those really wanting to make an impression, offering two choices of water—one with a slight fizz—can also work wonders.
Of course, not everyone conducts meetings in this way. Some, like Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley, opt for a more unconventional approach. Once upon a time this served him well: Sports Direct didn’t go on to become one of the UK’s biggest retailers for nothing. But unfortunately for Ashley, his meetings and their shenanigans are now centerstage of a trial at the UK’s top court— and for all the wrong reasons.
The case in question centers on a deal supposedly made between former Merrill Lynch investment banker Jeff Blue and Ashley in a London pub in 2013. Somewhere between supping on a cool pint and tucking into a bag of Britain’s finest pork scratchings, (maybe), Ashley allegedly promised to pay Blue $19 million if he could increase Sports Direct’s share price above $10 per share within three years. Blue claims he followed through with his part of the agreement, yet all that money never did find a way into his pocket. Instead, he got just $1 million.
All this makes for some interesting stuff but in this instance, it’s the location that really matters: Ashley argues that he didn’t pay Blue because the deal never really was a deal. It was boys club “banter”—reflective of the environment—that should never have been taken seriously. How could it have been? It was in a pub, after all!
Witness testimonies so far suggest the line between banter and business is not so clear-cut. If, like many other CEOs, the highlight of Ashley’s meetings had simply been the addition of a Viennese twirl to the plate of Scottish shortbread, the idea of it being pub banter alone might have seemed more plausible.
As it happens, Ashley’s meetings were always a tad more raucous and his meeting spots were far from typical. Indeed, Ashley seems to have frequently forgone the boardrooms and the biscuits and opted for casinos, pub “lock-ins”, and copious amounts of alcohol instead. One meeting saw Ashley and his companions drinking a restaurant dry of its most expensive wine; another, Ashley vomiting in a fireplace. Those who dared meet Ashley in the office risked humiliation should their chatter get too dull: Blue told the court how the tycoon once crawled under one of the meeting tables and pretended to take a nap, so bored was he by the whole thing. This statement from an ex-colleague says it all:
This might seem too ridiculous to be true, but it’s actually only the start of a string of revelations coming out of the case. Allegations made by Blue on Tuesday include Ashley tampering with share prices to save his skin, side payments to top execs to unofficially boost their pay, and the frequent use of expletives to make a point.
All this leaves Ashley looking rather like a titan that enjoys lording over his company, calling the shots (literally), and making others play by the rules of his own ego-driven game.
The drink-fuelled hangovers may be over, but as the trial goes on, it looks like Ashley has a bigger headache on his hand. Perhaps he should have stuck to the tea and biscuits.