Sullivan: We're paying Carroll's wages out of our own pockets… We want the best team because we are West Ham fans
22:17 GMT, 20 September 2012
The last owner of West Ham who also owned a bank took the football club to the brink of administration.
But when David Sullivan says he owns a bank, and it is a bank in one of the prime locations on the Monopoly board, what actually goes on inside, and beyond in the global banking world, is not his concern. ‘I own the building,’ says Sullivan. ‘It’s the Lloyd’s Bank on Oxford Street actually. I own a shoe shop on Oxford Street too. And a mobile phone shop.’
Once rated the 68th richest man in Britain with assets valued at more than 500million, he has an impressive property portfolio. He owns ‘a huge Sainsbury’s’ that pays him 3million a year in rent as well as a ‘couple of Marks & Spencers’. Just the buildings, you understand, which the retail giants rent from him. There is ‘a big chunk of central Bath around the Roman Baths’ that belongs to Sullivan. Not to mention 100 sex shops.
Property king: David Sullivan relaxes at his opulent home
He made his money in the sex industry, starting out in mail order with a couple of carefully placed advertisements in the colour supplements of the more upmarket Sunday newspapers. ‘I sold a love-making manual called The XYZ of Love,’ he says. ‘Back in the early Seventies it was making me six grand a week, a lot of money in those days.’
It might not have been what his lecturers had in mind when they taught him economics at Queen Mary College in London, but Sullivan clearly has a knack of making money. He breaks from this interview to take a quick phone call at his desk in his sumptuous Essex home, earning 10,000 in 20 seconds during a conversation with his broker. ‘That won’t even pay a football agent but it’s still 10 grand I didn’t have a minute ago,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye.
It would enable him to buy some state-of-the-art home entertainment equipment. As well as Victorian racing trophies and some rather spooky waxwork figures, Sullivan’s home is littered with old TVs and video recorders. ‘I’m not very technical,’ he says. ‘I still can’t send a text message. I bought that telly because it was brilliant for Teletext. I used to love Teletext.’
What the butler saw: A waxwork is part of the furniture at chez Sullivan
He does seem to laugh an awful lot. He complains of being ‘absolutely knackered after the transfer window’ but he talks about his life, and about his passion for the football club he part-owns with his long-time friend and business partner David Gold, with infectious enthusiasm.
He also seems keen to stress that he is no longer in the sex industry. ‘The internet finished my old business,’ he says. ‘I’m in the property business now. The sex shops don’t make a penny. I keep them going to provide employment to the two or three hundred people who have worked for me. As long as they don’t have to come to me for money to subsidise the business I will keep them open.
‘I will always be seen as being in the sex business because that is where I started. If I had the time I’d update my Wikipedia page.’
Not, he insists, because he is in anyway ashamed or embarrassed about his past. ‘I started there so there’s no point in denying it,’ he says. ‘If I was a cigarette manufacturer or an arms manufacturer or a drug dealer, I might have a doubt about how I’ve spent my life. But, to be honest with you, I like to think I put a smile on people’s faces.
‘I’ve made a lot of people happy. British people don’t like to talk about sex but Fifty Shades of Grey has proved what a huge market the sex market remains.’ Has he read the fastest-selling paperback in history ‘My girlfriend has and she’s told me every detail,’ he says. ‘But I read racing fiction. I collect old racing fiction, along with Victorian racing trophies. I’ve read all the books on those shelves and all those over there I’ve yet to read. I’m into fantasy, not reality.’
Football, he says, is an interest that transcends both; a mixture of fantasy and reality. ‘You face a daily reality,’ he says.
Sitting there in a Dolce & Gabbana ‘Muhammad Ali’ tracksuit, Sullivan takes a deep breath. Since joining forces with Gold in 2010 to take control of the club they have both supported since childhood, it has not been easy. When West Ham were relegated in May 2011, he likened it to Armageddon. ‘It was Armageddon because David and I had to put 35million quid in,’ he says, laughing again.
Passionate: Sullivan admits he could not shirk from saving West Ham
‘Because of the mess we inherited we have to service a 100m debt. There are commitments that have to be paid and we have to pay interest on the debt. But we also had to put the money in to put together a team that would get us promoted.
‘Armageddon might be an overstatement but it was very unpleasant to have to put that kind of money in just to get back to where we were. It particularly hurts because David and I didn’t earn 35 million quid last year. We certainly didn’t earn that much after tax. So we are spending capital. Spending our life savings. There is no point kidding ourselves.’
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Had it not been West Ham, Sullivan says
he and Gold would have avoided such a financial risk. The debts were
enormous. There were millions owed to Sheffield United in the wake of
the Carlos Tevez affair; all this when the assets amounted to so little
and there was no guarantee of securing the Olympic Stadium.
‘As a business venture it made no sense at all,’ he says. ‘Not the deal we did. The club was 120m in debt with very few assets. It was a mess. I knew, when the Icelandics were signing the players they were for the money they were paying, it made no financial sense. I sold them Matthew Upson from Birmingham. He came to me and said, “They’ve offered me four times the wages, please let me go”. I knew then that it wasn’t right.
‘But David and I are not in it for the money. We don’t want to go bust either. The aim is to make the club self-sufficient. But we want to put the best possible team on the pitch for the supporters of West Ham because we are supporters too.’
He agrees that people buy football clubs for different reasons. ‘Some of them make money,’ he says. ‘Blackpool made 30m last year. Swansea are making 15m a year, and they are doing a marvellous job because they have a fantastic team. If we ever get to a position where we are making money it will be ploughed back into the team. But we have to keep it alive in the meantime.
‘We are the guardians and custodians of the club for the supporters. We are just trustees really. And we are good custodians. In our 18 years at Birmingham the club was solvent the whole time. But we still owe money on Tevez. Because it’s a confidential agreement I can’t go into the figures but there is still a substantial amount to pay off. In fact we’ve just started litigation against the old solicitors because we think the club was wrongly advised. We are commencing High Court proceedings against them.
At ease: Sullivan outside his Essex mansion
‘We also inherited players on enormous wages who weren’t worth the money.
before we arrived, the previous owners took an advance on the next two
years’ season-ticket money. So we got no season-ticket money in the
first two years. They’d taken part of the shirt sponsorship money quite a
few years up front, so all the normal sources of income weren’t there.
The cupboard was bare.
‘Every player was being paid on the drip. Sheffield United were being paid on the drip. Every possible loan had been taken out. The assets were the players being paid on fat contracts and a stadium — because of where it is — that is probably worth less than my supermarket.
Acquisition: Andy Carroll's wages are being paid by Sullivan and Gold
‘Now we obviously want to move to the Olympic Stadium. For three years we’ve been trying to secure it. We believe we have the best bid. We will make football affordable to all because we will have the seats to do deals, and we will make the whole stadium economically viable. We will embrace the athletics legacy and make it a brilliant, multi-purpose facility.’
So who is paying for players like Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan ‘We are financing everything out of our own money,’ says Sullivan. ‘Had we not put money in this year we could not have bought a player. Because there is not sufficient money to pay the debt. I cannot give confidential details of contracts but for the period of time Andy will be with us it’s as expensive a player as we have ever signed.
‘But our manager thought he was the most important player we could sign this summer and that is why we pursued him. Unfortunately he got this hamstring injury. But that’s just bad luck.
‘Against Fulham he made an enormous impact. He was the most important player on the pitch. He lifted the whole team.
‘Kevin Nolan was a very bold and pleasing signing. We signed the captain of Newcastle when he had just scored 12 goals in the Premier League and convinced him to come to the Championship. It was expensive but he’s the most fantastic captain, the most wonderful influence in the dressing room. And he’s scored two goals in three games.
‘We wanted to make a statement to our supporters, that we weren’t going to run the club like an administrator. That’s why we’ve continued to bring in more top players like Diame, Diarra and Jarvis. Others, too.’
Legacy: Sullivan and co-owner David Gold (left) stand in front of the Olympic Stadium
You do wonder why, having sold Birmingham City, he and Gold did not just buy themselves a box at Upton Park. ‘It’s not the same though,’ he says. ‘You want to influence things. You want to make things happen. I think the club might have gone bust had we not stepped in. It is our intention, over the next couple of years, to pay off the debt and then be owed the money by the club. But we will be friendly bankers. The club won’t have to pay any interest if they don’t want to. If and when the club have some money they might pay a bit off.
‘It means my kids will inherit less money because of West Ham and it will be the same for David Gold’s kids. But we’ve got very supportive families who also love the club. We’re all committed.
‘Now, if the king of Saudi Arabia wants
to buy West Ham we would happily step aside for the good of the club.
But we wouldn’t step aside for a mystery foreign buyer whose financial
resources we have no knowledge of.’
He has mixed feelings about certain foreign owners, his views influenced by the erosion of what he considers a boardroom tradition at matches. ‘There are good examples of foreign ownership,’ he says. ‘Man City and Chelsea are terrific. But if things go bad for a foreign owner it’s easy to walk away.
‘Roman Abramovich and Sheik Mansour are in it for the fun. It’s a hobby. Randy Lerner is here to make money. The Americans at Man United and Liverpool are here to make money. The Sunderland guy has a strategy to make money. But when it comes to the boardroom you rarely meet them. It’s sad. In the old days it was lovely. There would be banter but you’d also exchange ideas, share thoughts. But the new brigade, you don’t see.
‘It actually started with Sir John Hall at Newcastle. He’d pop his head around the door, say hello and then disappear. I thought it was rude. The worst is Aston Villa, because they put the visiting directors in a room with the corporate home fans. We got loads of abuse because we were the former owners of Birmingham. We were treated appallingly. I nearly did it to them in retaliation but I wasn’t prepared to stoop to their level.
‘At West Ham we’ve got the best boardroom in the Premier League. We give the visiting directors the best table, right in the middle. It’s the friendliest. It’s lovely.’
He also likes to think it is now in safe hands.