Top Man – An interview with the CEO

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This interview first appeared in Issue 44 of The Mudhutter fanzine.  There are still copies left through reputable retailers and (weather permitting) less reputable fanzine sellers around the ground this Saturday.  Failing that you can get your copy online at http://www.mudhutsmedia.co.uk/emods/easyshop/easyshop.php?prod.72

We always get a bit nervous when we’re selling the Mudhutter and someone in a suit comes up to us to buy one. It did however mean that when Jonathan Jackson took the job as CEO of Wigan Athletic we had a familiar face on board, so to speak. Open to dialogue with the fans, and also not afraid to pick up the phone when we’ve printed something that’s offended him. Not that any of that is about to happen here of course as he gave up an hour of his time to speak to us…..so let’s start at the beginning:

 

“I don’t know when my first game was, I’m told my mother took me to a game when she was pregnant if that counts before I was born in 1967. I’m told I was at the City cup tie in 1970 but my first proper memory is going to the FA Trophy final against Scarborough in 1973. From then on I went regularly as my late father, Stan Jackson was a director from 1974-1976 and remained a big fan until he re-joined the Board in 1985 for the rest of his life. I remember him ironing the numbers on the shirts before a game and I vividly recall Latics playing in a yellow kit with green and red stripes in the Northern Premier League for a home game and the crowd booing them when they came out as they thought we were the away team.

I remember us winning the Northern Premier League title in 1975 and then getting into the league in 1978 and I used to go to most games right up until I started playing for Chorley in 1989. My summer revolved around the football club with my father and I recall us going out and buying towels, soap and things like that and during the season my father used to sometimes get the phone call when the club was struggling to pay the wages and he’d have to help out.

My father, who had a used car sales business on Standishgate, went knocking on Dave Whelan’s door when Heinz decided to stop sponsoring the club to ask if JJB fancied it. He was hesitant at first, but it was the start of the season, we needed of money and finally he agreed. He came to the first game, turned to my father and said “I’m going to buy the club” and the rest is history and my father was the link between the old Wigan Athletic and the new one up right until his death in 2007.”

It seems Jacko was no mean slouch with a football either, so did he ever have hopes of wearing the blue and white shirt himself?

“I got close to the first team with Chorley, who had just dropped out of the Conference but I played in the Reserves. There was a lot of ex-Latics players there such as Andy Ainscow, Barry Knowles, Stephen Eyre, lads either on their way up or on their way down. I was already in my twenties at this stage but I could have played to a bit higher level if had I been a bit younger. Others would disagree!

In my mind I was a centre forward but always played centre half. In my head I was Beckenbauer but in reality I was probably more like Greg Strong on a bad day”

With that avenue exhausted, Jonathan followed a career path in accountancy instead while continuing to be a Latics fan eventually becoming re-united with the club in an official capacity. So just how rigorous was the interview process to become the new Chief Executive of Wigan Athletic?

“I’d been working as an FD for a North West based health and fitness company and the chairman was looking for a replacement for Brenda Spencer who had decided after 25 years that she wanted to spend more time with her family and was looking to retire. Due to the involvement of my father I was known to him and usually sat in the director’s box at home games but in the away end at away games. I went for an interview and a chat and to me it was a chance of a lifetime, something I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do and I couldn’t turn it down. I was taking a risk as I was already a director and a shareholder at the business I was in, but they decided I was the man and I took the plunge”

Having that emotional connection with the club can’t make it easy though – in some ways a bad result must hit you twice. So is it a dream job or a nightmare at times?

“Both! Before I took the job, when I’d be with my mates, we’d talk about football like most groups of friends. Now I wake up every morning and think about Wigan Athletic -on Saturday it’s no different and it becomes all consuming – when you combine your job with your passion: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – but then what better thing to be consumed by than Wigan Athletic?

Of course it has its challenges and there are difficult decisions to be made behind closed doors but what you see on a Saturday afternoon for ninety minutes is a culmination of everything we work all week and all year towards. And of course with this being a football club, it’s unlike any other industry in that everyone has an opinion on everything we do. Supporters certainly let you know when you make a bad decision!

It’s good in a way as we get instant feedback and a lot of businesses put in great effort to get that kind of feedback but the trouble is a lot of people put opinions forward and state as fact something that they are completely uninformed about. Still football is an emotive sport and it’s never going to change so I try not to get too upset with some of the stuff that appears online.

It’s also made me more immersed in the club after initially being a little star struck when you start dealing with people on a daily basis who you’ve previously watched from afar: the players and Roberto Martinez in particularly. On a business level that was never an issue though. Watching the game isn’t always a pleasurable experience for me any more, it can be a bit gut wrenching as there’s so much at stake.”

We move on to the discuss the structure of the club and whether the manager or the CEO is the boss and the overall shape of Wigan Athletic now

“We’re a partnership. We work together on matters such as buying and selling of players certainly but then I don’t get involved with the playing side, tactics, dealing with players one to one or developing their game. I just facilitate that – if the manage wants a player, I’ll go and make it happen. Or tell him there’s not enough money! Conversely he doesn’t get involved in marketing, commercial, media, community, facilities, finance, football governance and administration, contracts ……

Dave Whelan is the boss ultimately and he has re-structured his companies so that Wigan Athletic and the DW Stadium are now part of the same company. What he’s done for this football club over the past eighteen years is phenomenal, culminating in winning the FA Cup in May. He has put a huge amount of money into the club over the past couple of decades, you only have to look at the accounts to see that and it makes me slightly angry when I read people on the internet suggesting he’s taking money out, nothing could be further from the truth, he literally is the club and has thrown a huge sum at it over the years.

As for the future, well he’s still fit and well and his family are keen supporters of the football club with his grandsons coming to every game. I’m not party to any discussions about the succession plan, that will be down to the Whelan family, I’m just focussed on running the football club to the best of my abilities.

We can only ever financially forecast accurately for 12 months in advance. In the last few years, Plan A was based on us finishing 17th and Plan B was where we don’t; after which we’ve had to make adjustments in light of relegation. The cup run was a bonus albeit it no comparison to the Premier League money but in either scenario the plan always is to break even; to ensure that we don’t spend more than we can afford and that’s now being enforced by UEFA, Premier League and the Football League with the Financial Fair Play ruling – something that we’ve been compliant with now for the past three years.

Of course the drop in broadcasting rights has made a massive difference since the new deal came in and even the bottom club in the Premier League will earn £60m this season and we’ve ended up with parachute payments of that but spread over four years. I don’t want to go into detail by revealing confidential information about player contracts but things were put in place to ensure that we can balance income and expenditure, it would be financial suicide to choose otherwise but there are several high profile examples of it.”

Would we have to cut further if we didn’t go back up and parachute payments reduced?

“Of course. It’s the only way we can run the club: by ensuring expenditure doesn’t exceed income and we keep the books balanced because if you spend more than you bring in, you run out of cash and if you run out of cash you’re in trouble.”

Explain player amortisation

“Amortisation is basically writing off the transfer fee incurred when you buy a player over the life of his contract. So if you buy a player for £3m, that cost goes on to the balance sheet and £1m is charged against profits each year; so a year later he’s worth £2m as you’re reflecting the investment made over the life of his contract. The reason the figure is so big is that we are typically spending between £6m – £10m per season on players. There’s no revaluations so when we sell a player for a higher value, then we realise a profit on sale.”

And to ask the question which seems to frustrate so many fans out there: why on earth do we let so many players’ contracts run down allowing them to leave for nothing?

“It’s a great question and there is a simple answer to it: the players have all the power. And you can’t force them to sign a new contract.

Let’s take an example. Let’s use an Argentinian striker as an theoretical example. We sign him on a three year deal and we pay a decent fee for him. After a year, he’s done OK but he’s still got two years to run. Get to the second year and he is developing into a better player and we’re looking to extend his contract by offering higher salary  and we open discussions with the player. He then gets called into the Argentina squad and starts thinking ‘what are my options?’ He can re-sign with Wigan Athletic or he can hang around till the end of the season and leave on a free transfer and get a nice, big signing on fee somewhere else; and other clubs will give it to him as he’s available for nothing and also offer him more in wages in lieu of a transfer fee. So from the initial negotiations we’re left with a situation where we are forced to pay a large cost increase in wages that is unsustainable and beyond our wage structure to retain his services as he can get more elsewhere. WE could sell him to a rival in January, assuming a willing buyer, but we would not get anywhere near value and that could affect our results that season.

Of course we will always consider paying more for the right player but the ones who have left on a free have generally made demands that are more than their worth and would put an excessive strain on our budget. It’s also a difficult route to go down once you start paying just one player too much money. It affects all clubs not just Latics and really only Diame you could say has left us on a free and become more successful. “

What are the subtle changes you’ve seen over the summer since Martinez left and Coyle came in?

“Every manager is different. Owen came in after we’d lost a significant management team and we’d lost a lot of players and we needed someone to lift the place; someone who could motivate the players; who knew the division and the local area and Owen ticked all the boxes really and from a standing start he signed an awful lot of players in a short period of time, which we needed to be competitive in the league and for the Europa League campaign. The main thing is he’s got the players playing for him and he’s gre

at to work with.”

Conversation turns to the thorny subject of crowds and how we maintain and boost them having fallen just a few hundred short of a 20,000 average last season. How does the club ensure that the crowds don’t plummet following relegation?

“The key thing is that we’ve maintained roughly the same number of season ticket holders as last year (around 10,000) so we haven’t lost any of our core support. When I came in crowds were decreasing after the early enthusiasm of the Premier League and my goal was to get the home attendance towards 20,000 within five years. My strategy has always been to make sure we were engaging with the young people in Wigan; get into the schools and the community to promote the club and ensure that when they grow up, they become Wigan Athletic fans and not Liverpool, United, City or Everton. The way to do that was through school programmes, and academy coaching but more importantly our community trust activities. We’ve increased this over the last few years from £200k turnover per year to over £700k. We’ve got over 25 staff delivering some fantastic initiatives which a lot of Latics supporters don’t even see such as Latics Literacy, Premier League for sport and others covering health, education, social inclusion activity. It all helps to drive the brand and get Wigan Athletic into people’s conscience and a presence in the town.

The Junior Group Ticket scheme  has had a big impact and we were slowly moving towards 20,000 home fans (almost 16,000 last season from around 12,000 in 2010), increasing our season ticket holders year on year and I wanted to keep driving that by freezing prices, especially the kids’ tickets at £50 as they can’t afford to go watching the big clubs now. The plan doesn’t change with relegation, we’ve looked at what the likes of Charlton and Norwich have done when they went down. We’ve got to make sure that the price is right, the product is right and of course we get it right on the pitch to get more people into the habit of watching Wigan Athletic…it helps that Roberto and now Owen are good for the club with the press and it helps when you beat Man United, oh and win the FA Cup. Sorry, my pet subject this I could go on forever….”

OK here’s a pet subject of mine. Where are our FA Cup winning triangular corner flags?

“It’s a myth!”

Can you give us an update on academy plans / Charnock Richard?

“We’ve purchased the golf club, we’re going through the surveys and planning permission with a view to developing a new first team training ground and senior academy leaving Christopher Park to be the Under 16’s academy with an artificial and indoor pitch. All of which will comply with the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) which categorises academies. Currently, we’re Category 3 which isn’t good enough. This will move us to Category 2, ultimately we want to be Category 1 but it all costs money so there will be decisions to be made in the future as to whether to spend it on facilities or players….”

Favourite memories?

“As a fan probably Sheffield United away, horrible game to watch but turned out alright; Getting elected to the League in 1978, we were on holiday and I remember my dad telling me we’d got in the league and it was the best news I’ve ever heard; winning 7-2 away at Scunthorpe in the Larry Lloyd promotion season on a Friday night when I’d managed to er…miss school for a few hours, that was great and all the obvious ones: Freight Rover Trophy, getting promoted to the Premier League against Reading…”

Obvious ones?

“Like I said…as a fan. But yes the finest moment in my Wigan Athletic supporting history was undoubtedly Ben Watson’s winning goal in the FA Cup final and for me, it was just a really surreal moment and I was privileged to be part of that. I felt everybody who went to Wembley, the fans, everyone played a huge part in that but we were so close to that team and the manager who achieved that with all the odds against us playing a City team worth ten times ours. It was such a massive achievement that it will be very difficult to repeat. Although I was very proud when we went over to Bruges the other week, that was an emotional moment too.”

Favourite players?

“Growing up it was Peter Houghton. In the modern era it was Arjan De Zeeuw as he was a centre half like me,  but lots of players over the last few years, too many. I tend to reflect on the teams and we’ve been fortunate to have some great teams over the last few years.”

You mentioned Waregem: don’t you ever look at all the daft and boisterous state of the away end and wish you were out there with the fans?

“Yes of course. There’s plusses and minuses to what I do. In Bruges we had a great meal the night before, the official meal hosted by Waregem officials who took us out to dinner and did speeches, welcomed us to Bruges and I reciprocated and told them all about Wigan Athletic and how proud we were to be there. So I’m very fortunate in that I get to sit in the best seats and get well treated so it’s a lovely experience watching football the way I do. It’s not quite the same experience and thrill as standing on the terraces or sitting behind the goal and I used to do that all the time, right up until getting the job  – often going with my little lad who’s now ten years old. But I know that I’m in a privileged position.”

What sort of things do you do outside of work?

Well tonight I’m off to Burnley to watch our Under 21’s! I don’t really have time for much else outside of work. I read a bit, usually books about football and I play a bit of golf. I like to travel but I don’t get much time to go on holiday with the family. The nature of the job now is that we’re busy between seasons and when one finishes the next one is starting. Plus most of my travelling these days is with Wigan Athletic!

So final question: you’re a lifelong fan as well as an employee but you must have ambitions. So would you ever consider a move to a bigger club like so many of our past players have done?

Ultimately, the budgets and turnovers are only numbers and running one football club is like running the next. So I have no aspirations to move on as my heart is with Wigan Athletic and I’m concentrating on making this club as good as it can be and always working in the best interests of the club. I’m a fan at the end of the day and I always put my fan hat on before making decisions. I can’t see myself getting the same job satisfaction elsewhere.

 

Many thanks to Jonathan Jackson for agreeing to be interviewed

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