Michael Murray: from club promoter to Mike Ashley’s likely successor
Frasers Group’s ‘head of elevation’ has spruced up Sports Direct’s formerly shabby stores
Last modified on Thu 5 Aug 2021 09.46 EDT
Michael Murray, Frasers Group’s “head of elevation”, looks set to take the lift to the top of the company run by his future father-in-law, after leading an improvement in the look of its once proudly shabby Sports Direct stores.
The 31-year-old Doncaster-born son of a property developer began by helping Sports Direct founder and controlling shareholder Mike Ashley with personal property deals a few years after meeting his daughter Anna on holiday in 2011.
The former club promoter is now Ashley’s right-hand man, overseeing the revamp of Sports Direct stores and improving the group’s image with glossy ads and social media to help improve the relationship with high-end brands.
A big part of the job has been ditching Sports Direct’s pile-it-high image which has turned key brands off the company and led them to withhold some of their most sought-after gear.
While the majority of stores still require updating, the company is taking advantage of the retrenchment of other retailers to move into larger, more modern spaces that combine its high street brands including streetwear concept USC, bicycle retailer Evans and video games concept Belong.
Murray has also helped build up the Flannels chain, where it is possible to spend over £4,500 on a Brioni suede jacket, pick up Alexander McQueen trainers for £420 or a pair of Off White socks for £48, discounted from £60 at present.
Murray has gradually become a more high profile face of Frasers, recently taking journalists on a tour of a revamped Sports Direct store in London and speaking at results presentations.
However, the man set to take over from Ashley as chief executive in May next year is not on the company’s board, or even an employee, but a consultant, paid up to 25% of any value he creates from property deals.
That formula resulted in Frasers handing Murray £9.7m in total over 2019 and 2020. His annual earnings were not only more than the boss of the UK’s biggest retailer, Tesco, but far more than the £150,000 a year paid to Sports Direct’s previous senior executives such as former chief executive Dave Forsey.
For this year, Murray’s company, MM Prop Consultancy, was paid £2.5m related to his property services and he received a further £100,000 for his “elevation” work.
Murray began his career running festivals and student nights while still at Reading University after attending Sedbergh private school in Cumbria. He also kicked off his property investments, buying two bars while still a student. No doubt, Murray took inspiration from his father Mick who co-founded Lazarus Properties, Doncaster’s biggest landlord, which also owns high-end London sites in Kensington, Holland Park and Belgravia.
Murray’s mother, Nicola, is also an entrepreneur. She runs an interior design business that has carried out work for Frasers, then called Sports Direct International, being paid less than £100,000 in 2019.
While those that know him say Murray is bright and likable, he is viewed as inexperienced and part of a new, less cost-conscious culture at the business where once executives stayed in the Premier Inn and took budget airline flights.
His base is seen as the group’s £108m Oxford Street site, which includes a London head office and a Flannels store, and has a very different outlook to the group’s warehouse and main office in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.
Murray’s position as part of Ashley’s family is seen to put him both tightly under the control of his future father-in-law and with privileged access as the pair thrash out business deals over drinks or dinner away from the wider management team.
The younger man has said he works with Ashley “like a partnership”. “He looks after the back end – systems, logistics – I look after customer-facing side and the image of the business,” he told the Guardian in 2019.
Murray’s abilities to connect with younger, more fashionable customers have impressed Ashley, who believes this is the way to improve profits in the longer term.
Ashley, who generally shuns public appearances and has had a difficult relationship with the press, will be happy to let Murray take the limelight.
Frasers said on Thursday that Murray’s “elevation strategy” was “transforming the business and receiving positive feedback from consumers and our brand partners”.
Those who know the pair, say their partnership is likely to continue in a similar fashion no matter the change in job titles. One person who knows the company well said Ashley would continue to make any big decisions and financial calls. “He will still be pulling the strings,” they said.
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