Manchester United's Ferguson bids football farewell

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Retiring as coach of English soccer team Manchester United will give Sir Alex Ferguson, who famously described himself as “such a bloody talented guy”, more time for the other strings in his bow, including a little-known talent for investment.

The most celebrated manager in the British national game will bid farewell to a stellar career in sport on May 19, but few who know Ferguson outside the world of soccer are predicting an idle retirement for the 71-year-old Scotsman.

Instead, they see him channeling his famous energy and ambition into a string of “hobbies” with serious money-making potential, including horseracing, film financing and real estate investment, where he has already notched up some big wins.

The City of London property market had begun to shake off the effects of the dot-com crash in 2003 when Ferguson made his debut in the sector, purchasing a seven-story office building at 70 Gracechurch Street in a 150 million pound syndicated deal set up by now-defunct fund firm Active Asset Investment Management (AAIM).

In press releases published by the syndicate manager at the time, Ferguson was quoted as saying: “This is my first step into real estate, and I am quite bullish about it.”

He had every reason to be confident. Banks were falling over themselves to lend on property, and prices were soaring, pushing investment yields on London City offices, or rents expressed a percentage of a property’s value, as low as 4.5 percent by the eve of the credit crunch in mid-2007.

Several other multi-million pound UK deals followed hot on the heels of the Gracechurch transaction, including a 35 million pounds mixed office and warehouse scheme on the outskirts of London and a 43 million pounds purchase of a retail outlet in Gateshead in the northeast of England.

Ferguson and his fellow syndicate members decided to cash in their chips on Gracechurch Street in early 2005, taking a 12 million pound profit after less than two years of ownership.

In the same year, AAIM turned its attention to Eastern Europe, taking stakes in malls, hotels, offices and warehouse property in emerging economies like Poland and Hungary and turning Ferguson into a fully-fledged international property speculator.

Exactly how much the Glaswegian made from those deals remains a closely guarded secret, known only to members of Ferguson’s inner circle and the syndicate members, who praised his boundless talent for business.

“He could be anything. If he wasn’t in football, he would be the CEO of a major company. I have no doubt about that,” Stuart Le Gassick, deputy chairman of Redhawk Capital Partners, and one of the founders of AAIM, told Reuters.

“He wanted to invest his money in the best way he could. So we put the deals to him and Les Delgarno (Ferguson’s long-time family lawyer), and they got involved,” Le Gassick said.

“Times have been very tough in property over the last few years, but those guys have not gone anywhere. They’re still there,” he said.

While Ferguson was racking up trophy after trophy in soccer, AAIM, armed with cash from the United boss and a host of other wealthy private individuals, was soon sitting on a portfolio valued at more than 2 billion pounds at the peak of Britain’s debt-fuelled property boom.

But when crisis-hit Bank of Scotland ran into trouble in 2008, it pulled the plug on funding to the vehicle in charge of the AAIM operations and brought the investment spree to an abrupt end.

London-based real estate entrepreneur Robert Whitton, who co-invested alongside Le Gassick and Ferguson in the AAIM deals, took responsibility for managing most of the legacy assets after the administration.

He noted the Glaswegian’s great “people skills”, finely honed after years of dealing with temperamental soccer stars, though he also had a reputation for the occasional heated rant.

“We had and have a good relationship, but then I did make him a lot of money so never got the ‘hairdryer treatment’,” Whitton told Reuters.

“How much did I make for him? That’s confidential. But the man is a winner, and that’s coming from an Arsenal fan. He is a real gentleman and a great listener. It surprises people when I say that because they just have the media image of him ranting. But he’s very astute ... He always made time for people.”

With an estimated personal fortune of 34 million pounds, Ferguson was ranked joint 26th in April’s Sunday Times Sport Rich List.

The Manchester United press team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ferguson’s extensive business interests.

Business Empire

Ferguson’s track record as a part-time horseracing mogul carries one significant blemish: the bitter spat with Irish racing tycoon and former Manchester United investor John Magnier over the breeding rights to a stallion called The Rock of Gibraltar that they jointly owned.

Magnier offered Ferguson four stud nominations a year for the rest of the horse’s life in an effort to resolve the dispute, which some United supporters suggest prompted the Irishman to sell his interests in the club to its current majority owners, the Glazer family.

Ferguson settled for a one-off payment of 2.5 million pounds, a decision that racing experts claim has cost him many millions of pounds in stud fees.

The Rock, who became the first Northern Hemisphere horse to win seven consecutive Grade 1 races, has more than proved his money-spinning potential since, and has gone on to sire more than 50 horses who have won races in their own right.

Regulatory filings show Ferguson has also dabbled in the world of film finance, in which wealthy individuals team up to bankroll the production, marketing and distribution of movies in exchange for a share of the eventual profits.

He is named among a number of sports celebrities and businessmen as a member of Cherwell Films and Clyde Films, and also Eclipse Film Partners 35, which hit the headlines last year after a tribunal barred it from claiming tax relief for members.

Citing his enormous capacity for work and unshakeable focus on the task in hand, friends, associates and fans of the former Manchester United manager say he would be well suited to a consultancy role or non-executive position in the City of London financial district, also known as the Square Mile.

“There is huge admiration for Sir Alex amongst United fans in the City,” Chris Iggo, chief investment officer in Fixed Income at AXA Investment Management, and a lifelong United fan, told Reuters.

“People respect his drive, his enthusiasm, his success and his qualities as a leader. But there is also the respect for him as a man, his charitable work and for how he always has time for people - qualities that are still valued in the Square Mile.”

That tribute was echoed by Paul Marshall, chairman of London-based hedge fund Marshall Wace and one of the so-called “Red Knights” group of wealthy supporters who considered a takeover of Manchester United in 2010.

“Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the world’s greatest leaders, not only in soccer but in any walk of life. He will be impossible to replace,” Marshall said.

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