Who is Sports Direct's Keith Hellawell?

The clothing retailer's under-fire chairman has had a colourful career.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 06 Sep 2017

And so Keith Hellawell’s chairmanship of Sports Direct lives to see another day. Several of the controversial apparel seller’s backers (including Aberdeen Standard, Hermes and Fidelity) had indicated they were planning to vote against his reappointment at today’s AGM, but he clung on with 53.2% of independent shareholders’ votes.

Though its founder, Mike Ashley, still retains a majority stake (and backed Hellawell), the chairman had said he would step down if a majority of independent shareholders wanted him gone. More than half of them already voted against his reappointment back in January, so he is lucky to have triumphed.  

Like most things about Sports Direct, Hellawell is less than conventional. According to the blurb for his autobiography: ‘An abused, unwanted, squint-eyed boy, Keith Hellawell never knew who his real father was. His mother, a club dancer, was always bringing home different men, and would tie him to the table-leg to keep him quiet.’

Most top-flight chairmen claw their way to the top of a board after a long career in executive roles in big corporates. Some start out as a company’s founder and CEO, before handing over the day-to-day running of the business to a hired hand and stepping into a more hands-off role. But there’s a lot of be said for alternative experience, and Hellawell has plenty of that.

Born in Huddersfield, he left school in the 50s, aged 15 and with no qualifications, and spent five years working in Emley Moor coal pit. But he found his long-term vocation after joining West Yorkshire Police.

Hellawell was made the nation’s youngest sergeant at 23 and youngest inspector at 26. He rose through the ranks of CID and was later made chief constable of Cleveland Police (before returning to do the same role in West Yorkshire).

He provoked controversy by speaking in support of the death penalty and a softer stance on drug use, but also attracted acclaim after eliciting two more confessions from the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe and was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1990.

His time as New Labour’s ‘Drugs Czar’ from 1998-2002 was less fortuitous and he ended up resigning over the government’s decision to label cannabis a Class C drug.

Since then Hellawell’s held a clutch of business roles, including at energy firm Dalkia, chemical business Sterience and pharma outfit Goldshield, and was appointed chairman of Sports Direct in 2009. He’s kept a pretty low profile there, but made headlines with a cringeworthy select committee appearance in which he admitted the breaching of a contract with supplier Diesel, and moaned ‘I didn’t realise I was on trial.’

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