Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Millwall FC finance director on tackling new challenges

“You’ve got to be brave to work there” was Mark Fairbrother’s first reaction when he was approached to join Millwall Football Club, the south-east London team that is well known for the passion of its fans.

Millwall’s ground The Den is widely considered to be one of the most intimidating to visit- for rival players and supporters alike. “No-one likes us, we don’t care” is a familiar chant at the club that relishes its outsider tag.

But Fairbrother, who joined the club earlier this year is no stranger to the intense atmosphere of big sports clubs. He honed his finance skills at Birmingham club Aston Villa and most recently was finance chief at leading rugby team Gloucester, that has the sport’s closest equivalent to a football club following.

But nevertheless, Fairbrother was aware that the no-nonsense attitude of Millwall, a club that grew in the shadow of London’s once mighty dockyards- where many of its supporters were traditionally drawn from- would require a straightforward approach. “I’m one of those people who thinks you’ve got to front things up. You see with the fans that they’re not going to take someone fobbing them off,” he says.

What attracted Fairbrother to the club was the combination of an ambitious owner in US businessman John Berylson, who has been with the club 12 years, keen to thrust the club into the Premier League- with all the spoils that come with competing in the world’s most exciting league. It also offered huge potential of being sited at the heart of London with a vast potential fan base to add to its core set of supporters.

But the desire to be promoted to the top flight is tempered by the need to do so in a financially measured way, so that the cost base of players’ wages does not cripple the club, or see it reprimanded over breach of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules limiting clubs to losing no more than £39m over three years. “We have an aim which is obviously to be promoted, but we’re not going to be throwing money at it. We want to be the most sustainable club in the league,” says Fairbrother.

“We’re not going to waste £10m on a player when you’ve probably got someone who can do the same job. Let’s spend the time finding the right players, who are the right characters for the team,” says Fairbrother.

In the area of financial discipline, finance plays a crucial role. “We completely changed our cash monitoring, our cash forecasts, we’ve got a model that’s given us flexibility. Because of the nature of our lumpy payments and receipts you need to know where you’re at and what headroom you’ve got and what you’ve got to play with,” he says.

“If you’re going to be buying a player, what levers have you got that you can move around to tell the short-term cash management. So that’s been improved significantly and something that I’ve had to use in previous roles, so it’s a model that if you cover it in the blue and white Millwall colours you’ll probably see that there’s red and white Gloucester colours in there, and claret and blue of Aston Villa as well. You don’t reinvent the wheel if you’ve got something that you know works,” adds Fairbrother.

In the blood

Joining Aston Villa was a boyhood dream for Fairbrother, as he had supported the club from a young age, harking from nearby Warwick. He studied banking and finance at Birmingham City University and had “every intention of working in the City afterwards,” but decided to launch his career with accountants PwC in England’s second city.

After eight years working on a mixed portfolio of clients including being seconded to Villa, Fairbrother was hired as financial controller by the club, which returned to the Premier League this season from the Championship. “They needed somebody to look at the accounts which were really slow,” he informs.

The club’s ownership passing from Doug Ellis to US billionaire Randy Lerner was the spur to improve quality of financial information, to create a manual for the function. “I would have been a fool to say no, and as a Villa fan more fool to say no,” says Fairbrother.

He says that as a fan, the first couple of days were hugely exciting- before the everyday running of the club kicked in. He adds. “As a fan I never appreciated how much effort, work, resource goes into getting the team ready on a Saturday,” he adds.

One of the biggest challenges for Fairbrother at Villa was ensuring everyone at the club understood the purpose of the finance function, as part of a drive for greater accountability for both the footballing and non-footballing elements of the club. “Everyone needed to understand it is a business and you do need to be hitting numbers, you need to be generating a certain surplus from a commercial side to fund the investment in the playing side. It was making sure people understand why they have to set budgets,” adds Fairbrother.

Despite the drive to become more accountable at Villa, an initiative which predated arrival of the FFP rules, the club slid during Fairbrother’s tenure from Premiership top six to the bottom end of the table before relegation. Before he left, Fairbrother was sponsored by the club to undertake an MBA, “to demonstrate credibility outside of just finance, to say I can also help in other areas of the business.”

With no obvious route to becoming CFO Fairbrother, took an alternative route to becoming a finance number one, joining QA, a joint venture partnership with Ulster University in Birmingham and London that brought overseas students from China, as finance director.

That approach took a different direction when the head of the group’s Chinese sales function started a new venture to bring students into UK boarding schools, with Fairbrother as managing director. “She got to see that I wasn’t just a finance person, there was a lot around looking at the contracts, agreements, the operational side of things,” he explains.

Given finance was a pretty small part of the role, it shows how far Fairbrother had developed out his skill set “trying to keep a lot of stakeholders very happy.” But he was keen to return to sport. “I missed the jeopardy of business performance not always in control, while trying to mitigate the risk of on-pitch performance,” says Fairbrother.

Oval-shaped ball

When approached about becoming head of finance at Gloucester, traditionally one of the strongest of the elite English rugby clubs, he was surprised by the size of following- 12-13,000 a match and says after meeting CEO Steve Vaughan, his mind was made up.

But despite finding a finance function left in good shape by his predecessor- who was departing for rival Wasps- there was little time to on board as he was told on day one Gloucester was up for sale. At  the time, as the club was preparing to host matches in the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, a rise in the salary cap was being decided which would turn the club from profitable to break even. “We managed to change the prospectus before it was issued, but actually you were starting to see the costs side of rugby get out of kilter with revenue,” informs Fairbrother.

At Gloucester, Fairbrother finessed the presentation of financial information. “It was about what can we do to make the production of the numbers more efficient, and then what can we do that actually starts to add value to the business,” much along the lines of innovation undertaken at Villa. “There were a lot of factors at play, the main cost being wages, so myself, the rugby ops manager and the director of rugby all had access to a live player costs and workings sheet, we knew where we were versus salary cap, where we were versus budget,” he says.

In his time at Gloucester the club produced a topsy-turvy set of performances, winning the Challenge Cup, having mediocre years and then qualifying for the lucrative Champions Cup and finishing top four in the Premiership.

As elite club rugby continues to adapt to a fast-changing world, especially as Premiership clubs’ future revenues are capped after the league’s governing body was acquired by private equity firm CVC, Fairbrother decided to follow up on interest from Millwall.

Into the Den

Becoming finance director of Millwall provided an ideal step up from Gloucester. The clubs are similar size businesses, although Fairbrother says the rugby club sells £1m of beer a year compared to the football club, which is not allowed to sell alcohol near the pitch.

But Millwall has much more financial upside. The potential to increase its fan base and boost merchandise sales, especially if the club reaches the Premiership is clearly a good reason to be at the Lions. But the hugely competitive nature of the Championship, with clubs vying to reach the lucrative top-flight, provides plenty of challenges.

For the last year, Millwall generate a small profit following a good run in the FA Cup and the sale of players, but no club in the Championship is profitable on a consistent basis says Fairbrother. “If we can get promoted without jeopardising the future of the club, that’s the right thing to do, whereas you see other clubs happily spend absolute fortunes,” he says.

Millwall’s owner is now looking at ways to develop the area around the ground in order to maximise the commercial side of the club, tapping the vast opportunities of being a few minutes by train from the main hub of London Bridge Station. In that respect, the club’s ambitions to reach the Premiership- it just missed play-offs two years ago but then narrowly avoided relegation last year- are not vital for economic success.

Plans to build new housing and create a matchday plaza on the area owned by the club’s community trust could all materialise if a long running dispute with Lewisham Council is soon resolved. “It will create a whole new community feel in and around this area we are at the centre of,” says Fairbrother.

If such a plan is hatched, Fairbrother’s instincts for marrying the running of finance with wider commercial instincts will be met.” I think once we get to the point where we start the detailed planning is when I am going to get a lot of work coming my way. That is going to be a really interesting challenge,” he says.