About ten years ago JD Sports bought ailing outdoor leisure retailer Blacks Leisure for £20 million, which was about £20 million more than it was worth.
It was a bold, counter-intuitive move of the sort JD’s chairman Peter Cowgill has made a speciality.
I bet him ten pints of lager he couldn’t make Blacks profitable by a certain time. He lost. And paid up.
Not via the power drinking session preferred by arch rival Mike Ashley, but via a crate of Stella sent to the office with a nice note. Because he’s classy.
The point of that story is this: Cowgill is a good laugh, and there aren’t enough like him in corporate Britain.
He probably won’t have enjoyed the weekend story that his board is seeking to, over time, have him ousted. But I doubt it put him off his Bovril.
Today the company insisted that it “is not engaged in a process to recruit a chief executive officer or chairman”, though of course at some point it will be. Cowgill is (a young) 68, it can’t be true that the board has simply never considered what it would do without him.
It is to be hoped than when he does go, it isn’t at the behest of some silly corporate governance tendency. For a UK business, his being effectively chairman and chief executive is unusual, though as he has noted it is common in America.
If we were failing, that would be a good excuse to split his job into two, or turf him out. Since he’s not, it feels like the City is trying to invent problems in a world where there are surely enough real ones to be getting on with.
Existing investors complaining about Cowgill being too powerful would surely look silly. What, they’ve only just noticed?
And prospective new ones alarmed by his position can demonstrate their corporate governance piety by not buying the shares.
A quick look at the share price chart for JD shows that the stock was at 14p in 1996, and today stands at 955p.
Cowgill is surely entitled to show this chart to anyone complaining about his role and shrug his shoulders.