Understanding Staff Roles – Principal Advisor Jim Phipps

This is another one of the interviews I originally did for Clear Cut Chance earlier this year.  Since I did this interview Jim has actually become the Co-Chairman.

Ever wondered what a principal advisor actually does? Then you’ll want to read this article – we caught up with one recently and put some questions to him.

On 30 August 2013 Kevin McCabe announced that Sheffield United had reached a deal with a foreign investor who will become equal owners of the club and will provide new funds. On 3 September it was confirmed that Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the royal House of Saud and former President of  Al-Hilal FC had bought a 50% stake in United’s parent company ‘Blades Leisure Ltd’ for the fee of £1, with the promise of providing “substantial new capital” with the aim of returning the Blades to the Premier League as “quickly as possible”.

Now as a die hard Blades fan, I have to admit I got a bit excited at the prospect of some investment because the club has been through some hard times recently. Not only that but I was genuinely excited that I might have some money to spend on Football Manager 2014 if I decided to manage my beloved Blades.

In the weeks after the takeover happened more info was released and on Twitter a guy named Jim Phipps started interacting with Sheffield United fans. At first many of us were sceptical to see someone discussing what was happening behind the scenes at the club. It turned out that Jim is actually the principal advisor for the Prince and was building a rapport with the fans. It seemed slightly odd at first that someone like this was listening to fans and interacting with them on social media of all places. But it has worked out well and the fans feel like they are being heard. Jim has become a great ambassador for the club and the fans like his frank honesty.

To anyone now linked with the club this might all sound a bit odd and for a while it did to me, but I’ve become used to it now and its a nice refreshing change. It did get me wondering about the future of the Football Manager series though. The game is changing and quite quickly it seems this year with the removal of sliders and the new addition to the tactics interface. So what next for FM, will we see more new roles? Would a Principal Advisor be a realistic inclusion to the staff if that was the case? I don’t know about you, but I honestly had no idea what a Principal Advisor was or what he did. So I decided to try my luck and sent Jim a message and he actually responded which shocked me. We got chatting and he seems like a genuinely helpful guy and said he’d be happy to answer questions about his role and what it entails. Here is what he had to say:

1 – How do you become a principal advisor and what does the role entail?

As Principal Advisor to His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, I oversee all of his businesses, properties and interests worldwide and seek to help the Prince make sound decisions about new opportunities and existing investments. It is a strategic advisor role, meaning big picture. At the same time, it is a very hands-on tactical role. Sometimes I am asked to step in and act as an interim manager or CEO when a management team needs to be replaced and other times it means serving as a consultant to managers as they seek to address complex business issues.

To be a strategic advisor, you need a mix of professional qualifications and (mostly) experience — lots of varied experience. My background is in law. I got a Juris Doctor degree, which is the American law degree, and practiced law in big law firms for a number of years. I also spent another stretch of years on the business side.

Prince Abdullah asked me to join him as his main advisor after interviewing me to be the CEO of a company he was considering buying. I was recommended to the Prince by his lifelong legal advisor, who as it happens trained me in law practice 15 years or so before. The role I have today is not typically the sort of role that is advertised. It is the sort of role you get based on a reputation for integrity, competence and creativity and on a network of professional associations.

I do not think there is one path to this sort of role, but you have to plan on getting a good education, building up a good and interesting career and establishing a strong reputation.

2 – Just how closely do you interact with the first team players, staff and manager?

I have met the players, but do not interact with them directly on any regular basis. I do interact directly with club management regularly, i.e., with the CEO, the Director of Football Operations, the Financial Director and the Manager and his assistants.

3 – When reporting back to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, how much of what you say is your own take on the situation due to you being closely involved with the daily ongoings. Because in a sense, you are better placed to assess the situation as you see it as an outsider so to speak?

I never pretend to be an expert on everything. I am certainly not an expert on English football. I try to report carefully what the experts and others say and to distinguish that from what I think. The Prince sends me out to work on his behalf, in part, because he expects me to bring back more than just my own impressions. He wants good solid information, outside perspective and hard facts, not just opinions. I do share my own take on things, occasionally, but usually try to stick to things I know. When he wants it, the Prince asks me for my opinion, but on the whole we both prefer facts and to let the facts shape our decisions.

4 – Kevin McCabe said that Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud becoming the joint owner was down to pure luck and him (McCabe) being in the right place at the right time. But what sort of criteria do you consider before making any decision whether its a good investment or not?

First and foremost, we look at the same things we look at with all investments  — the market, the competition, the opportunity, the risks, the likely return on investment, the likely internal rate of return, the fit with what we are otherwise doing or planning to do, the opportunities we are foregoing by pursuing this opportunity and so forth. But when considering whether to purchase an English football club, HRH imposed an additional set of criteria, which he had had in mind for some time. For example, the club he wished to acquire would have:

  • To have a large, devoted following;
  • To have played in the Premier League;
  • To have Premier League infrastructure, including grounds, training facilities and the rest;
  • To have a brand capable of international expansion;
  • To be currently playing in the Championship Division;
  • To have a sound management team;
  • To have sound management processes and protocols, especially with regard to player trading and retention;
  • To have a strong academy, regularly producing players for first team football; and
  • To offer a controlling interest to him as a new owner.

There were other criteria, but these were some of the most important. We made two compromises on the special criteria. First, we ended up buying a League One club, despite Championship clubs being available. Second, we bought a 50% interest rather than a controlling interest. We made these departures from our criteria based on the strength of the fanbase, the amazing legacy of Sheffield football and the great qualities we observed in our partners, the McCabe family. We thought the value proposition was there.

5 – It seems strange seeing you interact with Blades fans on Twitter because I’ve not seen anyone interact with the fans this way as much as you seem to do. Don’t get me wrong it’s a really good thing that you are but seems to go against what ‘we are used to’ seeing. How important is it to know exactly what the fans are thinking and seeing how they feel about situations? Is this something we can expect to continue over the years?

I certainly can’t keep at it at the same pace perhaps as in my first week on Twitter (hundreds of tweets), but we have to do something to stay connected. Like I said, the fans were a major consideration when identifying which club to invest in. They as much as the players on the field determine the future of the club. They can be blunt, impatient, hostile, supportive, on-point, off-point, whatever, but at the end of the day, we have got to connect with them and to stay connected. It would be crazy to invest in players and coaches and in on-pitch improvements without also investing something in our fans. They need to believe, and it must be true, that we are in common cause together. Because we do not live in Sheffield, but rather are half a world away, we have to do something to close the distance, to be present and accounted for, to make ourselves available, and to demonstrate that we are in this with them. At the end of the day, the fans perception of this great club will be the ultimate determinant of the economic success of the club. If I can do any little thing to help them know they are heard in the board room, and if that thing steals a few hours of sleep from me now and again, I am game.

6 – On Football Manager the board can set club philosophies like develop players using the youth system, sign high profile players and play possession football and so on. How often does this actually happen in real life that you are aware of, where the board will set these kind of philosophies?

On the SUFC board, this kind of value setting and thinking is a part of what we do. It is written right into the fabric of our partnership with the McCabes. You have to know where you want to go and how you think you are going to get there. Then, you have to mechanisms to make adjustments to that vision and methodology along the way as the circumstances dictate. Like I said before, one of our criteria for buying a club was the presence of sound management protocols and processes. This includes a driving vision and set of values — approved by the board — that informs everything management does.

7 – During my time playing Football Manager 12 and Football Manager 13 I had a board take over by a tycoon which ruined my game due to them being the Roman Abramovich type of owner, were they expected me to sign really big named players and sometimes went above my head as the manager and signed a player without my input. This ruined the game for me because I had invested heavily into youth and it meant that signing big names stopped them from playing. I know similar situations have happened at real clubs, do you think this could be down to the new owners not understanding the club and what they’ve done previously? Or from them being overly ambitious?

It can be both of those, Cleon, or neither. Sometimes cultural differences in decision making styles drive these problems. Sometimes arrogance. The key if you are a new owner seems to be to have a clear vision, but also to be humble. Prince Abdullah has been following English football forever and a day. He has been involved for many years in the leadership of a club with over 10 million fans. Still, this is his first experience in owning an English football club and there is much to learn. We chose our partners and club carefully. We chose partners we could learn and grow with. We chose a club with a legacy and an ethos and more than a 124 years of lessons learned. We need to learn from the club. We need to act in ways that move the club forward, but that do not cause the fans and players to ask, What happened to the club they used to know and love? At bottom, we need to submit and to become a fully integrated part of the Blades family.

8 – How important was it to learn the history of Sheffield United and understand everything about the club? Is this something Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is still learning and trying to get his head around? Or did he already have a bit of insight into the heritage before buying 50% of the club due to him being a big fan of English Football.

The Prince was aware of Sheffield as the home of association football. He is a sports intellectual and devoured information and books on the club’s history. There is much to learn and plenty to get one’s head around. My guess is the Prince will always be too modest to assert deep knowledge of the club, but he cares to know it and troubles himself to read up. As has been publicly reported, the heritage of the club and its legacy were of great interest to the Prince and weighed in his decision to move forward with joining the McCabes in ownership.

9 – How much influence do commercial sponsors etc have on which signings a club make ?

They can have impact. The most immediate impact for the Blades is that sponsor revenue reduces the extent to which player trades are capped by league protocols limiting the ability of owner to poor in cash. The more sponsor revenue the more room we have to maneuver and to focus revenues on first team strength.

10 – Some fans of Sheffield United have been saying the Prince should splash the cash and spend ridiculous amounts of money but how frustrating is hearing things like this when we have the Salary Cost Management Protocol to comply with?

Exactly. Some fans do not understand that the rules have changed. As owners, we cannot just come in and dump a truck load of cash on the team anymore. Under the protocol, we have to grow revenue to increase the amounts we can spend. It is more or less that simple.

11 – How vocal will the Prince be? He’s admitted he is a sore loser and wants to win things sooner rather than later, so does this mean he could become unsettled if this doesn’t materialise on the pitch in the next couple of seasons? Or is this more down to your role and the Prince goes through you to get his opinions across?

With management and the board, the Prince will be vocal in support of winning tactics and strategies. I have described him before as strategically patient, but tactically impatient. You are right. He hates to lose. He expects performance from management teams. Wins are the measure in this business. He is very direct about things he does not like or wants changed. That said, he is a steady hand, very cool under pressure and he is a good listener. The Prince has acknowledged that the work before us is not the kind of thing that can be easily achieved in a couple of years. He knows how competitive English football is and how hard it can be to get where you want to go. He is committed and determined to go where he said this club needs to go.

Thank you for asking these questions and giving me a chance to shed a little light on Prince Abdullah. He is glad to be a part, up for the challenge and excited about the possibilities.

Do we think this might be something we can see in future editions of Football Manager? I’m still unsure but they are becoming more and more common in football especially when foreign investment is involved. You never know we might see this in a future version of the game….

You can follow Jim on Twitter @JamesDPhipps

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