The Gang of Three meet with Shareholders (2)

Chris Saunders asks questions from the second meeting between shareholders and the Gang of Three

Paul Thompson began the evening by telling us a bit about himself. The son of a greengrocer, his main love was football - although he never supported a team because he was always too busy either playing the game or working in his father's shop. After starting a team with friends from his local church, he played regularly in amateur leagues until the age of 30, when one game saw the opposition goalkeeper punch the space where the ball would have been had Thompson not headed it only an instant before - and break his jaw. Somehow, he lost the desire to head the ball after that and gave up playing the game.

As a businessman, Thompson has been successful - he is Chairman of Sanderson plc, of which he owns about 11% of the shares (and a large number of their Annual Reports had been distributed for the attendees to read). Now a company with an 80 million pound turnover, it employs some 800 people and has shown a constant growth since it started. Thompson also chairs another smaller electronics company. More recently, he became involved with the Sheffield Eagles - a Rugby League club into which he's put a considerable amount of his own money; money he admits that he will never get back, but he showed clear pride that the team had beaten Wigan in the final of their League Cup last year despite a regular crowd of only around 2,000 - pride in the knowledge that the club had achieved something that would live in the memories of their fans for a long time. In addition, he has been involved with a basketball team in Sheffield, who won the basketball equivalent of the Football League Cup two seasons ago and their equivalent of the League and Cup double last season.

In 1995, he approached Albion with a view to investing in a club that he felt could, and should, be doing better than it was at the time (a season after we had been promoted to Division 1, when we were losing money and facing relegation). He made the club a loan of 500,000 pounds - money that was used to buy Richard Sneekes, and a turnaround in performances saw the club finish in 11th place. He then underwrote the share issue, buying 2 million pounds worth of shares as part of the original issue that saw large numbers of fans finally given the opportunity to invest in the club. Later, he was persuaded to take a seat on the Board and participate more actively in running the club, and one of the first things that suprised him was that the club had no plan or strategy in place. He set about coming up with a plan to take the club forward from what was already a good starting point, a plan that involved the completion of the stadium redevelopment, the purchase of a new training ground and the strengthening of the squad.

Since becoming involved with the club, he's become quite a fan, and has been to practically every game, home and away. However, the plan he put together was rejected by Tony Hale, and he became increasingly frustrated with a series of poor decisions being made under Hale's leadership - decisions which had seen the club make little or no progress on the pitch or off it. Finally, when transfer deadline day came and went without the team being strengthened, he decided he could no longer continue as a Board member and resigned. Because the playoffs were still a possibility, he didn't say anything at the time about his reasons for leaving, but when the season with another disappointing league position, he finally decided that he had to try and do something about the situation, and wrote to Tony Hale to tell him that he would be calling an EGM to ask the shareholders to remove him as Chairman.

Barry Hurst then talked about his time at the Club and the events that led up to his resignation, basically the same story as he put across in the recent interview with BOING.

Clive Stapleton then spoke about his time at the club and his recent departure from the Board. Clive came across as being seriously upset by the events surrounding his resignation, not least because of the nonchalant way in which it had been accepted by the Chairman. Clive has also been upset by the way he has been treated by some sections of the media, and he's agreed to talk to me in more detail over the next week about his views on the problems at the Club and what he feels could be done to take it forward.

Paul then went on to discuss what he feels are the problems at the club. There is a lack of good leadership from the Chairman - this is essential because of the influence the Chairman has over each and every decision made at the club. There is a complete lack of a plan or a strategy for the club to achieve success - and as the old saying goes "to fail to plan is to plan to fail". There is a serious problem in wasting money at the club. He gave examples of three players who have lost large sums of money - Paul Groves, who we bought from Grimsby and sold back to them for half a million less; Shaun Murphy, who we paid ?325,000 and lost for nothing, and Paul Crichton who also saw us make a serious loss. The club consists of a chain of elements - the Chairman, the manager, the team, the ground, the supporters, and is only as strong as the weakest link in that chain. The mismanagement and the lack of leadership means that we're not getting anything like the best out of the many people involved in the club, both on and off the pitch. And there has been a complete lack of significant progress under Tony Hale - when Thompson came to the club it was losing money and going nowhere.

The evening then turned into a question and answer/soapbox session, and I've tried to list all the ones I can remember along with most of what was said:

All three of you were on the Board. If you didn't agree with Tony Hale why didn't you just outvote him? And if you couldn't do that why didn't you resign sooner?

There was a definite hostility from the audience in these opening exchanges. Thompson and sidekicks tried to explain that it just wasn't as simple as that, and that it was the chairman who always had the final say and the casting vote. A number of people were clearly unhappy with the answer, one in particular said how he worked in venture capital and that the chairman's casting vote was only ever necessary where the Board couldn't reach agreement. Thompson explained that the Board could only vote on matters brought before them to discuss, and that it was still the Chairman who actually made the decisions, it was him that the manager would take his instructions from and it was him that everyone within the club would look to for the final say in everything and that the chairman is always the one who has the power. "I can't accept that" said the questioner, who then got to his feet and started to storm out of the room - although he got halfway before changing his mind and spending the rest of the evening stood along the side of the room with the rest of those who couldn't find seats. As to why they hadn't resigned earlier, it was a case of wanting to try their best to change things for the better from where they were, rather than just giving up and walking away. But after trying for so long, and failing, Thompson finally decided that the only course of action was to resign and call the EGM. All three spoke of how it would be so much easier for them to leave the Board, let them get on with it and take up their seats in the Brummie with the other fans, but how they just couldn't do that until they knew that they'd tried their best to do what was right for the club.

Renowned WM terrace talker and Grorty Dick contributor Terry Wills then asked if he could come up front and take the microphone to ask some questions. Thompson agreed, and rather than ask direct questions, Wills made a passioned defence of Tony Hale, how he'd put his money into the club, how he was a real fan with a passion for Albion who had promised to put another million pounds of his own money while Thompson was offering nothing in the way of extra funds other than a promise to get funding from outside sources that he hasn't found yet, and how WBA was a football club, not a plc, and that it can't be run in the same way as a plc because it's not appropriate.

The last point, however, drew murmurs of disapproval from the audience, most of whom muttered that yes, it was a plc, and it had to be run like one and perhaps that was half of the problem.

Arthur Rothe, a long time Albion fan, stood up and told the room how he'd spent many years going around the world and advising businesses about the essential nature of having a business plan, and how he was staggered to hear so much about how WBA was being run in an amateurish fashion with no sense of leadership or direction, and no agreed plan or strategy. He remembered some of the great times WBA had enjoyed in the past and how they had gone down and down since then, and that without proper leadership and management they were just stagnating. He was pleased to hear that Thompson had recognised that these were the problems and felt that for the first time in ages there was a glimmer of hope for the future under someone like Thompson.

Arthur's speech drew enthusiastic appluase from the audience, possibly for the first time in the evening. I got the impression that the audience were finally beginning to get the message about just how bad the state of affairs inside the club really was, how badly it was being run and how radical changes were becoming necessary to take it forward. Terry Wills, who was still up at the front with the microphone, began another attack on Thompson but was soon interrupted by members of the audience who felt that he wasn't representing the views of the majority of those present and that he'd had his say - and without further support he returned to his seat.

Your attacks have really been aimed at the current Chairman, and the EGM vote is to remove him from power. But what happens then?

There's no proposal for a replacement Chairman, you've said you'll do it if nobody else steps forward, but how will that be arranged? How long will it take?

You're asking us to vote for a "void" and I don't see how we can be prepared to do that!

Why can't the motion be amended now so that we can vote on a new choice of Chairman at the same time as getting rid of the old one?

This broad subject was the source of many similar questions and statements of views throughout the course of the evening, and in my opinion it still represents the largest question mark over the whole issue of sacking Hale. Thompson has made the statement that he doesn't feel that he would be the best choice as Chairman, and that the whole proposal is not about him replacing Hale - but about voting for change in the way the club is run. However, he would be prepared to take over as Chairman if nobody else is prepared to do it, and if the shareholders want it. This begs the questions about voting for a "void", then, because if the EGM vote goes in favour of sacking Hale, there seems to be no mechanism to then appoint a new Chairman, whoever it is, there seems to be no mechanism for the shareholders to formally state that they want Thompson as Chairman if there *is* nobody else, and come to that there seems to be no mechanism for getting anybody else anyway. The concerns are that we come out of the EGM with no Chairman - the vital link between all aspects of the running of the club - and no sign of getting one.

For starters, however, there was no reason why a new Chairman could not be appointed the next day, as this could be done by the remaining members of the Board (Brandrick, Colston and Wile), who should have been in a position to pick up the views from the shareholders through the EGM vote and - hopefully - pick the right man for the job. But it's a definite concern that if the remaining Board is pro-Hale, and against the kind of changes that Thompson is proposing, this might not happen, or it might take a long time to find a suitable candidate. On the question of who exactly should take over, Thompson feels that there are people out there - people who have the right credentials, but who haven't come forward because they don't want to be seen as getting involved in the conflict and the current politics. With the current leadership removed, Thompson feels that suitable people will be found, and if it doesn't happen straight away he will step in and fill the role until such time as someone is found.

There were calls for Thompson to "stand up and be counted" and propose himself as Chairman, but he held his position of "if the shareholders want it" and pointed out that as the EGM resolution had been agreed and set in motion by the club, that the only people who could change it now were the club and that they were hardly likely to do that given that it was aimed at the person in charge. The issue of exactly who will become Chairman and when it will happen (given that the EGM passes the motion anyway) still remains unresolved and vague.

You say that the first thing that needs to happen if the vote is successful is that we need to put together a plan for the future. But you already have one (PT had showed us the actual plan he'd written after joining) so why are you saying we need to start again and write a new one?

Because the plan he'd written at the time was appropriate for that time, when there was optimism following the good finish to the season, the share issue and the general mood of investment in football clubs. Now, several years later, the optimism has gone and the mood has changed, so the plan needs to be revisited to take the current circumstances into account.

Tony Hale is a true fan of the club and you're not. Tony Hale has done wonders for this club, and you're just in it for the money.

The same sort of sentiments as expressed by Terry Wills were expressed again by a lady who had supported the club for many years. Thompson admitted "Of course I'm not as big a fan as you or Tony, how could I be? I've only supported them for three years". However, he went on to say that in that time he has become a keen supporter, he wants to see the club succeed and he's frustrated by the lack of progress. Yes, he could walk away from the problem, he - like Clive - could sit and watch from the crowd with the rest of the fans, but at least by doing what he's doing he can put his hand on his heart and say that he'd done his best for the club, to try and take it forward in the way he thought was best. He quoted again how he'd put money into the Sheffield Eagles, money that he'd written off as never to be recovered, but he didn't care because he felt he had achieved something there of lasting value. He wants to do the same here. Interestingly, it was pointed out that one of the main achievements credited to Tony Hale, the work on scrapping the old constitution, was actually carried out by Barry Hurst and Terry Guy, and that Hale had to be "dragged kicking and screaming" into accepting it.

Tony Hale has people lined up now to put money into the club. Will these sources dry up if Hale is removed?

Where is the money going to come from to fund the plan you haven't even got yet? How much will it take?

Thompson's reply was that if Tony Hale has people who are prepared to put money into the club in the state that it's in at the moment, with no plan and poor management, it would seem reasonable to expect the same people to be prepared to put the same money into a club that has a plan, a strategy and a sound leadership. As to how much it would take, Thompson was again somewhat evasive, because the exact details of the plan - especially the priorities and the order in which they'd be implemented - would be determined to some extent by how much money could be raised from outside sources.

If Tony Hale is removed from the Board, would the remaining Directors be under pressure to resign as well?

There would be no need for them to do so, and in fact in the absence of a Chairman they would be the ones responsible for choosing a new one so they would be expected to stay. Thomspon seemed perfectly happy for them to continue unde the new Chairman, whether it turned out to be him or someone else, although he did seem a little concerned that one of the current Directors, Don Colston, was based overseas and wondered how much time he would be able to devote to the club as a result. Thompson clearly seems to think that all Directors should have some sort of active role in the running of the club, as without it there doesn't seem much point in them being there.

OK, so you don't have a finished plan. But surely you can tell us in general what will be in it? How does redevelopment of the ground rate as a priority?

Basically, the plan is to achieve top six status in every aspect of the club. Having a top six manager, Chairman, squad, ground and set of fans (I presumed here that he meant attendance figures here rather than somehow setting out to change the fans themselves) will mean we can achieve a regular top six spot in the League, and that gives us a solid basis to get a place in the Premiership and a good chance of staying there. It's pointless to aim to be the best in the land at this stage, we have to set realistic goals and targets and reach them before we can consider the next ones. There was a feeling that this is not ambitious enough for us - after so long out of the top flight surely our priority must be to get into, and stay in, the Premiership. As far as the ground is concerned, it's important because it's one of the most visible signs of the clubs ambition, and it tells prospective players that the club is moving upwards and onwards and not just sitting still, and it will help to attract and keep them. As an overall priority, though, it ranks only about fourth in the list, with the squad, the training ground and better overall management of the club rated higher. Ideally, all would be sorted out at the same time, but that may not be practical give the funding required and the time to raise it.

How did he feel about selling Hughes? About ground sharing with Moseley? About buying out the Ehiogu transfer clause from Villa for a million?

A series of questions that somehow seemed less appropriate for the discussion - the kind of questions you'd perhaps put to both candidates in the election for a Chairman. On Hughes, Thompson made it clear that he was the kind of player that we need to attract and retain in order to succeed. Regarding the ground sharing, this was a business decision that we would have to make based on its merits. On Ehiogu, (the question was asked on the grounds that Hale has said in the papers that we would be prepared to take 1 million in place of the right to 50% of his transfer fee, although I haven't seen any quote from Hale which suggests this figure) Thompson said that again, a business decision would have to be taken by talking to other managers, Chairmen and whoever else we could to try and assess the chances of him staying put, leaving on a free or leaving for a fee and hence working out whether any figure offered was a good or bad deal for Albion and whether the risk of not accepting the offer was justified.

Was he behind the proposal to merge with Wimbledon and become the West Bromwich Dons?

Thompson could be forgiven for being fed up about hearing this one again, but if he was he gave no indication of being so. He said that he'd been asked this question at the AGM, and he'd said at the time that anyone who came to the club with a proposal should be listened to before any decision could be made - but that he'd then received a lot of stick from people (presumably for not dismissing it out of hand without listening to what it had to offer). He went on to say that he was convinced that the vast majority of West Bromwich Albion fans would be opposed to such a proposal.

The meeting finished with plenty of applause for Thompson, and I don't recall hearing any dissenting voices - even from the ones who'd been the source of much criticism earlier on - they had been nodding along to most of Thompson's answers and statements for some time by then. Several people made the point that they recognised the stagnation that we're suffering from and that this was the first time they had seen someone who looked like they could do something about it. Whether enough people have been impressed to make a difference, and whether they'll still feel that way when they hear some of the arguments against Thompson, that will surely be coming back from Hale and his supporters, remains to be seen.

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