Monday, May 13, 2013


Its old news. Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down from the leadership of Manchester United last week after 26 years at the helm. His career at the club is unparalleled in sports history, not only for its longevity but for the consistency of success – on average he won a premiership title every other year.

With such staying power the memorable moments are many. That night in May 1999, in Barcelona has to be up there with the best. The Champion’s League final.  Manchester United had been on the backfoot all night smothered by a Bayern Munich side captained by Lothar Mathieus. Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put the Germans to the sword in extra time to give United their first Champion’s League trophy under Ferguson.

The match gave new meaning to the phrase snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

The moments of brilliance have been many and not far apart, blending into the most consistent performance of the any English team ever.

Forbes last week estimated that $386m (sh962b) of the club’s current value can be directly attributed to the Scotsman.

The club is currently valued at $3.5b.

“Ferguson accomplished this feat by consistently winning on the pitch and leading with class, which enabled Manchester United to build one of the most valuable brands in sports. The strong brand, in turn, has fueled revenue growth superior to Manchester United’s English rivals,” Forbes’ Mike Ozanian wrote.

The clubs revenues have risen 13-fold to $502m last season from $39m in 1992 the first season of the Premier League. To further underline the stature of the man, the club accounts for 13.4% of the 19-team league’s total $3.76b revenues.

Businesses are the vehicle through which value and therefore wealth are created. Ferguson was the face of management but obviously there was an administrative structure behind the man that took care of the business end while Ferguson worked at creating a winning brand.

We would not expect any of our business to build a multi-billion dollar enterprise soon but there are lessons to be learnt from the Sir Alex reign.

Three lessons come to mind.

Underpinning his success was his stated mission to build Manchester United in to a club not just a team. He understood that for long term success it was not only about the 11-odd players on the pitch but the whole business needed to be viable to sustain his long term goal, which stated less charitably, was to knock then giants Liverpool of their vaunted perch.

A mission also meant Sir Alex never succumbed to the trappings of success, blunted his desire for more and more success or made him get too big for his boots.

For a long time Manchester United was the moneybags of the premiership and accused of being able to buy any player they chose. In latter years however Chelsea and then Manchester City have muscled United, but this has not stopped Ferguson making key buys and keeping the winning ways going.

People might have attributed supernatural powers to his ability to buy players who clicked almost immediately, but the answer may lie in more mundane places. That he had a strategy and vision of the kind of soccer he wanted and picked players who would fit into his vision. It should be the same for our businesses. Blessed with a windfall our businessmen are more likely to upgrade to a bigger four wheel drive car than buy assets that can advance the company’s fortunes. In fact when I see a new businessman buying a bigger car I start counting down to the eventual demise of his business.

Beyond picking them Sir Alex was known as a great motivator. With experience he seemed to have perfected the delicate art of  knowing when to praise or criticize his wards; when to  dismiss their excesses or when to wield a stick and never ever to criticize his men in public. The ultimate man manager.

Businessmen pay lip service to the importance of their workforce but maybe because of the nature of his profession Sir Alex couldn’t afford that luxury. He couldn’t afford to imagine that the stadium or pitch were the club’s biggest asset. Our businessmen need to pay as much attention to their workers than they do their machinery or buildings, because it’s the workers who extract value from the plant and machinery. You can have a business without plant and machinery but you can’t have a business without workers.

The fans and the market – United’s share price shed 5% on the news, may have reacted to the departure of the gaffer but there is no suggestion that the team will come crumbling down in the wake of his exit.

While Sir Alex was the one constant at the club for the last 26 years clearly a structure was built around him to ensure success. The consistency of the success regardless of which players left or came in, is testament to more than structure.

Maybe that will be the final test of his time at Manchester United, whether he built a credible enough structure to carry on from where he left off.


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