Tuesday, October 27, 2009
'Silent Stan' making a noise at Arsenal
Ostensibly, it seems a matter of not if but when Stan Kroenke, the shy American with the mid-West drawl and deep pockets, takes sole control of Arsenal. The sports tycoon is just a billionaire's loose change short of the 29.9% stock level that would trigger a mandatory takeover bid of the last remaining English football superpower not to fall into the hands of a foreign oligarch.
The theory goes that Kroenke has won the trans-Atlantic battle with fellow billionaire Alisher Usmanov for the Old Etonian boardroom's affections and will soon be signing the cheques for Arsene Wenger's splurges at the top-end of the transfer market.
The reality is somewhat different. Yes, Kroenke owns 28.86% of the club and insiders predict he is likely to buy up other small tranches of shares to take him to the all-important 29.9% level "within weeks". But that is where his stakebuilding could end in the short and medium term.
"There isn't going to be a takeover any time soon, probably not in the next 12 months," a source close to the Arsenal boardroom told ESPN Soccernet. "Kroenke is quite content where he is." As is fitting for a man with a $3.5 billion personal fortune who is listed in the Forbes 400 as one of the richest people in the world, simple economics is the key to predicting Kroenke's next move.
The American has paid between £8,500 and £10,500 per share while steadily increasing his stakeholding this year, well above the recent average price of £6,500. "If he launched a takeover bid in the near future he would have to offer £8,500-£10,500 a share, which is a high premium," the source added. "Once he stops buying the price falls because they have no value to anyone other than him."
From the time Kroenke kicked off the takeover speculation in April 2007 when he bought 659 shares at £5,975 each from the then largest shareholder Danny Fiszman, although the diamond trader did not at the time know who the buyer was, he has been playing a patient game.
In marked contrast to Usmanov's more bombastic approach, Kroenke has stayed in the background and behaved in a manner in keeping with his 'Silent Stan' nickname, a moniker applied in the States for his low-key approach to sports investment. Initially greeted with hostility by the Arsenal board - most famously by chairman Peter Hill-Wood, who declared he did not want "his sort" - the chill has thawed to allow Kroenke to plant both feet in the marble halls.
This proved decisive in May when, in coalition with Fiszman, he persuaded a group of shareholders affiliated to the Carr and Bracewell-Smith families, whose association with the club stretches back generations, to cut their ties with their cousin Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who had been unceremoniously forced off the board six months earlier.
Kroenke bought £46 million of shares - 8% of the club - from Richard Carr, grandson of former chairman Lord Bracewell-Smith, Clive Carr and Lady Sarah Phipps-Bagge to fundamentally change the balance of power in the boardroom. Had Lady Nina, the daughter-in-law of former Arsenal director Sir George Bracewell-Smith, persuaded the Carrs to team up with Usmanov, the Russian tycoon would have been within touching distance of the magic 50% mark.
"That was the killer move," explained the source. "It gave Kroenke and Danny control of the club. What Kroenke is doing now is picking up a few more shares to protect his position. It is vital that Kroenke and Danny and a few others stay above the 50% mark."
City sources say it would be "foolish" for Kroenke to personally go above 30% as he would then have to "find another £400 million" to buy the stakes of other shareholders.
Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that at some point Kroenke will take the plunge and add the ownership of Arsenal to a portfolio that already includes basketball team Denver Nuggets, hockey team Colorado Avalanche, Major League Soccer team Colorado Rapids and 40% ownership of American Football giants St Louis Rams.
So, what type of owner can Arsenal fans expect should Kroenke become, if not the outright owner then the significant owner of the club?
Painting the 62-year-old as the Gunners' saviour is simple but flawed. He is more Randy Lerner than Roman Abramovich.
The boardroom source said: "Kroenke is a long-term sports investor, not a sugar daddy. He doesn't put money into his teams in that way. He is in it for the long haul. He has never sold a single stake or share in any of his sports teams. He would want to run the club well and build it up, which is more in keeping with the Arsenal tradition. Usmanov would see Arsenal as a trophy to mess around with for a few years."
Crucially, Kroenke also has the influential Arsenal Supporters' Trust, whose members own around 12% of the club's shares, on his side.
The Trust played a key role during the early days in building bridges between Kroenke and the board and members were extremely impressed with the setup of the American's teams when they were invited to meet him and his aides in Denver last year.
"We wrote to the club and urged them to make him a board member and work with him, which they did," a spokesman for the Trust said. "Stan Kroenke is down-to-earth, very passionate about sport and works quietly behind the scenes. He is a very smart operator. That said, we are committed to plurality of ownership at Arsenal and very much against a hostile or debt-laden takeover."
Although he is far from a football or Arsenal nut - basketball is his first love - and only visits London for board meetings, Kroenke's influence has already begun to be felt at the Emirates Stadium.
He is understood to have been a key adviser in the property side of the business during the summer and has been increasingly instrumental in the club's international commercial strategy.
The appointments of men with strong links to America - Ivan Gazidis as chief executive and Tom Fox as commercial director - are, at the very least, a happy coincidence. Kroenke might not own Arsenal - and might not for some time - but he is already pulling the strings.