Wednesday 15 August 2018

Winter of change beckons for Dundalk as big questions hover over the proposed US takeover

 

A general view of Oriel Park which could cost millions to redevelop. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
A general view of Oriel Park which could cost millions to redevelop. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

American takeovers tend to be a Premier League talking point not a League of Ireland one, so the proposed deal for a consortium to assume control of Dundalk with the backing of Chicago-based Peak6 has attracted curiosity.

The potential development was first reported last month, although talks had been ongoing before that with the respective protagonists reluctant to disclose any details.

But significant progress has been made and there is now an expectation that the Louth club will have new owners this month. It is a tale that poses obvious questions.

Who are Peak6?

Peak6 are a private equity firm which was founded in 1997 by Matt Hulsizer and Jennifer Just, a husband and wife team who had previously worked for Swiss Bank and had shared backgrounds in financial services and risk management. The basic goal of private equity firms is to create profit for their investors by identifying businesses with potential and increasing their value - often with a view to selling them on.

The company's website lays out their mission statement. "We're driven to see solutions others don't and capitalise on opportunities others miss," it says.

"Every day, our culture motivates us to seek out, and invest in, good ideas that have the potential of becoming great businesses."

Matt Hulsizer and Jennifer Just are the husband-and-wife team behind private equity firm Peak6
Matt Hulsizer and Jennifer Just are the husband-and-wife team behind private equity firm Peak6

Hulsizer and Just have clearly made their business work and rapid expansion into a range of areas allowed them to sell off some of their assets.

In 2014, a Chicago business publication reported they had sold two trading businesses - a hedge fund and a retail trading unit - for more than $200m.

What is the company's sporting background?

Hulsizer was a talented ice hockey player and also qualified as a coach and his first move into sport was in that code. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get involved in a franchise, he bought 40pc of the NHL's Minnesota Wild in 2015 to become a minority owner and join the board of directors as vice chairman.

Around that time, a variety of US business publications suggested that Peak6 were looking at eclectic interests such as European professional soccer and, as a slight contrast, extracting marble in Italy. A bid to land Reading FC then failed.

But in 2015 they purchased a 25pc share in Premier League newcomers Bournemouth with Hulsizer and colleague Jay Coppoletta joining the board after agreeing a deal with the club's Russian owner Maxim Demin. They have had a low-key profile since, yet the arrival was reported to offer the club greater financial security and extra access to funds for transfers or stadium expansion.

Peak6 also have a small interest in Serie A side Roma.

What attracted them to Dundalk?

This is what Dundalk supporters want to find out. The ground-breaking 2016 Europa League run was a factor with Stephen Kenny's side earning over €6.5m on the pitch. In the aftermath of the historic journey, the Lilywhites hierarchy received a series of calls from prospective overseas investors who didn't appear to have any credentials. But the American investors ticked the right boxes.

Hulsizer is Peak6's main man but he's not believed to be at the forefront of this deal. Peak6 strike partnerships and it's believed they are effectively the financial engine for a consortium of investors with an ex-footballer from the USA part of the equation.

This group has a connection with the American owners of Swansea and an unsuccessful attempt to launch a United Soccer League franchise in San Francisco.

Former Bournemouth chairman Trevor Watkins is a lawyer and he helped to broker the deal that brought Peak6 into his old club and he has been acting for the US side in Dundalk discussions. A delegation from America attended a league game with Bohemians in October, and also met with FAI officials on this fact-finding trip.

However, the League of Ireland is not furnished with a reputation for returning profit from investment, although Dundalk's current owners Paul Brown and Andy Connolly will prove to be the exception if this sale is completed. Europe is the key for any ambitious Irish operation considering there is no TV deal here and prize-money levels are paltry.

There are other sides around Europe that have established themselves as big fish in relatively small ponds and thrived in the Champions League and Europa League with BATE Borisov (Belarus) and Ludogorets (Bulgaria) obvious examples. FK Vardar (Macedonia) have also started to make inroads with a Russian sugar daddy.

What is the cost of taking over Dundalk?

Lilywhites fans Brown and Connolly run a hardware retail company called Fastfix and they saved the crisis-ridden club in 2012 by paying off an accumulated debt of €192,000. The turning point was the inspired move to appoint Kenny that sparked an extraordinary period of success.

This is a 100pc takeover but no figures will be released - 'an undisclosed sum' is popular football parlance these days - but it's safe to say that Brown and Connolly will get their money back with interest.

But the real spend for the Americans will be committing funds to build proper facilities to house a professional club. A complete revamp of Oriel Park has been mentioned, yet that is a complicated and expensive project. The new third stand at Tallaght Stadium, which is on the way, has an estimated cost of €1.9m so overhauling an entire ground will be multiples of that.

Then there are straightforward staffing issues. Take the first team dressing room out of the equation and Dundalk have just two full-time employees. To run a functioning operation, it's thought that new owners will have to bring in at least three or four non-football staff to oversee day-to-day operations, but it remains to be seen if that will be their starting point.

Like almost all Irish clubs, the wage bill essentially consists of players and management. In 2015, Dundalk's staff costs were just under €1m but it was closer to €3m in 2016 due to the substantial bonuses that were handed out for the European results.

Certainly, that success has given the club a bit of a cushion, but it was quickly eaten into with bonuses, travel costs, tax and other bills, and the costly resolution of a dispute over the Oriel Park lease leaving the actual nett return closer to €3m.

Regular European qualification in an era of bloated UEFA prizemoney makes it easier to balance the books. Dundalk collect €580,000 for participating in this year's Champions League even though they went out at the first hurdle, and last month they got another substantial boost courtesy of a delayed payment of market and TV share from their group stage run in 2016. After losing their crown to Cork, they start off in the Europa League qualifiers next season where each round is worth in excess of €200,000 - they should be seeded in the early rounds.

What happens next for Dundalk?

That's the million dollar question. The existing owners had already committed to supporting a change of first-team operations for 2018 which means players will train at Oriel Park in the morning, then eat together and spend their afternoons in a newly installed €50,000 gym.

It's a contrast from the old schedule where players split into Dundalk and Dublin groups to do their own gym sessions before training at Oriel Park in the evenings. Kenny's squad have moved from 40- week to 52-week contracts, and the handful with day jobs have either left or made a commitment to the new way of life.

Fresh support will help that transition, and the spectre of the takeover throughout the autumn may have given Kenny a stronger hand in getting players to commit to longer term deals with right back Sean Gannon penning a three-year contract.

The main cause for scepticism is Cork City's experience with Arkaga, an equity firm which took the reins in 2007. Mystery surrounded the London-based company founded by Irishman Gerard Walsh with players in the dark about who was making decisions. Arkaga's backing allowed Cork to offer good contracts but the losses stacked up and they departed the scene as the recession bit.

In 2009, Walsh's business empire collapsed - he was later described as 'a fraudster' by a Jersey court after a Wexford company received substantial compensation arising from bad investments - and Cork were engaged in an examinership process that spelled the end for that trading company. Fans group FORAS then came to the rescue.

Peak6 have a solid track record stretching back 20 years so it seems unfair to equate them with every other company engaged in the same line of work. But they are risk takers who support projects which offer a return on investment so it would be naive to think that business people with no emotional connection will have unlimited patience. The football people at Dundalk have been impressed by what they've heard and are taking heart from Peak6's sporting CV, but this is still a gamble.

It must be stressed, however, that Brown and Connolly are juggling running the club with managing a business and they were open to offers because they have arguably reached the ceiling of what can be done with that set-up. There is a school of thought that carrying on as they are would be a risk too.

Generating the funds required to upgrade the infrastructure while giving Kenny the necessary support to keep pace with Cork is a difficult balancing act. Something had to give and this winter was always likely to be one of change, but an injection of US energy would represent a dramatic one.

In a town that generally makes the sports news over the winter because of their racetrack, they hoping the powers that be are backing the right horse.

Irish Independent

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