Mike Ashley finally showed his face to the world on Friday as the secretive founder of Sports World International broke cover to introduce himself to the City, declaring he wanted to make Sports World a global brand.

The 42-year-old founder of Sports World said in a carefully scripted conference call that he needed more funds to fulfil his dream of making Sports World the biggest and most profitable sports retailer in the world, amid growing speculation the extremely private billionaire may float his business in the new year. “I think the business could be so, so much bigger and on a global stage,” he said.

Mr Ashley, who hired Merrill Lynch to advise on his strategic options earlier this year, also said being a public company “would probably enable Sports World to get to where it can go. I would like to think I could make the grade [as a director of a public company].”

Having eschewed the public gaze, for more than 15 years, Mr Ashley insisted that he was “not a recluse”. Asked why he hated the limelight, the entrepreneur, who on Friday released his first photo since his youth, joked: “See my picture and you will probably realise why.” On Friday the secretive tycoon released the first photograph of himself since his youth.

He refused to confirm the value of his business, with estimates ranging anywhere between £1bn-£2.5bn.

Mr Ashley did hint, however, that he planned an aggressive expansion of the Sports World brand into Europe. “We probably should have done it [international expansion] earlier,” he said. Sports World currently has stores in Ireland, Belgium and Slovenia.

The retailer has enticed customers into his 380-strong chain of stores by undercutting competitors on premium Nike and Adidas products. He has also collected a stable of brands such as Slazenger, Donnay and Dunlop as well as buying Lillywhites store on Piccadilly Circus in London.

Sports World profits rose 44 per cent to £74.4m in the year to April 24, 2005 on sales up 45 per cent to £905m. Mr Ashley declined to give further updates on Sports World’s more recent performance. “Christmas is cool,” is all he would say. adding that he would exceed his budget targets this year.

Speculation has mounted round Mr Ashley and his business ventures since October when he bought a 29 per cent stake in Blacks Leisure, the outdoor sports group, raising suggestions he might seek to acquire the company.

He declined to comment on this on Friday, saying only that he would make some decision on the future of his business in the New Year.

Mr Ashley closed his first ever call with journalists, a short and sometimes nervous sounding performance, with: “Got to go. Mum wants me home.”

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