Exclusive: Newcastle United bidder PCP shows size is not everything
Amanda Staveley, the chief executive of the boutique private equity business hoping to buy the English football club, talks to The National
It has been an unusually busy few days for Amanda Staveley, the chief executive of PCP Capital Partners, and her husband – PCP’s managing partner – Mehrdad Ghodoussi.
As well as final negotiations on a couple of hotels the firm is buying together with its clients, the pair have been trying to manage the very public fallout from the attempt by a PCP-led consortium of investors, from the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, to buy the English Premier League football club Newcastle United. Ms Staveley's firm has been accused of wasting the time of the owner Mike Ashley and she and Mr Ghodoussi have been defending PCP's reputation in the press and elsewhere.
"In football there seems to be no secrets, there is such intense interest in football and that is difficult to manage [during a transaction]," Ms Staveley tells The National from London, where her firm has an office. A boutique private equity business, PCP Capital Partners is headquartered in the UAE, and employs around 20 staff worldwide. A satellite office in China opened about a year and a half ago and has half a dozen employees.
"We are deliberately a small team because you want to reduce cost and you can be more nimble. If the transaction gets big and we need support we will go and bring in advisers," says Mr Ghodoussi, a former investment banker.
Ms Staveley says PCP Capital Partners "will comfortably be able to invest US$1 billion into a deal if we need to, or more, and we also will invest throughout the capital structure. We will do equity and we will do credit as well. That affords us some degree of balancing our risk as well."
Mr Ghodoussi adds that "it's not all about the $1bn deals either, we do look at the other side of the spectrum. We will look at smaller deals, again it is about where we can add value and how we can get something over the line" for our clients.
Here is where the firm's true strength lies, the pair say. Ms Staveley, Mr Ghodoussi and the rest of the team have built up a network of relationships around the world with institutions, sovereign investors and ultra-wealthy individuals, which are at such a high level of comfort that deals can be initiated and closed relatively quickly, a matter of weeks typically and three months at most.
"Obviously we have strong relationships within the [Middle East] region, we have also built relationships in Asia, in China and also in the US," says Mr Ghodoussi.
Based on the strength of these relationships, PCP Capital Partners' model is to draw down funds on a case by case basis and when an investment decision is taken.
Ms Staveley says that while PCP's investment approach to sectors is balanced, with a portfolio including credit, real estate and public market securities, geographically the firm is agnostic.
"There are obviously opportunities [that we come across]. For instance, I have been in the US closing a transaction, which is a real estate and hospitality [deal]. We also are at the same time in the final negotiations over similar assets in Dubai," says Ms Staveley.
While the kind of opportunity or specific transaction is the key driver for the firm, the Middle East has always been a cornerstone of the business and PCP has high aspirations for the UAE.
"While we invest outwardly we are very keen to invest in our local economy as well. That's very important," says Ms Staveley.
Mr Ghodoussi adds that the firm is currently looking at a specific deal in Abu Dhabi as well as the aforementioned Dubai real estate/hospitality opportunity, which has reached final negotiations.
"With the Dubai asset we are talking about, we are talking to our partners in Asia and the US to come in with us, so it is about bringing capital into the region," he says.
The firm's revenues come from a mixture of advisory fees and upside from investments it participates in. PCP does not charge any investment fees.
"We are transactional driven, we take on the same risk as our partners are taking and the same sort of upside. The amount depends on the deal," says Mr Ghodoussi.
Given how focused the firm is and its clear areas of strength, the now protracted attempt to buy Newcastle seems a departure, almost a passion project.
"Our business is very much financial. We are an investor, it is an investment, we are running everything as business," says Ms Staveley.
Yet the PCP consortium's bid to become an owner of an English Premier League (EPL) club seems an outsized ambition for a boutique-sized firm. The list of owners of EPL clubs is dominated by individuals and organisations comfortably in the estimated net worth bracket of billions of dollars.
“It’s my belief that big clubs should be owned by individuals with deep pockets or sovereigns, like Man City. What Abu Dhabi has done to support Manchester is an example of a responsible football owner. So the big clubs are in the safest hands,” acknowledges Ms Staveley.
However, she argues that football is going through an interesting period of change including around the way the younger generation consumes the sport. Uefa's Financial Fair Play Rules, staggering commercial deals for kit sponsorship and the astronomical figures paid for media rights has cleared the way for a firm like hers to realistically think of owning a top-flight football club in England.
"We have our eyes open, we are not trying to be a Man City. When Financial Fair Play came in [is when it changed], it helped other investors. Investment is a progression, you can start as an investor and welcome new investors, clubs can grow with the same shareholder base and get bigger over time," she says.
Of course, Ms Staveley is not naive, having experienced the realities of the business of elite football for more than a decade. In 2006-2007, the then Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett hummed and hawed over a sale of the club to Dubai investors before pulling the plug on a deal that Ms Staveley was advising on. She went back in for Liverpool herself last year at the head of a consortium, when a bid worth up to £1.5bn (Dh7.63bn) was turned down by the current owners Fenway Sports Group.
The attempt to buy Newcastle has now surpassed the above in terms of acrimony with Mr Ashley proving to be arguably the most difficult negotiating partner Ms Staveley has come across so far.
"Football is unique in its aspects. It is special, complex. Negotiations tend always to be quite difficult. They are emotive assets and also the pool of people who acquire football assets is very small globally, so transactions are rare and there are a lot of differences in views on valuations," says Ms Staveley.
Her consortium's offer of a £250 million one-off cash payment for the club is not enough for Mr Ashley, who believes Newcastle is worth nearer £350m. Ms Staveley and Mr Ghodoussi, however, say they will not pay that much because the purchase of the club is just the beginning of PCP's long-term investment. Almost immediately there would be further costs of £100m to £200m in the first year to improve the playing squad and other areas of the business.
"I'm very much still interested in buying Newcastle. And our bid remains on the table," The Times newspaper on Saturday reported Ms Staveley as saying, after Sky Sports said a source close to Mr Ashley told the TV station last week the talks with PCP had proved to be "exhausting and a complete waste of time".
"I'm very concerned, I'm very surprised and I'm disappointed about what's been said," Ms Staveley added. "The suggestion that we were either wasting time or not serious is absurd. It's hurtful.
"This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city."
Ms Staveley and Mr Ghodoussi won't be drawn to talk directly about Mr Ashley but they do worry about how the past few weeks might impact potential interest from other quarters if the PCP-led consortium ultimately does walk away.
"That is [Mr Ashley's] right if he thinks it is worth £350m, he's got a right to wait for the right price and that's okay [but] don't scare off other potential bidders because there are so few potential parties that can buy it," says Ms Staveley.
Also on Saturday, Kieran Maguire, who lectures at the University of Liverpool, suggested to local media Mr Ashely's stance might be an attempt to push Ms Staveley to raise her bid.
“I think that’s what Mike Ashley is probably gambling on; that he thinks Amanda Staveley wants to buy the club so much that she’s going to increase her offer," Mr Maguire told BBC Newcastle.
"Nothing quite makes sense at present, but then you’re dealing with Mike Ashley.”
Mr Ashley himself has said little or nothing on the sale situation so far this year.
Ms Staveley is not sitting still in the meantime. PCP Capital Partners has set up a litigation fund with Therium Capital Management, experts in litigation funding. This is a direct lesson from several high-profile court battles that Ms Staveley has been involved in, such as the suit over One Trafalgar Square against the Ukrainian billionaire Gennadiy Bogolyubov, five years ago and the ongoing £1.2bn lawsuit with Barclays over alleged unpaid fees, related to the bank's 2008 fundraising from Qatar to stave off UK government support during the financial crisis. Ms Staveley expects this asset class to potentially drive exceptionally high returns.
"Investing in other people's litigation offers non-correlated returns, of 45 per cent to 60 per cent IRRs [internal rate of return]," she says.
"The Barclays case for me has been very interesting. We will look at some of our large clients and say to them, 'look, you may have litigation, we will either buy those claims or invest those claims with you, run them with world leading lawyers.' I am excited about this business and I enjoy it."
Updated: January 22, 2018 01:23 AM