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Outgoing Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell’s unlikely route to the top

Keith Hellawell has announced his resignation as Sports Direct chairman (PA) Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

Keith Hellawell has announced his retirement from Sports Direct after nine tumultuous years as chairman.

The former miner’s route to the board of a FTSE 250 company has not been an obvious one while his business career has seen Sports Direct hit the headlines more than once.

The 76-year-old started his working life as a miner before joining West Yorkshire Police at the age of 20 and became Britain’s then youngest sergeant at 23 years old.

Mr Hellawell, born near Huddersfield, rose to the rank of chief constable firstly in Cleveland then back at West Yorkshire in 1993.

During his policing career, he was brought in on the case of the Yorkshire Ripper – where he succeeded in obtaining more confessions.

He wasted no time getting to work as the Government’s drugs tsar when appointed in October 1997, rounding on those who said nothing could be done to stop drug abuse.

His decrying of Noel Gallagher as “totally irresponsible” for suggesting taking drugs was like having a cup of tea also made waves, as did his resignation from the role in July 2002 when then Home Secretary David Blunkett downgraded cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug.

Mr Hellawell took over the reins as chairman of Sports Direct in 2009, with his tenure including controversy over the company’s employment practices.

He has faced pressure to leave his role at Sports Direct by minority shareholders. In 2016 he offered his resignation after the retailer came under pressure for “Victorian” working practices at its warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.

The board backed him to continue in his role and help the company improve, but Mr Hellawell continued to face investor opposition. At last year’s annual meeting, his re-election was opposed by 47% of shareholders.

His resignation comes in the wake of pressure from investor advisory services, which have criticised the company’s corporate governance and urged shareholders to oppose his re-election.