Up close and personal with David Gill

  • Business
  • Saturday, 25 Jul 2009

IT takes a big man to fill the shoes of Manchester United FC’s (Man U) chief executive position, and at well over six feet tall, David Gill cuts a colossal figure. A warm smile and firm handshake confirm his reputation as a really down to earth and nice guy.

Sure, he has one of the most powerful positions in world football, but what do these footie big wigs really do on an average workday? Apparently, it’s not always about sealing a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal or purchasing the next Cristiano Ronaldo.

His day starts bright and early, somewhere in the region of between 7am and 8am, when he peruses the presses for football news. “This time of the year, I’m usually looking up on news of buying players, selling players, players’ contracts. That gives me an idea of what is happening with these issues,” reveals the 52-year-old.

Beyond the transfer news, the routine involves looking into every other aspect of the club, like upcoming events and ticketing. It’s rarely a typical day for him. “We are a relatively small company, in terms of staff (550 employees), who are involved in various disciplines, and I look into that. Then, for one or 1½ days every two weeks, I’m down in London representing Manchester United for the Football Association (FA) and also working on England’s 2018 World Cup bid.”

His day can sometimes stretch up to 7pm, and having the phone incessantly ringing is simply part and parcel of the job. It’s not an occupational hazard, though, and Gill relishes the diversity of his job scope. “Of course, just like any other job, there are good days and bad days. Monotonous is not a word that comes to mind.”

So, is there a particular print or electronic publication he swears by, then? “You mean swear at,” he quips. He doesn’t rely on one particular press but instead flips through summaries provided to him on the sporting and business side of the game. “Gone are the days when you read the news this morning and read the next bit the next day.”

Being the top man of the top club (with due respect to Sir Alex Ferguson, of course) is a job that Gill takes pride in. “I’ve always had a passion for football and business. I guess it’s great that I’ve been able to combine both. I’ve seen the club change and grow since I joined in 1997 and it’s been fantastic. There are lots of ideas and opportunities and I think it’s very exciting.” Gill is also pleased with Man U’s role in the sport itself, with the club recognising its responsibility in the sport and issues surrounding it.

While he’s been a fan of the game and the club since the early 1960s, he took on the job at Man U (starting off as finance director) due to his business interests. “I wanted to make sure I did this for the right reasons because if it had only been about football, the interest would have worn off quickly. I feel there are many opportunities for us to push the club forward and get into new areas. I think we operate in a sport that continues to grow because football can only grow, and we are in a great position to benefit from that. It was a relatively easy decision to make and I’m glad I let my head, and not heart, decide.”

Having previously worked with car rental company Avis, marketing Man U is a different ball game altogether. “Avis is a commodity-type business where margins are tight, and it’s all about providing service. Whereas with Man U, it’s the entertainment business, the leisure business. We work with our partners to provide the excitement and passion of coming to watch a football match at Old Trafford or watching it on television. Avis is a market leader and we are, too,” he says.

According to Gill, pushing the boundaries to see what works and what doesn’t is key to expansion, and at the same time allows the club to reinvest in the product. The core product is always football and the club never loses sight of that.

Merchandising plays an integral role in spreading the gospel of Man U.

The club earned a staggering £64mil (RM371mil) from commercial revenue between June 2007 and June 2008, which has effectively allowed it to reach almost every continent. Man U has an estimated 333 million followers across the globe, with Asia boasting 193 million, of which four million are Malaysians.

A 13-year deal with Nike in 2002 has paid off handsomely for the club and Gill can only anticipate further success. “They’re very much our kit partner and we benefit through a minimum guarantee. So any sales above the minimum guarantee, we benefit from that. Europe has been very strong, UK continues to be strong and Asia is showing good growth,” he says, revealing that the Megastore at Old Trafford in Manchester is run by Nike.

Naturally, the players are the ambassadors of the club and its products, hence their appearance in commercials and such. Gill reveals that the players are only allowed boot deals with sponsors while all other manner of merchandise comes under deals struck with the club proper.

“We would use players for the launch of a new kit. And Nike would call on their individually-endorsed players to promote their products.”

Where sponsorship deals are concerned, telcos have become all encompassing with football brands, and Gill is quick to point out their significance. “Saudi Telecom, a partner of ours, they’ve done some TV ads, and likewise, 3 Indonesia. They use our players to deliver their brand. So, the players are our key assets in terms of what we are doing on the commercial side of things,” he says. Obviously all this is carefully managed since football comes first for the players.

The Internet age has taken Man U’s reach well and truly across the world and while the club’s main website www.manutd.com functions as the epicentre for information dissemination, Gill says much focus is being given to local language sites as well, like those for the Chinese market, for instance.

“We need to develop editorials and features for individual markets to deliver to specific fans. Manchester United TV also continues to expand and is now available worldwide and it’s developing new programmes as well. We obviously can’t come here every two minutes, so this keeps our audience in touch with what we are doing.”

And what does one need to do to become the chief executive of a club of this stature?

Gill shares his wisdom: “All football clubs are relatively small, so there aren’t that many senior positions. But I will advise anyone to write to clubs, follow the sport, gain a few different disciplines. There are MBAs in football and MBAs in sport but I’m not sure if they’ll give you a leg up. So, acquire as many skills as you can. It’s good to get experience and use that. Of course, luck is also an element.”

It’s hard to imagine luck playing much of a role in Gill’s rise to the top at Man U, but if his advice is anything to go by, the sky’s the limit.

Born: August 5, 1957

Career: Qualified as chartered accountant with Price Waterhouse, 1981; BOC Group; Avis; Finance director, Proudfoot PLC; Finance director, First Choice Holidays; 1997 Finance director Manchester United; 2000 Deputy Chief Executive Manchester United; 2001 Group MD, Manchester United; 2003 Chief Executiv Manchester United.

Noteworthy: Board member of the English FA and deputy chairman of the FA's bid to stage the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He sits on the remuneration committee of the FAPL.

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