Britain's Most Admired Companies: ... And the least admired

Marks may sparkle but at the other end of our BMAC survey, nestling at 217, is Sports Direct. Reclusive boss Mike Ashley claims he has balls of steel to cope with City criticism but is taking refuge in the leather balls at Newcastle United. James Taylor reports.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Britain's Most Admired is a celebration of all that is great about UK plc: the world-class companies competing and winning on a global scale. But what kind of Brits would we be if we didn't pause for a moment to salute the unlucky losers - the companies plumbing new depths of general disdain?

Rock bottom of the Most Admired pile was Hikma Pharmaceuticals, a UK-listed Jordanian generic drug-maker, which came last in an impressive six of the nine criteria. Its ratings peaked in the Capacity to Innovate section, where it soared to 193rd place.

We're not sure what Hikma has done to deserve such opprobrium. In its most recent results in September, it reported a 17% rise in pre-tax profits, while turnover was up 45% to £225m. And having bought Egyptian company Alkan Pharma, it expects to double sales every four years. But, clearly, it lost a few friends along the way.

Some of the runts of the litter have less cause for complaint. Take Mike Ashley's Sports Direct (a worthy 217th in the list). Since its flotation in March, it has been a dog of a stock, losing half its value in six months. Given that billionaire Ashley has barely deigned to speak to those who gave £900m-plus for 43% of his firm, it's not surprising he's about as popular in the City as a ban on champagne.

His relationship with the Square Mile started badly, and then got worse. He has largely ignored disclosure requests, firing his PR company immediately after flotation and refusing to appoint an investor-relations manager. After three months, the chairman he'd appointed to keep investors onside walked out in despair.

When Ashley broke his silence in July to address criticism of the plunging share price, it didn't quite have the desired effect. 'I've balls of steel,' he growled. 'Some investors have been very supportive. But some of these City people act like a bunch of cry-babies.'

Ashley has since cemented his popularity by cancelling analyst meetings, neglecting to provide comparative sales figures and splashing out £30m on a new London HQ. And despite two profit warnings, he hasn't stopped spending. Since the flotation, he has hoovered up stakes in various other budget sports brands, made a fortune trading shares in Adidas, and upset Nike by accumulating a blocking stake in Umbro.

Just to prove how focused he was on turning Sports Direct's fortunes around, Ashley also went off and shelled out £100m on football club Newcastle United. Clearly much happier tucking into a pie and Bovril than sipping bellinis in Canary Wharf, he has taken to the North-east like a duck to water.

He's been wearing a Newcastle shirt to all the matches, buying drinks for pubs full of fans, and even standing with Toon loyalists at the away end (despite the police telling him it could incite a riot).

And this charm offensive seems to be working. 'He is a gentleman who is one of the lads and so down-to-earth,' Newcastle superfan 'Beefy' beamed recently. Though, admittedly, the Toon Army would probably roll out the black-and-white carpet for Darth Vader if he funded their way into the Champions League.

The irony is he'll probably think this has been a great year. He sold his shares at 300p, which, according to Rich List compiler Philip Beresford, made him the 25th wealthiest man in the UK. And now he's buying them back at half the price, having used the change to buy himself a football club. By the looks of it, he couldn't care less whether that puts a few noses out of joint in the Square Mile.

Here at MT, we can't remember another business leader who has managed to split opinion like this in such a short time. To quote the Newcastle fans: 'There's only one Mike Ashley'...

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