He was the self-proclaimed sneaker king, running one of the coolest shops on the high street, but a series of missteps led to 69-year-old Peter Cowgill being kicked out of the business he started.
After a board meeting at the group’s headquarters in Bury last Wednesday, he exited with immediate effect – and JD Group shares plunged 18%.
Cowgill, the workaholic chairman and chief executive of JD since 2004, oversaw a dramatic turnaround in the group’s fortunes, increasing its market value to 60 times what it was when he joined and creating a global brand.
He helped founders David Makin and John Wardle launch the business in 1996, left in 2001 but was brought back three years later after profits plummeted following the ill-conceived acquisition of rival First Sport.
Since then, Cowgill has been riding the casual dress trend by making JD appealing to women and securing exclusive deals with Nike and Adidas. He spotted change online and oversaw a series of bold deals, starting with the acquisition of rival Allsports in 2005 and, most notably, entering the US market with the acquisition of Finish Line in 2018. .
The boy from Bolton, who attended De La Salle High School in Salford and had his first job as an accountant above a local hair salon, has seen his wealth grow alongside that of shareholders. In the past two years alone, he has sold more than £53m worth of JD shares and retains a stake worth almost £12m.
Considered a detail-oriented who nevertheless likes to end the day at the pub, Cowgill told the Guardian in 2016 that the secret to JD’s success was, “We never rest on our laurels and get gutted if there’s even a day when our numbers are negative.”
Chris Bird, the former Manchester City boss who was non-executive director of JD for nine years, said: “He has his hand very firmly on the tiller. He likes to know where every book goes and has a very good eye for an opportunity. Cowgill, he said, “revels in the pursuit of greatness… He was CFO when he floated and he came back and brought him back from the brink.
But shareholders revolted last year after it emerged Cowgill had received nearly £6m in bonuses despite the company accepting over £100m in government Covid support.
The JD board spent Thursday and Friday placating shareholders via conference calls. It is understood Cowgill is leaving after opposing the board’s plan to split the roles of chairman and chief executive, which he has held jointly since 2014.
Cowgill’s exit marks a painful break with longtime backers Pentland Group, the Speedo-to-Kickers conglomerate run by the billionaire Rubin family, which became majority shareholder of JD shortly after his arrival, buying out Makin and Wardle.
Pentland said that with JD’s “meaningful growth” comes “a responsibility to ensure the company continues to evolve its internal organization.” A well-informed source said the Rubins got the impression that Cowgill “thought he was bigger than the company”.
A series of missteps over the past few years have only led to change under the leadership of a new set of non-executive directors led by Helen Ashton, the former chief financial officer of Asos, who is now interim chairman , and Kath Smith, who spent 25 years at the helm. director of the Adidas and Reebok brands and is now acting general manager.
In February, JD Sports and Footasylum were fined a total of £4.7million for sharing sensitive information. A competition watchdog accused them of deleting phone records and found their chairmen had held several clandestine meetings, including one caught on video in a parking lot near Bury.
Before that, JD dropped a bid for Debenhams – only after millions of pounds were wiped off the value of the business when she emerged was she considering an off-the-rack deal for the struggling retailer. And a few months earlier, JD threw its Go Outdoors subsidiary into administration, then bought it out without expensive leases.
Meanwhile, the competition watchdog will give a further update next month on an investigation it launched in 2020 into possible price fixing on Rangers football kit by retailers including JD.
One person likely to celebrate Cowgill’s departure is Mike Ashley, founder and majority shareholder of Sports Direct owner Frasers Group. He spent years fighting over the sportswear market with his rival.
Ashley, who once bragged that he would “finish” JD, clashed with Cowgill over a number of deals. In 2018, Sports Direct revealed that it had acquired a nearly 20% stake in Finish Line shortly after JD announced its intention to take control of the US retailer. Then in 2020 they were both lined up to buy shoe chain Office before a big stalemate over Debenhams, which was snapped up by online specialist Boohoo.
Ashley’s group was seen as key to persuading the competition watchdog to block JD’s acquisition of Footasylum. In a veiled reference to Ashley, Cowgill said in his response to the CMA’s decision that the watchdog was “duped by self-serving testimony from a notoriously vocal contestant.” The tracksuit mogul may have had the last laugh.