There is a wind of change blowing up and down our High Street – here in Yorkshire and across the UK.
It’s not just the mounting financial pressures facing shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels – borne out by figures that reveal a huge rise in the number of struggling businesses falling into insolvency and entering administration.
Only construction had a higher percentage rate of businesses in insolvency or administration last year.
It’s also how the billionaire retail tycoon Mike Ashley has become a dominant force on the High Street, seeing the current tough trading conditions as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
But, in developing his courtship of insolvent businesses, is the entrepreneur setting sail for calmer, more profitable waters – or into the teeth of a howling economic gale.
Time will tell as he charts the next stage of a successful business career that has seen him embark on an ever-aggressive acquisition trail ever since his Sports Direct business opened its doors for the first time in 1982.
The Newcastle United owner (who once tried to buy Leeds United) may be accused by diehard fans on Tyneside of not investing in the club.
But he has frequently brought out his cheque book to snap up well-known names such as Dunlop Slazenger, outdoor gear specialist Karrimor, hat-maker Kangol and boxing brand Lonsdale
Recent months, and after a spate of corporate insolvencies and administrations in the retail sector, have seen him once again put his money where his mouth is.
His investment has seen him strengthen his Boardroom presence in a number of high-profile retailers staring at financial insolvency or administration
It is difficult to walk down any High Street nowadays and not walk into a store controlled by Mike Ashley.
As more retailers fall, his empire grows – with the strategic purchase of businesses that have fallen into insolvency or administration.
His takeover of the beleaguered House of Fraser stores offered a lifeline to its network of shops across Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire and the North East – including Leeds, Huddersfield, Doncaster, Meadowhall Sheffield, Skipton, Hull, Lincoln, Grimsby, Gateshead Metro Centre, Middlesbrough and Darlington.
So too did his acquisition of Evans Cycles and its 62 shops – including those on our doorstep in Leeds, Castleford, Sheffield, Durham, Gateshead and York.
Under his hard nose and business brain, the company is now pedalling back to into profit – albeit with the cost-cutting closure of some non-performing outlets to head off the threat of insolvency or administration.
He also swooped for luxury clothing label Flannels, with its flagship Leeds stores and other outlets in Darlington, Doncaster and Sheffield
And after a shareholder battle – famously dubbed ‘The Storm In A D-Cup’ – he controls the upmarket lingerie firm Agent Provocateur after it too went into administration
Now he is being linked with talks to rescue HMV, the music retailer who fell into administration at Christmas for the second time in recent years. Again, it’s a well-known High Street face with stores in Bradford, Castleford, Darlington, Doncaster, Gateshead, Grimsby, Harrogate, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds, Lincoln, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Sheffield and Sunderland.
He has been accused by some of simply playing Monopoly – the world-famous board game created in Leeds – but many analysts believe there is a clever strategy behind his power grab.
And as his shareholding increases in stores such as French Connection and Debenhams – both features of the Yorkshire High Street, from Leeds to Harrogate, Stockton-on-Tees to Bradford – his next move may tell us more about the hand he is playing.
According to latest media reports, his appetite for acquisition shows no sign of abating – his latest target being the Patisserie Valerie bakery chain. Its stores in Leeds, Huddersfield, York, Durham, Bradford and Sheffield were among the closures when the chain recently fell into administration – the latest High Street Insolvency victim.
Whether they can be rescued from administration in some form or another is still unclear. But what we do now know is that for a larger-than-life businessman Mike Ashley is very much used to having his cake – and eating it.