"I don’t want to be a pop star; I want to become a great owner" - Guochuan Lai
GUOCHUAN Lai takes part in a Q&A following Friday's announcement he has agreed a deal for the takeover of West Bromwich Albion.
Q: Welcome to West Bromwich Albion Guochuan Lai. What was it that drew you to our Club?
A: There were several reasons. West Bromwich Albion has a wonderful history and culture and it will become a huge honour to be its custodian. It has historic links to China, of course, as the first English club to tour and play matches in my country in 1978.
The Club’s strong identity with its community, its integrity, and hard-working ethic were also a huge appeal to me as these are qualities that are also extremely important for my business. Through these qualities Albion has fought its way to a competitive position in the most popular league in world football.
And you should also be aware that the Throstle is the symbol for my region in China!
Q: What are your ambitions for the Club? Where do you want to take it?
A: I don’t want to be a pop star; I want to become a serious owner, a great owner for West Bromwich Albion. For me, this is all about helping the Club reach its potential by building on the good work which has been done. The Club has an excellent infrastructure in place, ranging from their youth development programme to their training facilities. It is this which will provide the basis of the Club’s future success and I will, of course, give the new Chairman John Williams all the support I can.
First and foremost, our goal is to ensure that we remain in the Premier League and then beyond that, I would like to see the Club establish itself in the top half of the division. We have a strong, competitive squad for the Premier League and over time I hope I can play my part in developing that still further.
My intention is to maintain the current management ethos in terms of day-to-day management and approach to the team and to supplement this with the opportunities that China provides. My plan is to add to, rather than radically change the workings of the Club.
In case there is any doubt, I also want to make it clear that I have no intention of changing the Club’s identity, its famous colours or the stadium.
Q: Is the acquisition of the Club being financed by cash or debt?
A: The Club is being bought for cash and I want to make it clear that none of the Club’s assets will be used to support the takeover.
Q: We have seen a rise in Chinese investment into European Football, what differentiates your offer?
A: I don’t want to comment on other takeovers. For me the key task is to help Albion grow and thrive in the Premier League. I am proud that I shall be the only man from mainland China in ownership of a Premier League club but this is not a “vanity project”. This is about building on already solid foundations. I love football - my hometown is known in China as “the home of football”. But this is not about me and building my reputation. This is about helping West Brom progress still further in the Premier League.
Q: There will be great interest in how much you have paid for the Club? Can you say – and how do you hope to get this investment back?
A: The acquisition consideration is a private matter, covered by a confidentiality agreement. My personal wealth is also a private matter. What is important for you all to know is that I have not indebted the Club and intend to keep it on a sustainable footing. The only thing that matters is that the Club thrives. If this is the case then the rest will follow.
Q: Naturally, the fans will also want to know if you have had chance to speak to the Technical Director Nick Hammond and Head Coach Tony Pulis about his transfer targets? Will money be made available for transfers?
A: I will ensure that Nick and Tony have my full support when it comes to strengthening the squad. Albion have a proud history of prudent dealings and promoting young players and this is a tradition I will continue. The story of Leicester City captivated everyone around the world last season and what made it more exciting was that it was a triumph for shrewd and smart transfer dealings. That is what we must still strive for.
Q: How much time will you spend in the UK?
A: I have other business interests to attend to in China but I will be here as often as I can. I am looking forward to being at The Hawthorns to watch our first home game of the season against Everton. I want to say ‘Hello’ to the supporters – and as is the custom in the UK, I believe, I would like to buy them all a drink!
Q: Really? A drink for all the fans?
A: Yes, we can organise that at the Club. A free drink for everyone who is with us that day. I have also arranged for scarves to be given for all of the fans travelling to Crystal Palace for the opening game of the season. I want this to be the start of a new era and let the supporters know that neither myself, John Williams, Nick, Tony, the players...we can do nothing if they are not with us.
Q: Will the Club honour all existing sponsorships? Will you be seeking to sign new deals with Chinese companies?
A: We will of course honour all of our existing sponsorship contracts, and will hope to supplement them with deals that take advantage of China’s growing enthusiasm for football and which are in the interests of the Club.
Q: How do you intend to increase West Bromwich Albion’s presence in China?
A: As the only Chinese owner of a Premier League Club at this moment, there is of course significant interest in this deal back home. Moreover, I hope to instigate initiatives such as pre-season tours, and other media activities which increase the team’s fan base in the country.
In China, media and technology are evolving fast, which, together with the Chinese Government’s strategy to develop football, will drive a new era for football, in China and internationally. This will present attractive commercial opportunities, especially for leading football clubs that have a strong brand. That’s where I intend to position Albion by combining my business resources.
Q: Can we expect to see the Club sign new players from China?
A: I believe that there is a great opportunity to take West Brom’s excellent training system to China in order to help train young talented Chinese players. They could potentially be signed by the Club but all decisions regarding transfers will continue to be made by the management team, working in harness with Tony and the Chairman.
Q: Have you had chance to meet supporters yet and have you been pleased with the welcome?
A: The possibility of a Chinese buyer has been long-mooted in the media and I think they see the opportunity for the Club to be joined more closely to such a large and rapidly developing economy and where such emphasis is being placed on football development. The challenge John and I have is to deliver on this opportunity for the benefit of the Club, while remaining clearly focused on the absolute priority of good league performance.
Q: Can you tell us a little more of your business career and what brought you to this point at the age of 42?
A: I would describe myself as an entrepreneur having worked for Palm for a large part of my career, building the business and the value of my shareholding as the company grew to provide urban landscaping solutions for many of China’s new cities. I remain invested in Palm, my partner in this transaction, but have also monetised part of my shareholding and have other business investments.
Palm’s main focus now is developing new ‘eco towns’ to help with central government policy to move people away from traditional cities, towards smaller cities with integral cultural and leisure facilities. Palm is pioneering a public-private-partnership model of ‘eco-town’ development with local governments, where Palm will both design and operate new ‘eco-towns’.
It has a workforce of more than 1,000 and operates from more than 20 offices in mainland China, as well as from branches in Austria and Hong Kong, where it acquired 80% of Belt Collins. Palm has completed over 2,000 landscaping projects in more than 100 Chinese cities. Corporate clients have included Disneyland Shanghai and Disneyland Hong Kong.
Q: How are you funding this acquisition?
A: The Club’s ultimate holding company is being acquired by a company which the parties have established for the purpose of concluding the purchase. This company is funded entirely with equity and no debt has been secured on the Club as part of the acquisition.
Q: What drives your decision of acquiring WBA? Why did you choose the Premier League?
A: From a business stand-point, the Club is a great investment: it is financially sound and has a strong management team.
The sports industry is becoming a new growth engine in China, as people are becoming more and more health-conscious. Developing the culture and the love of sports, and in particular an accessible team sport like football, is a great decision from both a business and community perspective.
The Premier League is simply the best league in the world. The level of competitiveness of the teams and the joy and commitment of the fans is unparalleled. It is watched and beloved all over the world, and as a football fan, it has always been a dream to me. It’s incredible to embark on this journey with WBA, and to help continue and build its football legacy.
Q: How do you plan on leveraging this acquisition to promote football in China?
A: We are entering a golden age for football in China. China has a massive football fan base, which has been growing in the past years. There is also a real commitment, strongly supported by the government, to develop football and its culture in China, and I am convinced that this transaction will serve to reinforce the love of football, while bringing West Brom new, dedicated fans. It will also have a huge appeal for youth football, as this is a great opportunity to bring Albion’s excellent training system to China to help nurture young talent.
Q: Will WBA go to China to play a game against a Chinese club?
A: I am sure this will happen in time but in the near-term the focus is entirely on league performance.