(Additional reporting: Phil Buckingham)
Perhaps the surest sign of a newfound faith at Bolton Wanderers was the sight of more than 200 companies gathering for a business breakfast that aligned with the release of fixtures for the new season.
It happened on June 23 in the Platinum Lounge at the University of Bolton stadium – unthinkable as recently as 2019, when the club was 24 hours away from liquidation, with debts to hundreds of companies , many of them local.
It would take a long time for many creditors to see their money and Football Ventures (Whites) Limited, the group of investors who saved the club, are still unraveling the mess left by the previous owners.
Much of the construction of the bridge was led by managing director Neil Hart, recruited from Burnley last summer, and commercial agent Mike Pink, who joined the club from Crystal Palace.
Even some of Bolton’s most cynical fans have said Athleticism that the club is starting to be seen as a safer bet than it was not so long ago and the full house reflects that.
It’s understandable, though, if the fanbase remains chatty and conspiratorial after a decade of decline that saw the team tumble down the leagues and all but disappear.
And as June slipped into July, those with an appreciation of the financial challenges that had existed since Bolton’s relegation from the Premier League in 2012 were closely inspecting the developments on the Companies House website.
Aside from Derby County, Football Ventures were the latest in the league pyramid to hand over accounts for the 2020-21 financial year after Ipswich Town beat them. The Suffolk side at least had the excuse of being taken care of during the season in question.
For a few days it looked like Bolton had missed the June 30 deadline. It was not until July 4 that the club’s books appeared in public, but it was confirmed by the UK Business Register that the threshold was in fact met and the delay in publishing the accounts was due to a backlog of submissions from other companies.
After reviewing 41 pages of detail, football accountants – professional and otherwise – said the results at Bolton are fair, fair to average, not bad considering.
The reason for the shutdown is that it is hardly surprising that a big club in the lower divisions loses money, especially with the stadium gates padlocked. The company lost nearly £1.5 million ($1.8 million) in total. An improvement, then, as they lost £3.9million the previous year. As the report indicates, “the group’s second year of activity remained difficult”.
Football Ventures’ business plan for the club was based on healthy grants from a hotel and conference center attached to the ground, but the global health crisis paid for that. With no fans at games and reduced hotel revenue, group turnover fell by a third, from £9.3m in 2020 to £6.2m in 2021. They managed to cut the wage bill from £7.4m to £6.9m, but the drop in turnover meant that for every £100 earned in regular income, Bolton were spending £112 £ in wages.
We make that distinction about earnings, as Bolton earned just over £900,000 from the government’s job retention scheme, having taken in just over £1million in cash the year former. And there was also a one-time profit of £2.75m, thanks to a loan write-off.
Debt, however, remains a longer-term problem. As of June 30, 2021, Football Ventures had liabilities of £31.7m, the second highest figure in League One. Sheffield Wednesday, now 22 years out of the Premier League, is in a league of its own at this regard, as they have financial obligations amounting to £94.3m, including a debt of £51.1m to their owner Dejphon Chansiri.
Bolton, in fact, borrowed even more money after the end of 2020-21, tapping into the government’s Future Fund, a £1.1billion scheme to help innovative companies get through the pandemic. Some eyebrows were raised at the idea of an EFL team being innovative, but it was certainly innovative for Football Ventures to apply for and secure a £5million loan. Earlier this year it was confirmed that Football Ventures had opted not to repay the loan, which meant it had been converted into shares. Yes, the UK government now owns 8% of Bolton Wanderers. Another vote of confidence.
On the pitch, Bolton finished 10 points outside the League One play-offs last season, but it was a two-half campaign. Just six points above the relegation zone in January, Football Ventures loosened the purse strings and added seven new players, helping the club climb up the table. Neither Bolton nor its owners could afford another campaign in the bottom of English football, financially or emotionally.
But can Football Ventures afford to take them higher?
Most supporters believe that if Bolton were to return to the Championship it would be easier to sell the club to owners with more resources due to the proximity to the Premier League and all its wealth. And yet, some fans fear that a big promotional effort could ruin the club’s finances and make any purchase less likely.
It would be an overstatement to say the fan base is split on whether to stick or tweak, but when the club started promoting their early bird discount offer on season tickets in February, rather than April usual, some immediately wondered if the club had already overtaken themselves in the winter window and were in dire need of cash.
For the majority of fans, however, there is faith in Sharon Brittan, the public face of the ownership group. She has also impressed managers at other clubs and is popular at league headquarters, where they know how badly Bolton fell into oblivion in 2019.
Brittan has also been successful in bringing in new investment this year. In January, Football Ventures agreed to issue £4m worth of new shares to a consortium of Switzerland-based investors known as BMLL Limited. The deal was sealed in a match that month. They picked a good one – Bolton beat Sunderland 6-0. Sources said Athleticism that Brittan looked like he “won the lottery” as the group helicoptered away.
BMLL is represented on the board of Football Ventures by a UK-based Australian businessman called Nick Luckock. He and Brittan also sit on the board of a music publishing company called Lickd. They haven’t licked this football deal yet, but they’re learning.
Shortly after completing the BMLL deal, the club announced that they had a new shirt sponsor for the upcoming season, Service My Car. Founded only last year by Mubarak and Ozair Puda, two local businessmen now based in Dubai, there is very little publicly available financial information about the online booking industry.
But Athleticism understands the club have carried out extensive due diligence on the company, which has already paid half of its sponsorship upfront. The deal is also worth double what Home Bargains paid for the shirt front last season.
It should also be noted that the club tries to take an ethical stance with its business ties. Last season Bolton ended all dealings with gambling companies – a step where the money is in your mouth for a club that clearly struggled at the height of the pandemic.
Brittan and the other FV partners embarked on a huge project when they saved Bolton, but it became even bigger when COVID-19 changed the world. The hotel was supposed to be an asset, but it became another handicap.
The accounts filed at Companies House are of course a year old now, so they show an outdated picture of the company.
Talk to Athleticism this week, Hart assured fans that the group is on the right track, on and off the court.
To give two more examples of the work done by Hart and his team, Football Ventures is in talks to sell unused land at the training ground to Bellway, a leading homebuilder, and the group has also entered into a profit sharing with the Radisson Group which will see the Bolton Whites Hotel added to the chain’s booking platforms. The deal means an upgrade in hotel standards, but some extra marketing punch should keep it busier.
“Sharon, (manager) Ian Evatt and I form a very tight triangle,” Hart said.
“We talk every day about how to take the club forward on and off the pitch and I can honestly say that in over 20 years in the game I have never worked with a better club chair than Sharon. ”
The bottom line at Bolton is that the club could very easily have gone down the path of an expelled Bury or a bankrupt Macclesfield Town had the takeover not taken place in 2019. This has earned Football Ventures a lot of good will.
The club have since won promotion out of League Two on first request before finishing ninth in their first season in League One – ahead of rivals like Ipswich and Charlton, where the financial challenges are similar.
What happens next, however, will be crucial. Such goodwill still exists but is often cautioned against by comments about “naivety” or fears for Football Venture’s long-term prospects.
Sources close to the ownership group say there is no such concern, and the club have no real concerns that a good season cannot resolve.
Like all the clubs in the division, therefore. And that may be another sign that the worst is behind Football Ventures.
(Top photo: Mick Walker – CameraSport via Getty Images)