Christian Purslow is a third-generation Liverpool fan, a long-time season ticket holder at Anfield, and the Merseyside club's former managing director. About six weeks ago, he was hired by Chelsea as part of the boardroom reshuffling in the wake of chief executive officer Ron Gourlay's departure.
While Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia have assumed many of Gourlay's responsibilities (with Granovskaia taking the lead), Purslow has been brought on to help grow the club's brand, and by extension, commercial revenues.
Purslow's official title is head of global commercial activities, and in the club's own words, Chelsea "has ambitious plans to build the Premier League's most pioneering global commercial programme, partnering with innovative and market-leading organisations from around the world. The club believes Mr. Purslow has the vision and the leadership qualities to help us achieve these plans."
After researching Purslow's background and experience, WAGNH not only agrees with the club's estimation of Purslow's abilities, but would actually take it a step further and argue Purslow is overqualified for this job (we decided to overlook the fact that Purslow once referred to himself as the "Fernando Torres of finance").
Purslow possesses an impressive CV, and graduated in the top five percent of his class at Havard Business School, where he earned his MBA (as an aside, HBS has become something of a football hub recently, with Roma naming fellow HBS grad Rich D'Amore to its board and Alex Ferguson co-teaching a class with Professor Anita Elberse).
Purslow also co-founded the private equity firm MidOcean Partners. Based in New York, MidOcean runs billions of sterling pounds in investments and purchases companies that have been subject to failed leveraged buyouts. Purslow has since retired from running the day-to-day operations as the managing partner, and now sits on the board.
Despite the fact that there is more money in football than ever before, football clubs are comparatively tiny businesses. For perspective, Real Madrid, the world's highest grossing football club, would only be the 120th largest company in Finland in terms of annual revenues. The deals Purslow will be in charge of securing will be much lower-stakes than his routine engagements at MidOcean, especially with Chelsea's most lucrative sponsorship deals (kit and shirt) either locked up for the long term (adidas) or about to be locked up (Turkish Airlines).
Despite (or perhaps because of) Purslow being used to much larger deals in private equity, he successfully negotiated one of the biggest sponsorship deals football had ever seen. While at Liverpool, he secured a four-year £80m shirt deal with Standard Chartered. This represented the largest commercial deal in Liverpool history, and at £20m per year, was an enormous increase over the previous deal with Carlsberg (£7.2m per year). Further, at the time, the average annual value of the deal was tied with Manchester United and Aon for the largest shirt deal in football.
The deal was considered so large by industry standards that a Standard Chartered executive actually had to defend the deal at a conference in London.
Historically, Chelsea has lagged behind in commercial revenues, which might come down to the fact that in the pre-FFP era, there may not have been the motivation to put together a strong team of people who would focus exclusively on developing commercial partnerships and increasing sponsorship revenues.
However, over the past year or so, Chelsea has gone to considerable efforts to grow its brand, and the club's efforts seem to be paying off. Chelsea announced its 2013/14 revenues last month, but still hasn't filed its annual financial report to Companies House, so we're still unsure of exactly how much commercial revenue the club earned. That said, we crunched the numbers and came up with a projection of £119.7m.
Here's how Chelsea's projected commercial revenues compare to clubs that have already filed their 2013/14 financial reports.
- Bayern Munich - £228.9m
- Real Madrid - £190.5m
- Manchester United - £189.3m
- Manchester City - £165.8m
- Barcelona - £132.6m
- Chelsea - £119.7m
- Borussia Dortmund - £108.9m
- Arsenal - £77.1m
- Atletico Madrid - £29.2m
- Everton - £12.7m
On Purslow being a Liverpool supporter
This likely doesn't need to be said, but just so there's no doubt, the fact that Purslow happens to support Liverpool obviously won't affect the way he conducts business on Chelsea's behalf. Professionals do the job they were hired to do to the best of their ability and one's own work ethic and professional reputation will always supersede any affinity for a sports team for the vast majority of people.
I met with a colleague last week who works for the rival of the club she grew up watching, and she mentioned that in some ways, it's actually better to work for a club you don't have any ties to, as it's probably easier to be an employee and objectively focus on the work, rather than having all these feelings of growing up with the club, which could inadvertantly seep in to the work. Put it this way, as a Chelsea supporter, if you were in charge of player contracts, wouldn't it be a lot easier to represent Southampton in a negotiation with Morgan Schneiderlin than it would be to represent Chelsea in a negotiation with Didier Drogba?
I have another colleague who supports a different big Premier League club and worked on a recent Chelsea transfer. The club he supports almost certainly would have liked to sign this player, but that's obviously not how things work.
On Purslow's time as Liverpool's managing director
Liverpool supporters seem to have mixed feelings (at best) about his tenure, which lasted sixteen months, from June 2009 to October 2010. I spoke briefly with Paul Tomkins, who runs the excellent Tomkins Times (which despite being a Liverpool site, I visit frequently, as the work Paul and his team do have applications that go far beyond Anfield), and he simply recommended I ask someone else, as he didn't have a single good word to say about Purslow, which I found surprising as an outsider.
I had naturally assumed a third-generation supporter who helped rid the club of Tom Hicks and George Gillett would be something of a hero in the red parts of Liverpool, but that is most certainly not the case. After looking into it, I found a few reasons why his time at Liverpool doesn't seem to be remembered very fondly. Fortunately, none of them seem to be particularly foreboding.
Rafa Benitez blames Purslow for being let go by Liverpool
Following the 2009/10 season, when Benitez and Liverpool finished in seventh place (which, just five years ago, was considered a terrible season by Liverpool standards), the club and Benitez "mutually agreed" to part ways, and Benitez was given a £6 million buyout. Said Benitez, "I was on holiday so it was a surprise that everything was going on in this way, but at the end of the day it has to be like this because Christian Purslow is now in charge and he decided to do it in this way."
It sure seems like Benitez was sacked and was offered this "mutual agreement" as a way to save face. As such, it's completely understandable that Liverpool supporters would be upset at the executive who fired him, as Benitez did very well at Liverpool, winning all sorts of trophies for the club, including the Champions League in 2004/05.
When Benitez was at Inter Milan, he still held on to the grudge, complaining that "they chose a new managing director who was involved in all the decisions and we changed everything that we were doing in the past. If you ask me what's going on it's simple - they changed some things and by the end they changed everything. You know who to blame."
Something tells me that Purslow not wanting Rafa Benitez at his football club is not going to be an issue for Chelsea supporters.
Not spending enough in the transfer market / poor transfer decisions
Liverpool's former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are reviled by Liverpool supporters, and deservedly so. One common complaint was that they didn't spend enough in the transfer market, and as managing director, Purslow has shouldered some of that blame.
Because Hicks and Gillett saddled the club with so much debt (over £200m by the time the club was sold), a significant chunk of Liverpool's revenues were going to financing that debt (£45m in 2010). Had ownership followed through with their promise not to put any debt onto the club, then that £45m could have been spent in the transfer market instead of being handed over to the Royal Bank of Scotland. The situation became so dire that RBS could have placed the club into administration during the months leading up to the sale, meaning that Liverpool would have been docked nine points the following season.
Purslow oversaw three transfer windows at Liverpool: summer 2009, winter 2010, and summer of 2010. The club's transfer deals during that time period weren't great, but consider the circumstances, as Liverpool wasn't in a position to spend a single pound more than it brought in.
In the summer of 2009, Xabi Alonso was sold to Real Madrid (teammate Alvaro Arbeloa joined him) and Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani were brought in with the funds from sale. There's no real defence for the Aquilani deal, but Glen Johnson was coming off a season at Portsmouth which he named to the PFA Team of the Year and had only just turned 23. Furthermore, Portsmouth also accepted a bid from Chelsea for Johnson's services, and he was a highly sought-after player.
The fault for Alonso leaving lies squarely on the shoulders of Rafa Benitez, and the blame for most of the other poor deals can likely be distributed among the decision-makers at the time: Purslow, Ayre, Broughton, Benitez, Hicks, and Gillett.
The one deal that Purslow appears primarily responsible for is the sale of Javier Mascherano to Barcelona for around £20m, at least to hear Mascherano tell it.
If you look at Chelsea's transfer business during that timespan, it's better, but not by much (buying Daniel Sturridge and Ramires are the highlights, plus Yossi Benayoun, Yuri Zhirkov, Tomas Kalas, and the first go-round with Nemanja Matic).
Seriously. I couldn't believe it either. For whatever reason, some Liverpool supporters simply didn't like the idea of a Cambridge and Harvard-educated private equity guy running the club (full disclosure: a Cambridgian or whatever they call themselves runs WAGNH).
Purslow was part of a triumvirate on the board with Ian Ayre and Martin Broughton who forced the sale of the club to John Henry and FSG (then called NESV) and defended themselves against a lawsuit by Tom Hicks and George Gillett who unsuccessfully tried to reverse course and block the sale at the last minute. Ayre is still at Liverpool and Broughton appears to be thought of quite highly (Broughton, coincidentally, is a lifelong Chelsea supporter).
All three are wildly successful businessman, but Broughton and Ayre took a much different path to success than Purslow. Broughton started working at an accounting firm at age eighteen and Ayre quit school at sixteen to join the Navy, while Purslow attended two of the best schools in the world.
For those of us who recognise that football clubs are businesses, Purslow's experience should be considered a positive, rather than a negative, as financial success greatly increases the chances of football success (briefly, increased revenues leads to increased spending, increased spending leads to better talent, and better talent leads to better chances at winning trophies).
Any perceived lack of football knowledge on Purslow's part is not an issue and completely irrelevant, since there's no reason for Purslow to make a football-related decision at Chelsea and it's not part of his job description. Marina Granovskaia has been in charge of transfer and contract negotiations for years, and Michael Emenalo heads the club's vaunted global scouting network. With Jose Mourinho, Steve Holland, Piet de Visser, Eddie Newton, Dermot Drummy, and Co., there's no shortage of brilliant football and scouting minds at Stamford Bridge to weigh in on football matters.
While it's unlikely that Purslow will be called upon to engage in football-related matters, he does possess a keen understanding of the competing dynamics involved in transfer deals, and an op-ed he wrote for the Telegraph three years ago provides some excellent insights into the unique nature of the January window, and still remains relevant today.
In his own words
Purslow spoke to his prep school alma mater earlier this year about the challenges he faced as Liverpool's managing director:
The main challenge was that the club had been bought by two American businessmen with a huge amount of borrowed money, and the club’s income was to be used to pay the interest on that borrowing, which didn’t leave very much for running a top competitive football club. So I was brought in to more or less take away the credit card that the owners had bandied around and which had put the club into a hugely risky financial position.
To be the person who had to keep the club alive long enough to get it sold but on the other hand having no money to spend, that tightrope was the hardest part of the job. Fans, naturally, want to see their team being highly competitive and to spend lots of money on transfers and wages. It was not an option for me to speak publicly about what a financial mess it was when I arrived; my job was to fix the mess and not whinge about it. With some people not appreciating that situation until the very end then there were naturally pressures put on me and questions asked.
It would have been so much easier if I had just told people how terrible the position was, but I preferred to try to fix it quietly and maintain the club’s reputation. That was the only way I could keep players at the club and get people interested in buying it. Right until the last minute I managed to do that, until the owner’s decided to take legal action to try to prevent me from selling the club which put our crisis firmly in the news.
In his outgoing interview with Liverpool, he was asked how the process affected him personally.
I think it's a very serious job running Liverpool Football Club. I came here, as everybody knows, for one reason - to try and fix the club's financial problems. That is the area of expertise I have and I am relieved and pleased that we've been able to do that in the end. I wish it hadn't taken as long and I wish it hadn't had the twists and turns along the way, but it's very pleasing to get the job done.
In that same interview, Purslow was also asked how happy he was for the supporters that the uncertainty over the ownership situation was finally resolved.
That's all I care about. I'm a Liverpool fan who happens to have some experience and expertise that was relevant to the predicament the Club found itself in when I arrived here. But I'm here because I'm a fan and it is just incredibly moving to know that millions and millions of people around the world today can look forward to a better future for the club and I'm just one of those people.
The fact is, Purslow was hired to lead Liverpool out of a terrible situation, and he did just that. He was given, from what I can see, a lot of misplaced grief from supporters, and remained the consummate professional.
The damage Hicks and Gillett did to Liverpool by mangling what was ultimately a leveraged buyout cannot be understated, and the club is still feeling the effects of that fiasco. Further, there's no Liverpool supporter that can say that the club isn't much better off with Fenway Sports Group, which Purslow convinced to buy the team.
Given that he also negotiated what was then one of the largest sponsorship deals in football history, and with his experience co-founding and running a company much bigger than Chelsea, the club would appear rather lucky to have him accept a position where he's, at best, the sixth-highest ranking executive.