When I last wrote about Birmingham City things were grim, on-field and off. In the intervening seven months, NOTHING has changed… apart from the entry in the club’s record books marked “heaviest home defeat.” On May 3rd, Blues avoided relegation to League One by about as long as it took me to type this far. Yet Blues fans may have forgotten Paul Caddis’s drop-saving, stoppage-time equaliser, at fellow-financial basket-case Bolton, when Tokelo Rantie made it eight-nil (EIGHT) to Bournemouth at St Andrews on October 25th.
Blues’ then acting-chairman, Peter Pannu, said in an interview with Tom Ross on the local Free Radio station on February 7th that without him Blues would be “in League One by now.” It’s the clearest testament to Pannu’s failed tenure that Blues nearly made League One with him. Pannu’s lucrative management contract ended on September 30th, as did the long-hidden “consultancy” agreement between Pannu’s tax haven-registered company Asia Rays Limited and Blues’ parent company Birmingham International Holdings (BIH). However, Pannu hasn’t exited stage left entirely and BIH’s finances continue to underpin their problems. Their 2013/14 accounts revealed appalling and increasing losses – £12.61m compared to £9.73m in 2012/13 – and a wage bill which, despite being the Championship’s second-lowest, was 92% of evaporating turnover.
The biggest on and off-field drains on the payroll, beanpole striker Nicola Zigic and the far-from-beanpole Pannu have gone (would Blues’ be any worse off had the two swapped roles?). But so have “parachute payments.” £11m of borrowings are secured largely against “the Group’s land and buildings in the UK” (“unquestionably St. Andrews,” wrote the Guardian’s David Conn). And BIH’s efforts to sell Blues and raise finances have met with Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE) obstacles…aka regulations. At least Pannu was a devil you knew, albeit one with the most annoying voice in football (if he voiced the speaking clock you’d tell it to **** off). Little is known of those in charge at BIH, except that some have been appointed with priorities other than football in mind.
Blues’ current corporate reality is bond conversions, business diversification and possible boardroom power struggle. Oh… and Carson Yeung, Blues’ major shareholder and figurehead, is in Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison, serving six-years for money-laundering. Franz Kafka could scarcely have written a more-convoluted plot. Yeung’s chances of successfully appealing this conviction were boosted by an appeal court ruling in another money-laundering trial. Yeung virtually had to prove his innocence in his 2013 trial. The recent ruling shifts that onus of proof considerably towards the prosecution. So Yeung, whose convictions did not stop him being an English football club’s biggest individual shareholder, may return to Blues.
Nominally at least, BIH have been trying to sell Blues since May 2012, when Pannu claimed to have “identified” an investor before scurrilously hinting that fans’ “passion” wasn’t helping (“I hope there is no adverse impact on the efforts to seek a suitable buyer”). But their motivation is constantly questioned. Leading football insolvency practitioner Gerald Krasner said Yeung’s £30m asking price was from “cloud-cuckoo land.” Celebrity fan Jasper Carrott believed administration “might be a way out because then the club would be available to buy.” And this year’s sales’ efforts have been as bizarre as asking Carrott’s opinion in the first place.
In February, BIH appeared to have sold 12% to Beijing Liangzhu International Media Advertising Company (BL). Unfortunately, BL’s lack of registered address, email address and phone number made their “failure to make the relevant deposit when due” less than shocking. The deal collapsed on March 7th. April produced news of several bids for Blues. An “English” group was the local media’s favourites, with Tom Ross claiming that “one or two members…are wealthy Blues supporters” while telling his Birmingham Mail column readers on April 16th that “Blues fans would overwhelmingly prefer English owners.” And Radio WM’s Mark Regan read out an email, entitled “Project Blue,” between Pannu and a “British” consortium member. This revealed two offers of £32m and £23m, an April 23rd BIH board meeting to discuss four proposals and that while the British bid, from the imaginatively-entitled “BCFC 2014” consortium, wasn’t the biggest, size was “not the main factor in the decision.”
This heightened expectations of an imminent HKSE announcement of a “preferred bidder.” But although five offers were reportedly discussed, including two from Britain, HKSE were blocking a 100% sale until BIH could diversify its business and demonstrate that it could be a viable concern without the club. This is not easy given that Blues contributed all but proverbial loose change of BIH’s turnover. But it explained appointments such as oil and gas man Cheung Shing, Yeung’s successor as BIH chairman, who joined the board in April 2013. On May 26th, the HKSE announced an “indicative, non-binding offer” for the available 24% of BIH (25% of its Blues’ stake). Pannu added that BIH were in “advanced talks with a British consortium with a very strong North American investment fund;” but “specific details could not be disclosed” and there were “many technical issues to be resolved.”
However, on May 29th, “Soccer Management Worldwide,” fronted by Swindon Town ex-chairman Jeremy Wray, proclaimed that: “On Friday May 23rd, we were informed by (BIH) that (we) had been selected as preferred bidder…(and)…granted a three-week exclusivity period to complete due diligence.” The HKSE didn’t announce this development, which cast immediate doubt upon it. Concerns also emerged over SMW’s company secretary, Derek Peter, who was found guilty, in 2008, of seven misconduct charges of illegal payments to agents while a Luton Town director, barred from company directorships for seven years and flung out, as unceremoniously as such bodies can, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. Sensibly, Peter left SMW on May 30th and was replaced by Blues ex-deputy MD Peter Day.
Despite their “exclusivity,” SMW contacted two other “British-based” consortia to formulate a united bid, prompting speculation that their non-identified “North American Investment Fund” was either non-existent or had withdrawn. One consortia was the afore-mentioned BCFC2014 group, including Paul Richardson, a “lifelong” Blues fan and non-executive director between 2002 and 2004. The “exclusivity” merely produced an information vacuum, into which stepped rumour-upon-rumour of offers, including a report by Sky Sports’ Bryan Swanson throwing the names Mike Farnon and Adam Pearson into the mixer, never to be seen again.
On June 13th, the Mail’s Blues correspondent Colin Tattum ran a story headlined “Consortium ‘ready to do the deal’,” evoking cynical memories of Solihull-based Italian Gianni Paladini’s many similar claims. Day claimed “everything was in place…subject to” (the small matter of) “the price being agreed,” which sounded like significant progress. However, the story was clearly based on a 100% sale of the club, which was not on offer. And the HKSE appeared more focussed on BIH’s past, investigating delays in producing their audited accounts in 2011. According to “noises from Hong Kong” heard by Daniel Ivery of the terrific Often Partisan website, SMW’s takeover was “dead in the water.” And no-one heard any “noises” from SMW until Wray left their board for “personal reasons” in August.
On August 1st BIH announced that, to fund its business diversification, they would issue £9m of new shares, equally divided between Cheung Shing and BIH vice-chairman Victor Ma Shui Cheong’s British Virgin Islands-incorporated company Deluxe Crystals. This required HKSE and shareholder approval. However, the shareholders’ EGM was delayed twice, with BIH needing “more time to finalise documents,” a statement vague enough to cover all bases/problems. And BIH’s share price nosedived below half the conversion price, obliterating Cheung and Ma’s profit prospects. The deal collapsed on 3rd November.
Meanwhile, Pannu appears reluctant to leave the Birmingham City PLC and BIH boards, one and two rungs respectively up BIH’s corporate ladder. Directors must approve his PLC board departure. Shareholders must approve his BIH board departure. And recent power shifts may prevent both. On October 9th, it was announced that real estate developer and (another) BIH vice-chairman Yang Yuezhou had exchanged loans his company U-Continent Holdings made to BIH during 2013 for 1.5 billion shares. This made him BIH’s largest shareholder at 21.49%, votes which would, reportedly, be cast against Pannu.
However, Yeung last week converted some of his BIH loans into 2.7 billion shares, returning him and his wholly-owned company, the ironically-named Great Luck Management, to the number one slot with 27.89%, votes which would surely be cast for Pannu. And… BIH recently discovered that they’ve overpaid Pannu. Taken one way, this is not news. Pannu received £1.036m in 2013/14, compared to his replacement Panos Pavlakis’s £41,800 for six months. But last week BIH announced that “Housing allowances and tax reimbursements” had pushed Asia Rays’ consultancy fees through their agreed “annual cap.” And BIH are not yet able, or willing, to claw the money back.
Blues fans have felt utterly powerless. But the Bournemouth drubbing tipped many emotions towards the “we must do SOMEthing” stage. Blues’ supporters trust held a constructive meeting on October 28th to formulate a united strategy to raise awareness of Blues’ plight via media and politicians, locally and nationally, and push for greater transparency from BIH. They also spoke of “protesting jointly” with other crisis clubs as “the only way to make the Football League listen.” But if the league can allow a prisoner to become one of their member clubs’ biggest individual shareholder, one suspects rational argument is beyond them Last week, the Trust published a template letter on which supporters could base individual communication to local and national politicians and media, emotively but precisely chronicling Blues’ recent turbulence.
Yet obstacles remain, even to such laudable, modest claims. BIH’s corporate and financial complexities appear too much for sports journalists such as Tom Ross. And BIH’s perceived secrecy is largely enshrined in HKSE regulations. Meanwhile, advocates of a “starve them out” strategy are faced with the financial reality that gate receipts comprise only 18% of BIH turnover (broadcast income is 60%), suggesting that only the struggling team would be starved of anything significant. Pavlakis offers hope of improved fan-communication (not hard, admittedly). He met with fan representative group “Blues Collective” in early October. And in his first-ever programme notes, a month later, he had a sly dig at his predecessor: “Football…requires a club executive’s physical presence and you certainly can’t run a football club from a Blackberry.”
But it will take far more than populist digs to persuade fans that Yeung and Pannu are not still in control. Victor Ma Shui Cheong is Yeung’s brother-in-law. Yeung’s 20-year-old son Ryan remains a club director and Pavlakis’s partner is Yeung’s half-brother’s daughter. When the Premier League deemed Yeung “fit and proper” to buy one of its clubs in 2009, it showed no public concern over the new ownership structure, thus allowing Blues to become a pawn in a distant, often incomprehensible power game. Blues fans continue to pay for such negligence.
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