Mike Ashley last night revealed he is mulling a bid for struggling department store chain Debenhams.
The billionaire already owns 29.7 per cent of the 206-year-old High Street stalwart through his firm Sports Direct, but said he could now launch a full-blown takeover as Debenhams battles for survival.
The move follows weeks of clashes between Ashley (pictured) and Debenhams as he seeks to seize control and add it to his sprawling empire.
The 54-year-old – who last year vowed to 'save the High Street' – has already bought House Of Fraser, Evans Cycles and Agent Provocateur.
While his attempts to buy Patisserie Valerie and HMV fell flat, he is also understood to be now looking at LK Bennett.
His assault on Debenhams comes as it seeks new funding to stay afloat. The company is worth just £19million, having been valued at £1.7billion when it returned to the stock market in 2006.
Ashley has made several offers of assistance to the Debenhams board, though all are conditional on him being handed the chief executive's job.
He said that if he took over the helm at Debenhams he would step down from the top job at Sports Direct. But Debenhams has launched a rescue plan that would see it secure a £200m lifeline from its lenders, although it would leave shareholders – including Ashley – with nothing.
In a statement to the stock market last night, Sports Direct said a takeover bid 'would be compelling for Debenhams shareholders' by allowing them to sell their stock rather than lose everything.
It added: 'Sports Direct would seek to run Debenhams for the benefit of all Debenhams stakeholders rather than for the benefit of Debenhams lenders.'
Retail analyst Richard Hyman said: 'Shareholders who looked like they were about to be marooned penniless are surely going to like Ashley's alternative, even if it does mean sitting on investment losses.'
Crisis: Debenhams is worth just £19m, having been valued at £1.7bn when it returned to the stock market in 2006
He added: 'Mike Ashley has always confounded most of us, and here again he has surprised.
'It looked like he has never wanted to buy Debenhams lock, stock and barrel, and hoped simply to acquire some of the company's assets, as he did with House Of Fraser. And I am certain that, in an ideal world, that would still be his preference.
'However, he seemed to be facing a situation where he would have been outflanked by lenders who would effectively take control of the business through a pre-pack administration, bypassing shareholders altogether.'
Debenhams has been beset by problems, including a boardroom coup engineered by Ashley that led to the removal of Sir Ian Cheshire as chairman and booted chief executive Sergio Bucher off the board.
The company said on Friday it has been trying to secure a £200million lifeline from its lenders as it tries to fend off Ashley's interference – although the department store is expected to launch a pre-pack administration if it gets the cash.
Sports Direct and Debenhams have been engaged in an increasingly barbed tit-for-tat exchange of blows via stock market updates.
Sports Direct's offer last night came hours after it hit back at Debenhams' rejection of its latest rescue bid.
In response, Sports Direct yesterday said its offer had been of 'fair value' and a 'valid alternative' that was better than the 'multiple insolvency processes' that are being considered.
Sports Direct also hit back at claims that if Ashley became boss of Debenhams it would create a conflict of interest with House Of Fraser – a rival department store chain that Ashley saved from collapse last summer.
Last night a Sports Direct spokesman said: 'Sports Direct does not consider House Of Fraser to be a competitor of Debenhams. In any event, were Mr Ashley to become chief executive of Debenhams he would, as previously announced, step down from his roles at Sports Direct.'