One of Mike Ashley’s chief lieutenants has quit Sports Direct after 28 years working for the retail tycoon.
Karen Byers, whom the billionaire called the person who “runs Sports Direct”, was described by insiders as the “glue that holds it all together”.
Her decision to leave with immediate effect was announced to senior store staff and area managers on Monday morning in a conference call, according to sources at the business.
Mr Ashley told PA she would be welcome back, if she ever wants to return.
He said: “Karen has been a very supportive member of the team for over 28 years and we wish her well for the future.
“The focus of the business as we move forward remains our programme of brand elevation, one that we are totally committed to.
“The door will always be open to Karen if she wishes to come back to the business as a consultant.”
Mr Ashley hired Ms Byers following a takeover nearly three decades ago, not long after she was said to have sold him a pair of jeans.
The 51-year-old has kept out of the spotlight, although she did face the cameras when Sports Direct invited journalists to visit its Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire.
A replacement has not yet been announced.
Her departure is likely to have a significant impact on the business, with current and former staff calling her a “workaholic” who rose through the ranks of the organisation.
One former Sports Direct staff member who worked directly with her told PA: “She was extremely driven. She’d always be the first person in and the last person out.
“It will be a big loss for the company, as Karen was always across all the details and was trusted by Mike.
“She could be hard to work for and would push people extremely hard. But she was fair and impressive.”
Ms Byers is already a multi-millionaire, having been paid a £5 million bonus following Sports Direct’s listing on the stock market in 2007. She also benefited from the Sports Direct bonus scheme, netting an estimated £1 million.
Another former adviser said: “She’s been there since the beginning. She is the chief operating officer that makes the thing hum. She’s very driven and authoritative and stands up to Mike.”
Independent retail analyst Richard Hyman said the business could be affected by her departure.
He said: “In a business where most of people have got a very low profile, she appears to have been a really pivotal figure operationally. It’s interesting that someone so key is leaving.
“The retail operation works extremely well, and, in a business like Sports Direct, operational efficiency is critical.”