Mike Ashley doesn’t get the luxury appeal of flannels, CEO says

  • By Dougal Shaw
  • Business Correspondent, BBC News

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Michael Murray has been CEO of Frasers Group, which includes flannels, for over a year.

Managing a business is never easy, especially if your predecessor is as successful and vocal as Mike Ashley.

But a year after taking over as chief executive of Frasers Group from his father-in-law, Michael Murray has told the BBC he is reinventing the company.

It is targeting a “new luxury, aspirational” customer at its 60 Flannels stores, which sell designer clothes in particular.

He admitted to his father-in-law, however, that he thinks the shops are “bonkers”.

The Frasers Group’s best-known brand is Sports Direct, which Mr Ashley founded in 1982 and built into a publicly-traded company.

The Sports Direct empire rebranded as Frasers in 2019 and now includes the likes of Jack Wills, Sofa.com, Evans Cycles and House of Fraser, as well as Flannels.

Mr Murray, 33, is married to Mr Ashley’s eldest daughter Anna. Before being appointed CEO last year, he was not an employee of Sports Direct, nor did he have a seat on the board. He earned millions of pounds in consultancy fees in connection with several property deals he did for the group.

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Mike Ashley built SportsDirect, the Fraser Group, from scratch.

Mike the mechanic

Mr Ashley, 58, is still the majority shareholder in Frasers Group and Mr Murray said his son-in-law was heavily involved in the business.

“Mike is an expert operator,” he says. We call him a “mechanic” – he takes care of the warehouse, the supply chain, he’s optimizing that engine.

“It’s making the back-end systems and logistics match the front-end. That’s what he spends his days and nights thinking about.”

At family events like Christmas, “We only talk about business, nothing else, it’s our common interest.”

“It’s hard,” Mr. Murray says with a smile. “We both live and breathe anxiety.”

But one area where Mr Ashley and his son-in-law don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye is flannels, where Mr Murray is pitching his vision for “aspirational shopping”.

If you look at a flannels shop on London’s Oxford Street, you’ll see sports tops at £600, trainers at £400 and hoodies at £300. There certainly aren’t any 2-for-1 sock deals, which you’ll still see at the Sports Direct store you see from down the street.

In the basement of London’s Flannels store is an immersive, digital art installation.

So what does Mr. Ashley do with flannels?

“He thinks it’s cool,” says Mr. Murray. “He couldn’t understand why people would spend so much money on luxury clothes. But he understood that you have to be relevant to consumers.

It helps when he sees the results. It’s amazing what we’ve done.

image source, Fraser Group

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Frasers Group now has 60 flannels stores specializing in designer brands

In the latest set of results, Frasers Group’s “premium lifestyle” brands saw revenues of more than £530m in the six months to the end of October, up almost 25% on the previous year, with flannels the biggest driver of that growth. .

The sports retail side of the business, including Sports Direct, although not growing as fast, still turns in three times as much revenue as the premium lifestyle arm.

Flannels, despite the high cost of living, have “turned the tide of new aspirational shopping,” Mr Murray said.

His target market is 18- to 30-year-olds, who have been taught by social media to covet expensive products, he said.

Many still live at home, so they are protected from rising interest rates, rent or high energy bills. They like to spend their disposable income on health, fitness and clothing, Mr Murray said.

While flannels may be his pride and joy, Mr Murray admits that as a sport he will continue to expand globally, including directly into Asia.

A year into his career, he says he wants his legacy to be “the change.” [of the business] From a discount sports retailer to Europe’s largest, most ambitious retailer.

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