By Nick Harris
17 March 2010
The men behind the private equity firm bidding for a stake in Liverpool are rich but not intending to invest their own fortunes in the deal Sportingintelligence can reveal.
The Rhone Group, an international company with offices in New York, London and Paris, tabled a bid at the weekend for somewhere* between £100m and £118.5m for an initial 40 per cent stake in Liverpool.
The firm was founded in 1995 by two US bankers, Robert Agostinelli and Steven Langman, and it has been widely – and erroneously – reported that they will pour massive resources into Liverpool if their investment plan comes to fruition.
As the Spirit of Shankly fans’ group has today written to Liverpool’s managing director, Christian Purslow, asking for clarification of Rhone’s “bid”, Sportingintelligence can reveal:
- Rhone’s offer for a stake in Liverpool has been made on behalf of a group of an as-yet unnamed investors who have other funds under management by Rhone in a variety of other ventures.
- These are “disinterested” parties who believe that injecting their cash into Liverpool now, when it is a “distressed” business, will lead to a cash profit in the medium term. In other words, they want to invest when Liverpool is vulnerable, help to stabilise the finances and create an environment in which commercial lenders will fund the new stadium, then get out at a profit. Nobody disputes Liverpool’s massive potential as a money-making machine when the new stadium is built. Getting there is the hard part, and Rhone’s executives see an upside in helping.
- Rhone’s investors are looking at Liverpool as “just another business deal”. Rhone’s other recent investments have included, for example, financing for the clothes firm Quiksilver, putting money into the toy chain Early Learning Centre, and part-owning the aluminium company Almatis, which Rhone then sold, incidentally, to a former Liverpool suitor, Dubai International Capital.
- Rhone’s offer is understood to be contingent on taking a “controlling” interest, stipulated contractually, even it takes less than a 51 per cent stake. “Leaving Hicks and Gillett with 60 per cent, or rather 60 per cent of voting rights, makes no sense” one source says.
- Rhone are understood to acknowledge privately that their offer will be unattractive to Hicks and Gillett because it offers them no cash, just a dilution of their shareholding. Equally, they know it is the only concrete offer Purslow has to date. As Sportingintelligence has already reported, Liverpool’s co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett think Rhone’s offer is too low. Sportingintelligence understands that Gillett at least is willing to walk away from Liverpool altogether now, but only at the right price.
- The Rhone Group believes Hicks and Gillett are under more urgent imminent pressure to repay a chunk of Liverpool’s £237m debts to RBS than is widely believed. RBS has demanded that £100m be repaid no later than July. Some of that is actually due sooner, Rhone believes, although it is generally acknowledged RBS would rather allow some leeway than seize control of Liverpool.
- Agostinelli, whose ex-wife Mathilde is a senior executive at Prada, is an acquaintance of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, although only Mathidle, now remarried, and not Agostinelli, went to Sarkozy’s wedding to Carla Bruni. Much has been made of Agostinelli’s other “links” to politicians, but while both he and Langman have track records of political donations to Republicans, including to John McCain, it is not thought he is especially close to fellow long-term Republican Hicks.
A spokesman for the SoS group said today: “There is genuine concern amongst fans, that whilst we need this new investment, it may not be for the greater good of the football club. Tom Hicks and George Gillett made all the right noises and said all the right things when they took over and look how that has turned out. Fans have learnt from the past, and any new investors will come under closer scrutiny from those who genuinely care about the football club. We don’t want to be jumping from the frying pan, into the fire.
“We are left wondering just what the Rhone group’s intentions would be. In the desperation for the club’s management to reduce the debt, we cannot do this without any consideration to what it might mean to the future of our football club. A quick look into Rhone’s previous dealings leaves fans worried at just what they want from LFC, with a worry that it would be a chance for them to make a quick profit – a profit that would be extracted from the club, reducing the opportunity to invest on the pitch. Until fans have their issues listened to and questions answered, any investment will be treated with scepticism and a great deal of trepidation.”
*The amount of the bid differs depending on which source you believe: a variety of people at Anfield including managing director Christian Purslow; Liverpool’s owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett directly, and indirectly via numerous PRs; bankers with inside knowledge of the search for funds; and other City figures connected to one or more of the above, at least some of whom posit a theory that Rhone’s interest isn’t genuine, and exists solely to drum up an auction. The on-record response to sportingintelligence’s direct queries to the front desks at Rhone’s offices in London, New York and Paris was “No comment”.