Ashley over-protected

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The circus that is the float of Mike Ashley’s sports retailer, Sports World, is getting less and less entertaining. Our reporters Beth Rigby and Tom Braithwaite have just returned from meeting him. They were given all of 20 minutes, which is at the snappy end of things for the founder of a £2bn retail empire floating on the market. Apparently he is quite personable but to be honest it’s hard to tell – he is so heavily guarded by his public relations minders, who at one point intervened when Ashley was asked a tricky question, and by his chairman, who answered several questions aimed at Ashley. We weren’t allowed to take our own pics (so apologies if the cheesy PR ones we’ll have to rely on tomorrow aren’t up to scratch) and we weren’t allowed to record the interview (so you won’t be able to hear the man for yourself). I don’t know whether he is simply following advice but Ashley has managed make himself the story – surely the opposite of what he intended. And if he so hates the limelight you have to ask yourself why he is seeking equity in the public markets at all (when others such as Sir Philip Green haven’t needed to).

The business, which owns Lillywhites, today published details of its planned flotation under the name Sports Direct International. And, for all the silly orchestration, some of the numbers do look quite strong. A gross margin of 46.8 per cent, if all it seems, is impressive. Other financial details and who has been selected to join the group’s board (including one particularly intriguing choice) are on FT.com. We will do our best to crunch the numbers this afternoon but as Ashley’s hand-holders refused to show us the pathfinder prospectus we may be limited in what we can do.

Great. British Land chief executive Stephen Hester agrees with Jim Pickard, our property correspondent. The commercial property boom is over, he said on a conference call this morning. The International Herald Tribune, by the way, carried a very interesting piece this week about investors dumping Reits in the US because yields have fallen so low.

At the other end of the property business, Bradford & Bingley says the buoyant UK housing market and the growing ranks of the self-employed helped the lender report an 8 per cent increase in annual underlying profits. And buy-to-lets keep booming, apparently.

Amvescap more than doubled its pre-tax profits for last year to $754.6m. Net operating margins were 32.5 per cent against 19.5 per cent a year ago.

Cashbox has suspended its chief executive, Carl Thomas, pending an investigation into recent trades he carried out in the company’s shares. The stock fell more than 20 per cent in late afternoon trading. This may be completely unrelated - we are checking - but last week we reported how facing a claim for at least £2m in damages from Hanco, the cash machine business owned by Royal Bank of Scotland. This would be equivalent to two-thirds of the group’s turnover for the year to June 30, when it reported a pre-tax loss of £3.6m on sales of £3.2m.

British Energy saw its earnings for the nine months to the end of December rise as higher electricity prices shielded it from the impact of a string of maintenance problems at its nuclear power plants. However, the picture looks pretty dreadful: production fell, operating costs rose (and keep rising), further expenditure on plants is needed and the company is seeking to soften investors’ hopes for a special dividend. Oh, and power prices are falling sharply.

Rumour of the Day: Gyrus, a medical devices group valued at £650m, is up 2 per cent on talk of a takeover approach from a US peer, according to Neil Hume on our markets desk. We’ve looked into the rumour and don’t believe it.

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