Shaper: Erik Samuelson

Show aired on 7th May 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The uplifting sound of Avishai Cohen with Lost Tribe. He’s the bassist from Israel not to be confused with the Trumpeter who is also fantastic. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM. Thank you so much for joining me. This is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and I put them right alongside in the face of people who are shaping the world of business and right in the face of the world of business today is Erik Samuelson. You may not know him but you will by 10.00am because he is one of the key people who helped create AFC Wimbledon back in 2002. That is the club, the original club, the original Dons and they are now fourteen years later, still going really strong. You are going to be hearing a very interesting story about what it is like to create and run a football club. Lots coming up from Erik shortly. In addition to hearing from him, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that we’ve got some cracking music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul. We’ve got the James Taylor Quartet, Herbie Hancock and this classic from the Ted Heath Orchestra on a terrace near you.

What a lovely little ditty that was. Ted Heath Orchestra with Tom Hark, that’s the 1958 hit and if you are a football fan you will know it super well because it probably underpins most songs. It certainly does at my football club over at Arsenal. But enough of Arsenals’ though because today is all about AFC Wimbledon and the secrets of creating and making a business, a football club into a business and I am with Erik Samuelson and he is, as I said, one of the key people behind AFC Wimbledon; he is now the, I think the Chief Executive, and he has been Finance Director. Erik, thank you for joining me. We are in a key moment because this week and beyond, we are into play-off time aren’t we?

Erik Samuelson
I am pleased to be here. Thank you. Yeah we are, it is last game of the season later today, we are playing our last game probably with not a full team if I am honest, against Newport. We are resting them ahead of the play-offs, the first semi-final is a week today and we will find out who we are playing later today, we don’t know yet.

Elliot Moss
Now let’s go back in time for those people that aren’t in the football fraternity and this is what is interesting about this, it’s about football but its also about the business of football. AFC Wimbledon wasn’t always called AFC Wimbledon. The Wimbledon Football club had been around for a long, long time and then what happened? Just tell me the brief potted history if you will before this business, this football club rather more than a business was created back in 2002.

Erik Samuelson
As brief as possible, Wimbledon had problems with its stadium because following the Taylor report it couldn’t accommodate the number of people it wanted to hold an all seater so in a series of transactions the stadium was basically sold and the Wimbledon FC camped at Selhurst Park in a ground share but had no ownership. Meanwhile a group of people in Milton Keynes wanted a football club and weren’t prepared to start at the bottom of the football pyramid, work their way up which is the normal way and they had approached a number of clubs we are told to try and persuade them to move lock, stock and barrel to Milton Keynes and they persuaded the then owners, some Norwegian guys of Wimbledon that that was something that should happen. After a series of protests and complaints eventually a commission appointed by the FA concluded that this would be allowed, shockingly really because it effectively is the first franchise in UK football, and the last we think and the fans said ‘Well no, a football club should be rooted in its community, you can’t just pick it up and move it sixty or seventy miles and leave it the same. We will do what the old Wimbledon did, start at the bottom of the football pyramid and work our way up again and prove that that’s what a football club should be and we will do it the right way’.

Elliot Moss
And fourteen years later you are now on the, hopefully the verge of being promoted into the third tier of English football which is League 1.

Erik Samuelson
Yes.

Elliot Moss
That’s right, good. Lots coming up from Erik here on Jazz Shapers. Time for some more music right now though and this is Chameleon from Herbie Hancock and Chris Philips, the wonderful Chris Philips who has been by the way if you didn’t know, stadium announcer at Wimbledon as was and for many, many years he managed to play this version, the full length, fifteen minute version during the teams pre-match warm up – how about that. Here it is.

Just a snippet of Herbie Hancock there rather than the fifteen minute version of Chameleon, as I said Chris Philips, Jazz FM’s very own Chris Philips got away with it then. I imagine warming up to that would have been an interesting endeavour. Erik Samuelson is my Business Shaper today and he is one of the key people that help found AFC Wimbledon back in 2002. You are an accountant by trade my sources tell me reliably. A Deloitte person, then became a PWC partner, a risk management consultant I think before you probably went on to run the football club. Was that a good training for combining passion with business because that’s what I look at football as. I mean mainly it’s a very difficult, apart from a few clubs that make money, it’s a very difficult business to navigate because it isn’t rational is it?

Erik Samuelson
Oh that’s a long involved question. The training, yes actually one of the things that I really value looking back and realised quite early was the nature and the quantity and the width of the training I got when I was with Deloitte and then Coopers Deloitte and then PWC and yeah, I went from accounting auditing through risk management. Eventually did a little bit of HR consulting before I left and it is only when you get into a business, a small business in our case and you start to do something and think ‘Hey I know a fair bit about this’ and you realise that you’ve got quite a lot of legal expertise, you’ve picked up quite a lot of HR, obviously you know the accounting stuff, when you’ve run one of the business units in the company you know a bit about running a business and about setting targets and inadvertently I was extremely well trained for the job that I took on.

Elliot Moss
Now interestingly people talk about the fit, you know, being fit for the purpose of either owning a football club or running a football club and I suppose it wouldn’t be unfair to say there had been some unusual decisions, some kinds of dubious decisions about whether people are fit indeed; a fit and proper person. You obviously were. Do you think looking back because this club and there is a whole charitable trust element to it which I want to come onto in a bit. Do you think that everyone should be trained properly? Do you think there should be more procedures in place to ensure that there are other Erik Samuelson’s who have the right intentions? We are going to clone you but seriously, I mean, you know, in the face of people that aren’t necessarily as well qualified as you?

Erik Samuelson
Well Lord forbid there be more than one Erik Samuelson, I’ll start with that.

Elliot Moss
There’s not room Erik.

Erik Samuelson
Certainly my wife would not want more than one that’s for sure. No I wouldn’t put it like that. I think there are some, there are some ownership issues in football which are really unfortunate and you only have to look in the papers almost any week to see some of the strange behaviours of some of the owners but in the end, there’s an interesting book by Stefanie Shimansky about football clubs comparing them to FTSE 100 companies and pointing out if you look at the FTSE 100 list a hundred years ago, how many of those companies still exist. You look at the football league a hundred years ago, how many of those clubs still exist. Almost all of them because someone will always come in and pick up the mess that the occasional stupid or bad owner makes. Therefore in the end these things wash out, the bad owners disappear and hopefully the better ones come in and I think it is probably fair to say in the time since AFC Wimbledon was formed because of the introduction of things like financial fair play and a greater public scrutiny of the way clubs behave, probably the financial stability of clubs is a lot better than it was but there is still a fair chunk of how the idiosyncratic behaviour among owners.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Erik Samuelson, one of the key people who has helped found the football club called AFC Wimbledon and they go by the name the Dons, just in case you didn’t know, I am sure you did. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that we have got another one in our wonderful series of future shapers, someone who we think is going to be shaping the world of business in the very near future. Have a listen to this.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I am very lucky because I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business and they are wide ranging in the different industries that they represent. The representation today is from the football world, I think it is the first one here in almost five years of Jazz Shapers and I am very happy to say that is Erik Samuelson, one of the key people in the creation of AFC Wimbledon fourteen years ago. Erik what’s interesting I think about the football world and for people that aren’t fans even, they can see it and for people that are, they feel it – is the passion and it’s the sense, and you talked about it, it’s the… you don’t really chose to be a fan at some point when you are young. My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather were all Arsenal fans. I don’t ever remember saying ‘I’m going to support Arsenal. I just did’ and I think that’s the contention really within the Wimbledon thesis which is, it has to be local, it’s part of the community that’s what football is about. As you get bigger and all being well you get through the play-offs and you go up the leagues, how are you going to retain that sense of, critical sense of the rolling community?

Erik Samuelson
That’s a great question because I think it is one of the massive risks that we face. We, as I am sure you are aware, we hope to move to a new and rather larger stadium back in Wimbledon, back in Plough Lane in fact and if we achieve this sort of momentum in terms of crowds that we hope for and that most people get, we will be getting at least another fifty percent in our crowds.

Elliot Moss
How many would that be then? How would that work?

Erik Samuelson
It would take us up to about, well the budget I have done, shows about six and a half to seven thousand people coming through the gate every week on average and the thing about that is that the point I have made to my Board, is that how do we retain the culture, the incredibly patient and understanding and reasonable culture we have around our football club. I have never been abused. We don’t have a Chairman so I am the closest thing you have to it. I have never had anybody complaining or… well actually once after we had lost to Bradford that a crowd of youths came round the platform chanting ‘get your cheque book out’ but it was led by my eldest son and so I don’t really feel I was more abused than normal. So the issue, the serious point is how do you keep that culture, that tolerance and that sense of community when, if you grow too quickly and if you suddenly expand and all the message is a lot more people will come if we move to a new and better stadium. It’s a real challenge and we spent a lot of time trying to make sure that we are understood for who we are and what we are and I know most football fans don’t like the term but ‘protecting and projecting’ our brand. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we believe in. These are the ethical stances that we take on things. We have to maintain that and it is going to be a massive challenge, absolutely.

Elliot Moss
And I guess the parallel, just thinking about it, is that what you are having to do is manage expectations because if you are a business and you’re private, its shareholders, if you are a business and you’re public, it’s the stock exchange. It’s another form of shareholders but its far more public and that’s the arena. Football again is unusual. Your shareholders if you like are not just the people that put money in at the beginning but they are the fans and they are not necessarily, they’ve been nice so far as you said. This struggle that you have had as a business or rather as a club to re-assert yourself, I mean, I think if I am right, you got promoted five times in about nine years?

Erik Samuelson
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
You got… well you went right through up the ranks. I imagine they will get impatient for success again and all that. Are you going to be… the culture is important… but do you think more money will come? I know you have sponsorship now but are you going to be actively seeking more help? You are going to need it aren’t you?

Erik Samuelson
Well you know, people would have said, people did say, some quite senior people in football that what we were seeking to do was nutty, we really shouldn’t be doing it, it wasn’t possible or good for fans, they are good for painting fences and all that sort of thing but they can’t run a football club and we proved that, possibly because we set off idealistically and naively into the business that we did, not really know what you could do. I think with a slightly harder nosed look at it I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t get promotion into League 1 and indeed possibly into the Championship under our current ownership structure. Which in case listeners aren’t aware of it, the club is owned by its fans. You can spend as much as you like on your share but you only get one vote. So there is a couple of thousand shareholders, rather more than that. Those are the owners and we don’t have a rich person pumping in money if we make losses. So we have to budget to be sustainable. We have no choice, not like other clubs, we have no choice. Can we sustain this? Can we keep doing this while we go up through the leagues and will we eventually need investment? Well let’s get to the stage where we find we need it rather than say we are going to plan for it now. And when we do feel that we need I think what we have to do is go back to the owners and say, ‘Are you happy to be, for example, a lower level Championship Club battling away to survive and avoid relegation every season or are you prepared to give up ownership to some of the suits, the sorts of people who used to own Wimbledon and allow what will happen to to happen in return for some success on the pitch?’. It will be a massive debate and a fascinating decision. I think we are a few years away from it.

Elliot Moss
Well stay tuned because you might be hearing more about that big conversation that’s going to happen inside the Boardroom and actually outside the Boardroom over at AFC Wimbledon. Time for some more music, this is the James Taylor Quartet with Kyrie and if you didn’t know, they are on the Cherry Red Record Label who are as chance would have it, thank you Dom, producer, the official stadium sponsors of AFC Wimbledon.

That was the James Taylor Quartet with Kyrie and Erik Samuelson has been my Business Shaper so far and he still is which is really good news. Now like most Chief Executives of extremely successful businesses, you are paid a fortune aren’t you Erik? It’s a guinea a year. How did you come up with that. I mean obviously you had a career where you would have made a comfortable living. You obviously didn’t move into to AFC Wimbledon for the money and you are making a point aren’t you about the fact that you don’t want to be paid for it I guess?

Erik Samuelson
The point about the guinea is specific to having a contract that’s effective. When we realised that perhaps I should have a contract if they wanted to have some degree of control over me, I made the point that actually for it to be a valid contract there needs to be some compensation, some value needs to pass and so a pound is the norm. But I thought a guinea sounded a bit posher and slightly quirky which perhaps doesn’t go with the image of being an accountant but I liked the idea so that’s where it came from and so that’s how it’s been. When I started in the job and fortunately I could just about afford to do it as a volunteer and I really wanted to. I just promised my wife two things; one is I would not spend all my time at the club and two, I would not invest my pension in it. And I lied about the first one and I have been honourable and stuck to the second. And indeed when I come to retire they own me thirteen guineas which will certainly help top up the pension fund.

Elliot Moss
Now this, the business that is underpinning it is as I mentioned, alluded to earlier there’s a very good underbelly of doing the right thing by the players and by the community. Just tell me a little bit about what why that’s been so important. I mean I guess its to do with the fact that you are owned if you like by the fans?

Erik Samuelson
It’s, I think everyone’s got their own take on that actually. It’s to a large extent owned by the fans and by the community and therefore representing what the community would want and what the fans think is appropriate but also its, from my personal perspective, it’s about I believe in righting wrongs where you possibly can and there was, without getting into too much detail on it, there was an appalling wrong done to the community of fans of Wimbledon FC and the community in which it resided. Even if they didn’t come regularly and I think creating the club we did and presenting it as highly ethical, doing things the right way, whether it be by joining full on football fans, if you think of Man United or Arsenal – sorry I should have said them.

Elliot Moss
Thank you.

Erik Samuelson
Being a level 1 we started at level 9. That’s as low as you can get in the football, senior football tier. We did that because that’s the right way to do it. We like to do the right thing and stand by those principals whenever, well always. We don’t always do the right thing but we always try to.

Elliot Moss
The story has been one of an underdog and even when, you know, back in the day when Wimbledon was doing really well, it was still the underdog. It was still the ‘You’ve got to be joking’.

Erik Samuelson
Yes.

Elliot Moss
‘This isn’t going to happen’. That underdog status is fine on the pitch and it’s fine when the fans are there. When it comes to you actually keeping your head when all amongst you, around you, are losing theirs and so on – how have you dealt with the difficulties and the trials and tribulations of actually seeing those ups and downs, creating something out of nothing and going, as you said, from the bottom up? I mean that must have been testing?

Erik Samuelson
I suppose it was. It didn’t, it’s never felt like it you know. It’s only when engaged in a conversation like this that you perhaps step outside the business and say ‘Oh actually that’s quite good isn’t it’ because most of the time what you do is you go and do your job. You go and do the things you need to and okay there are the stresses and strains of will we be in the play-offs but I have a regular saying which I think the managers are now bored rigid with – after a game I pop my head in, we don’t have a long conversation after any game, we leave it for a couple of days but if we’ve lost – ‘Nobody’s died, let’s get back to things on Tuesday’ and his expression is ‘Let’s go again’. It’s the same with the business. You suffer setbacks but look around, count the cost, get it into perspective and let’s go again and we do regularly.

Elliot Moss
We are going to be going again very shortly in my final chat with Erik plus playing a track from Louis Armstrong. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

That was Louis Armstrong with his take on When The Saints Go Marching In and of course you will recognise it I am sure, even if you are not a football fan, as one of the most famous terrace songs that people tend to sing too when they are excited about someone or other. Erik, you’ve created this thing with a great team around you and you know I am not just talking about the team on the pitch, but the team that must support the business and the club every day. You talked about your training kind of, you found yourself being able to do stuff. Has team been important to you in the way you thought it would be?

Erik Samuelson
Absolutely. I mean I, there’s… to give you a sense of it, there’s approximately three hundred people at some time or other in most years do something voluntary for the club and that’s a sense of a massive team, some of whom come on as a sub forty five minutes perhaps put in football context, and others give up, like me, give up pretty much all their time. Ivor Heller who is the Commercial Director has given up a huge amount of his personal time whilst still trying to run his own business and various other directors plus Tim Hillier who runs the club shop and a whole range of people put in a huge amount of time to make this work. So there is a sense of team. I don’t think we talk to each other much about that, we just have this shared commitment to a common vision of what we want which is our own football club just so we can watch football but run in a way that we think is how clubs ought to be run imbedded in their community.

Elliot Moss
And the other thing of course about watching football is that it’s fun for people that love watching it. Are you still as passionate about every kick of the ball and is it just your club or is it football in general?

Erik Samuelson
I watch less and less other football, certainly Premier League football. It is of a significantly higher quality than you get in League 2 there is no question about it but I have enjoyed the rise through non-league and seen football played in non-league where you can still watch a game with a pint in your hand if you are that way inclined. In the football league where clearly you can’t anymore but I’ve enjoyed that culture and that environment and I enjoy the level we play at it in. Yes I kick every ball, I am rising out of my seat when there is a header to be headed at the far post. Although strangely when it really matters I am absolutely serene. When we had a play-off game, sorry end of season game a couple of years ago and we were seventeen minutes away from being relegated I was still ‘We’ll be fine, we will be fine’; completely calm so at moments of extreme tension I go into, I don’t know, some strange place where everything is just absolutely fine and it always has been. Maybe that’s part the reason is, part of my job is I think, is to be calm and set a tone that we are okay, don’t worry. We’re fine.

Elliot Moss
The play-offs are around the corner?

Erik Samuelson
Yep.

Elliot Moss
How are you going to do? Betting man.

Erik Samuelson
Well I am not allowed to bet, you’re not allowed…

Elliot Moss
Without the bet, without the money. Just an opinion right now here on Jazz Shapers.

Erik Samuelson
An opinion? We’ll do really well. I believe. I have a very good manager who is particularly good at setting it up for playing teams where let’s be honest, they’ve spent a lot more than us on their teams and therefore on the face of it they should have a more successful team. There’s an awful lot of ifs and buts and if the ball you know, I am into science and I quite like this bit about chaos theory where the flap of a butterfly wing is you know, a millimetre across on a player’s boot can make the difference between hitting the post or going in so you can’t really predict with any certainty but I love that about football. It’s what causes seems sometimes you shouldn’t win to win.

Elliot Moss
Indeed and that’s been going on recently as well hasn’t it?

Erik Samuelson
Well absolutely and I think that’s what’s great about it so we shouldn’t win because we’re seventh and the highest team we are playing was fourth but we’ve got a good team, we’ve got extremely good players, we’ve got an excellent manager who will set them up well. We’ll get to Wembley and once we get to Wembley of course we’ll win.

Elliot Moss
Well listen I hope you have a very rosy future, I really hope that you manage to pull off the coup which will be returning to Plough Lane. I know there are some machinations still to go on the planning but fingers crossed on that front. Big fingers crossed as someone who knows the area really well and knows how much that football means to the community. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Erik Samuelson
You said that I should chose a song that really mattered to me which meant I spent quite a lot of time thinking about it and in the end I chose a song that was my wife’s favourite when we first met forty six years ago – please let that be right or I’ll never hear the end of it – and still is one of her favourites; I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Marvin Gaye.

Elliot Moss
Here it is, thank you so much Erik.

That was I Heard It Through The Grapevine from Marvin Gaye, the song choice of my Business Shaper, Erik Samuelson for his wife, Eileen. A man who is passionate about football but absolutely perfectly poised and was well trained to become the Chief Exec of a football club. Someone who understands where community fits into the business of a football club and also someone who is unbelievably calm and as he said, serene and giving perspective at a time when maybe things aren’t going so well. A fantastic parallel with the world of business. Watch out for the film because I think in the next couple of years you will be seeing a film about this phenomenal story in a cinema near you. In the meantime though and before that film comes out, stay with us here on Jazz FM because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Erik Samuelson was born in Sunderland in 1948. He gained a BSc in Metallurgy from Nottingham Uni, before switching paths to qualify as an accountant with Deloitte. Through various mergers, Erik then ended up becoming a Partner in PwC.

He helped establish AFC Wimbledon from what was Wimbledon FC, and was Finance Director from May 2002 – April 2007, when he was appointed CEO. This is a voluntary role of enormous importance to Erik.

He and his wife Eileen have two boys, Pieter and John.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“A football club should be rooted in its community, you can’t just pick it up and move it sixty or seventy miles and leave it the same.”

“…inadvertently, I was extremely well trained for the job that I took on.”

“There are some ownership issues in football which are really unfortunate.”

“You look at the football league a hundred years ago, how many of those clubs still exist? Almost all of them.”

“How do we retain the culture, the incredibly patient and understanding and reasonable culture we have around our football club?”

“I promised my wife two things: one is I would not spend all my time at the club; and two, I would not invest my pension in it. I lied about the first one.”

“There was an appalling wrong done to the community of fans of Wimbledon, and the community in which it resided.”

“We’ll get to Wembley and once we get to Wembley, of course we’ll win.”