Merging House of Fraser and Debenhams has been discussed at board level, a Sports Direct director has revealed.
Sports Direct bought House of Fraser last month and owns 29.7% of Debenhams.
Simon Bentley, a non-executive director of Sports Direct, was reported as saying that combining the two department stores had been discussed at board level.
He later clarified that he had not intended his remarks to be interpreted in this way.
He was quoted as telling journalists that a merger “had been discussed”.
But he added: “If any of you had the job of handling House of Fraser right now, I think you might have your hands full, and incidentally we’ve also got Sports Direct.
“If there’s opportunities in the future, then we’ll be in a position to take advantage of them.”
Mr Bentley, who was speaking on the day of Sports Direct’s annual general meeting, later clarified his remarks. “I was asked a general question about whether or not we discuss our strategic investments, and in particular Debenhams, to which I replied in the positive.
“I made no mention of any merger between House of Fraser and Debenhams, nor did I intend my answer to infer that.”
Chairman to step down
His comments were reported shortly after the unexpected announcement ahead of the AGM that Keith Hellawell was stepping down as chairman immediately.
It was also announced that Mr Bentley, who has been on the retailer’s board since 2007, was leaving after the AGM.
Analysts have speculated about the possibility of a tie-up between the two department store chains since Sports Direct bought House of Fraser for £90m last month.
Mr Ashley has said he wanted to turn House of Fraser into the “Harrods of the High Street”.
Sports Direct bought the department store chain shortly after taking a taking a £85.4m hit on the value of its stake in Debenhams, which earlier this week was forced to insist that its sales had not collapsed.
Mr Hellawell’s retirement followed last year’s meeting where he was re-elected by just 53% of independent shareholders. He had said he would step down at the next annual meeting if he did not win their support again.
The former chief constable of West Yorkshire Police had faced criticism about the way Sports Direct was run.
“Having overseen significant improvements in the working practices and corporate governance of the company, which includes a refresh of the board, now is the right time for me to step aside,” Mr Hellawell said. “I have every confidence that the group will continue to go from strength to strength.”
The company has not yet published the outcome of the voting at the meeting and said that neither Mr Hellawell or Mr Bentley would stand for re-election.
The new chair of Sports Direct is David Daly, who joined the board last year after a long career at Nike. He is also a non-executive director of Fulham Football Club.
Nicola Frampton, managing director of William Hill’s UK retail division, will also join the board.
Ahead of the meeting, three shareholder advisory bodies are said to have told investors not to support Mr Hellawell’s re-election.
Investors have been concerned about the way Sports Direct treats its workers, as well as the influence of Mike Ashley, who owns 61% of the retailer.
In 2016, a report by the MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills committee accused the company of not treating its workers like humans. Sports Direct said it treated all workers with respect.
Mr Ashley said: “I would like to thank Keith and Simon for their valuable service and significant contributions to the company over the years.”