Peter Cowgill, arguably Britain’s most successful retailer of the past two decades, sensationally resigned as executive chairman of JD Sports tonight amid speculation he had been ousted.
His departure, effective immediately, was announced just 12 minutes before the close of trading today and the news immediately sent JD Sports shares down just over 6% to wipe out 377 million pounds of the market value of the business.
In announcing the move, JD Sports said that following an ongoing review of its governance and internal controls, it had decided to accelerate the separation of the roles of chairman and chief executive.
JD announced in July last year that it would split the roles of chairman and chief executive over the next 12 months following criticism of its corporate governance by shareholders.
Some JD investors have long worried about Mr. Cowgill’s power in the boardroom.
He has run JD – which describes itself in its marketing as the “king of trainers” – without a managing director since the departure of Barry Bown in 2014.
Those concerns intensified when in February the company was fined £4.3 million by the Competition and Markets Authority for failing to put safeguards in place, share information commercially sensitive and failing to alert the regulator to a meeting between Mr Cowgill and Mr Bown, who had become chief executive of Footasylum, which JD previously owned but was forced to sell by the watchdog for competitive reasons.
Some shareholders had also complained about the decision to pay Mr Cowgill a £4million bonus after a year in which JD received taxpayers’ money for work-rate relief and leave staff during COVID closures.
JD said Wednesday evening that Helen Ashton, currently non-executive director of JD Sports and chair of the company’s audit and risk committee, would become interim non-executive chairman.
Ms Ashton, who joined the JD board in November last year, previously held senior roles at online fashion retailer ASOS, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays.
Kath Smith, currently senior independent director of JD, will become interim managing director. She previously worked in the industry as managing director of the Adidas and Reebok brands and at outdoor clothing group The North Face.
Ms Ashton said: “The business has grown strongly under Peter’s leadership to become a global leader in multi-channel distribution with a proven strategy and clear momentum.
“However, as our business has grown larger and more complex, it is clear that our internal infrastructure, governance and controls have not kept pace.
“As we capitalize on the great opportunities before us, the Board is committed to ensuring that we have the highest standards of corporate governance and controls appropriate to a FTSE company. -100 to support future growth.”
Speculation that Mr Cowgill, 67, was nearing the end of his tenure in the company intensified when in January this year he sold £21m worth of JD shares, or equivalent to half of his stake in the company.
Mr Cowgill’s departure ends one of the most successful retail careers of recent times.
The Manchester United fan, famous in the retail industry for his 7 days a week approach to work, had been at the helm since 2004 and took JD Sports from a small retailer to a member of the FTSE 100 with more of 2,500 outlets worldwide which until recently were valued at over £8 billion.
His genius was to identify the emerging trend of so-called “athleisure” and spot that four brands – Reebok, Nike, Puma and Adidas – were poised to dominate the industry.
He has built close relationships with all of them and, unlike his rival Mike Ashley at Sports Direct, has done his best to hug these suppliers rather than fall out with them.
Stockbroker AJ Bell calculated in November last year that since becoming executive chairman in 2004, Mr Cowgill has delivered a total shareholder return of more than 15,000%, compared to just 211 % for the FTSE 100.
Mr Cowgill, who grew up in Kearsley, just outside Bolton, was an entrepreneur from an early age, selling books from a carpet outside his family’s front door.
Distinguished at school by his exceptional arithmetic skills, he studied at the University of Hull before qualifying as a chartered accountant, but soon left the firm he had qualified to start his own accountancy business. , Cowgill Holloway, at the age of 28 over a Bolton. hair salon. David Makin and John Wardle – the J&Ds of JD Sports – were among his first clients and he ended up working with them.
Renowned for keeping his feet on the ground, despite his wealth, he prefers to drink with his old friends at his local, the Spread Eagle in Kearsley, to the high life.
Despite complaints from some investors about JD’s corporate governance, Mr Cowgill’s departure is likely to be met with dismay in some parts of the city, where he retains a sizeable fan club.
Eleanora Dani, of stockbroker and investment bank Shore Capital, said Mr Cowgill had been integral to JD’s success. She said that although the separation of her roles had been reported, a more gradual process was expected, with Mr Cowgill remaining as chairman for a few years.
She added: “The company is tightly managed with excellent cash generation, tight inventory and cost controls. In our view, JD Sports remains a premier retailer… however, we are disappointed to see Mr Cowgill leave. and we look forward to hearing more from the company.”