The knowledge that they are sitting on up to £892m might give most people a certain self-confidence. But not Mike Ashley.

When the famously private founder of Sports Direct International owner of Lillywhites and Sports World, broke cover to confirm he was planning to float his business, he admitted that the whole prospect of going public was really rather “daunting”.

The one-time squash coach made a brief appearance on Tuesday to announce plans to sell two-fifths of his 100 per cent shareholding in the group. But the only photographs available were stiff publicity shots, including the one shown left. So rare are photos of Mr Ashley that most of his staff would not recognise him.

The founder of Britain’s biggest sports chain said he did not know what he was going to do with his pay-out. “It will probably just be deposited in the bank.” Sports Direct International could be worth between £1.8bn-£2.2bn.

His most loyal staff will also have some spending money, with the top-five team due to receive £25m between them from the 250p-310p a share float.

The five comprise Dave Forsey, who will become group chief executive; Sean Nevitt, head buyer; Karen Byers, head of retail; Bob Mellors, finance director; and Justin Barnes, head of brands.

The remaining 12,000 staff, based in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Slovenia, will also share £25m.

Facing reporters for the first time on Tuesday Mr Ashley oozed discomfort, saying he did not like answering questions for which “you are not always sure you have an answer”. He left much of that task to David Richardson, the former finance director of Whitbread now Mr Ashley’s new non-executive chairman. Yet for all his timidity, Mr Ashley has proved himself a ferocious operator in business. His strategy of heavy discounting has undercut rivals JJB and JD Sports.

The billionaire, who was kitted out in his trademark jeans rather than a typical City suit, said he wanted to float his business to raise its profile and help him achieve his dream of creating the “most profitable sports retailer in the world”.

“I don’t think you can fulfil the company’s ambitions without going public,” said Mr Ashley, who will become executive deputy chairman on the float.

“As a public company, we may have a shot at the title, if we are right on the top of our game, but to be the leading, most profitable retailer in the world, well most people would say that is a big, big task.”

Mr Ashley, who founded his company in 1982, has grown it into a chain of 465 stores, most of which trade under Sports World. The UK arm accounted for 80 per cent of the group’s £1.2bn turnover in the year April 2006. Five per cent of sales come from its nascent European operations, with the remaining 15 per cent coming from leisure brands stocked in store. Mr Ashley plans to add another 200 stores to Sports World by 2011.

Merrill Lynch is the bookrunner on the listing with Citigroup and Credit Suisse appointed co-lead managers.

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