When you step into a football club brimming with desire to make it into English football’s top league it pays to know something about the team.
As a lifelong supporter of the northern industrial town’s club, Robert Zuk not only understood the challenges on the pitch, he also knew a thing or two about the club’s off-pitch circumstances.
All of which stood him in good stead when he was hired by Barnsley in 2014 as head of finance after working on the club’s audit when he was a qualified accountant at local firm Gibbs & Booth.
He initially joined local firm DEB from school, instead of applying to university. “I’m from a council estate in Barnsley, so the financial issue re going to university were considerable,” he says, although his older brother did get to Oxford University. At DEB he was supported through AAT and ICAEW qualifications.
As the auditor of Barnsley, he appreciated the high profile of the club. “Most of the companies I was dealing with were small, often owner-managed, whereas the football club was really high public interest so completely different from other audits, or other work I’d done,” says Zuk.
“It was quite a small finance team, so a lot of the principles applied from owner managed businesses. Although it was owned by a single shareholder, there was more public scrutiny of a football club set of accounts,” he adds.
“But it helps being a supporter of the club. I felt I had a bit of insight, a decent understanding of how the operations ran, who all the players were, what kind of deals they were on.”
The role came up when the previous CEO Ben Mansford, who has continued to be a mentor, approached Zuk about his possible interest in joining the club. “A decent mentor? Yeah, he was fantastic – he’s gone on to other clubs since, including Leeds United and is at Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel at the moment. He’s been a big influence on my career and someone I have huge respect for,” he says.
With a good knowledge of the club’s situation, he says: “I knew there was work to do when I joined, thinking about the improvements that I could make when the opportunity came up, to do things slightly differently,” he says.
That involved a combination of improving the accounting processes at a time when the club was having to address the challenge of operating in the Championship and League One, which require very different operating costs- primarily because the players’ wage bills are vastly different in the two leagues.
There is also a big difference between how much the Club receives from the English Football League’s central contract that includes revenue from the TV contract with Sky, worth £120m a year. In that respect alone Zuk says the difference between being in League One and the Championship is about £6m.
“I had a battle plan, of what to do when I joined. The financial reporting was a little too disjointed, it just needed some change, nothing drastic. It had a lot of different dates, some of it was quite old-fashioned, it was a case of getting all that on a single data source, where we could forecast 12-18 months in advance the P&L, cashflow, and financial requirements.”
The need for high visibility of the financial position of the club was determined to some extent but the need to improve the financial sustainability of clubs, enshrined in the Financial Fair Play requirements. A key element of this is that clubs in the Championship are not allowed to lose more than £39m over three years.
“There is a great deal of importance attached as to whether can we afford a particular player if we went up a league or down a league, so it’s important to have financial reporting structure that the owners are happy with, so that they can make decisions from it very quickly.”
Barnsley got promoted to the Championship and then were relegated to League One and then were promoted again during Zuk’s tenure at the club.
Zuk was promoted to finance director in 2017, then becoming finance & operations director- which covers much of the non-football aspects of the club soon after. “That means working with the commercial partners, retailing function, stadium maintenance, ticketing.”
This sits with the CEO – Barnsley has just hired American Dane Murphy from Washington club DC United where he was technical director – who had to be predominantly focused on working with players, recruitment and coaching staff during a busy transfer window. “This allowed me to support Dane by assisting with the non-playing elements of the business.”
When it comes to technology, Zuk says his finance function operate with off-the-shelf Sage products, “which does the job well for us” he says. “We’ve still got work to do in that area, we don’t use technology to the full extent that we could do, but that’s just a scale issue with the levels that we’re working at. But if we grow, we’ll have to buy in more tech at some point,” he says.
Role of finance
One key area for the club to get it right is player transactions and wages, where finance helps give guidance on the overall financial picture. But the competitiveness of clubs competing for players in the Championship is skewed by the multi-million-pound parachute payments given to clubs to ease relegation from the Premier League.
“I fully believe we can operate in a sustainable business model in the Championship, and still be competitive, there are probably seven or eight clubs in this league with parachute payments, but it depends which side of the table you’re on if you think the levels are excessive or not.
“If you’re coming down from the Premier League you’ve got a Premiership cost base and it would be detrimental if you didn’t have a parachute payment, I appreciate there is a requirement to have that safety net, but it does create two tiers within the same division, much more so than you get in League One, says Zuk.
In 2016, 80% of Barnsley was taken over by International Investment Consortium, but the Cryne family still own 20%, after Patrick Cryne who died in January 2018, owned 100%. Zuk says the club’s business model has stayed consistent since the takeover, sometimes having to sell players to balance the books. “We are not going to compete with a club coming down with £40m parachute money, otherwise,”
Zuk says he appreciates player trading is sometimes difficult for the fans. “If you’ve got fixed assets on your balance sheet worth a few million pounds today and you know that the clock is ticking and if you let the contract tick down too far, that asset may not be worth a penny to you. You’ve got a decision to make.
“You can roll the dice and you can try to extend the player’s contract so that he is potentially worth more in a few years’ time, but it might require quadrupling wages in the meantime to keep him here, so it’s a real balancing act, it’s very difficult. Therefore, it is vital that we have a real-time reporting system so that the Board can make an informed decision over transfers,” says Zuk.
Zuk says the new owners are financially committed to supporting Barnsley. “They have stated on more than one occasion they want to run a balanced, disciplined- operation, the books are balancing. There are plenty of examples of clubs, high-profile ones last season where they’ve not been able to balance their books, and it’s difficult for them to continue trading,”
“We don’t want to be complacent, but we run a very lean organisation, there’s very little wastage, but it has got to take care of itself at the end of the day,”
In the meantime, commercial receipts that doubled in the 2018 year, the last full accounts. Zuk says thy have improved further since then. At the core the club is in a healthy position but the lingering risk is managing the cost of players if the club is relegated.
“We can’t halve players wages to a corresponding drop in revenue, however we have spent more seasons in the second tier of English football than any other club and it is our goal to compete in the Championship again in 2020/2021,” says Zuk.
In the meantime, Barnsley is looking forward to a competitive season in which they will push to try and win promotion to the Premiership. After a handful of games they are at the lower end of the league after a disappointing start- but there is everything to play for, on and off the pitch.