Danny Fiszman: Arsenal director and driving force behind the club's successful move to Emirates stadium
Saturday 16 April 2011
Danny Fiszman, a multi-millionaire diamond dealer, was a life-long Arsenal supporter who became a prominent director and went on to lead the club into the modern football era; his greatest single achievement being the move from Highbury, the club's home for 86 years, to the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium in 2006.
Seen by some as "ruthless" at boardroom level, Fiszman only ever had the best interests of the club at heart. According to former Arsenal goalkeeping legend Bob Wilson, Fiszman was "a visionary," who knew that in order to compete with the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and clubs of that stature, "a new stadium, new training ground, new everything was needed".
Born in Willesden, north London, on 9 January 1945, Daniel David Fiszman was the son of Belgian-Jewish parents who fled the Nazi invasion * 1940, during the Second World War. He became a passionate Arsenal fan as a child, when he stood at the Clock End at Highbury. He was a director with a genuine affinity to his club.
Instilled by his parents with the values of hard work and gratitude towards their adoptive country, Fiszman worked tirelessly and made his fortune in the Hatton Garden diamond business, building up the Star Diamonds Group. Over the years, he invested in property as well as new technology. At one time, he had a 5.6 per cent stake in the hand-held organiser company Psion; this he reduced to 3 per cent in 1998 so as to broaden his portfolio.
Fiszman joined the Arsenal board in 1992, the inaugural year of the Premier League, at a time when the footballing values of the previous 50 years were about to disappear for good. This was made possible in 1991 by his first purchase, an 8 per cent stake in the club, sold to him by friend and former vice-chairman, David Dein. By 1999 he owned 33 per cent.
By 1999, it was clear that for Arsenal to compete on the domestic and European stage it needed to increase capacity and revenue streams, thus the search for a new stadium began. Fiszman and Islington-born managing director Ken Friar were delegated to lead the new stadium project. Fiszman soon identified a suitable plot on an Islington council rubbish dump at Ashburton Grove, about half a mile from Highbury, while Dein favoured a switch to King's Cross or the restored Wembley. The two clashed over the proposed site, but eventually Fiszman's suggestion prevailed. The new Emirates stadium was officially opened in June 2006.
During the same period, a power-struggle had broken out on the Arsenal board. There were two potential investors looking to buy-in to the club, – American sports tycoon Stan Kroenke and the Uzbek metal billionaire Alisher Usmanov – but the board had differences of opinion. In March 2007, Fiszman sold a small tranche of his shares to an anonymous buyer, revealed later as Kroenke, but, significantly, reduced his stake to 24.11 per cent. In April 2007, the animosity between the two former friends came to a head and Fiszman played a pivotal role in ousting Dein. The final straw came when Dein maintained that external investment would be needed to control debt and remain competitive, and proposed to bring in Kroenke. When Dein encouraged the American to buy ITV's 9.9 per cent stake in Arsenal for £65 million, Fiszman saw red. The club announced that Dein "had left the club with immediate effect after 'irreconcilable differences' between himself and the rest of the board".
According to reports at the time, it was Fiszman who took away Dein's mobile phone and marched him off the premises. After his removal from the board, Dein sold his remaining 14.58 per cent holding, worth £75m, to the highest bidder, Red & White Holdings, which was owned by Usmanov.
Usmanov's interest precipitated a "lock-down" agreement overseen by Fiszman and the board, whereby club directors could sell their stakes only to "permitted persons" before April 2009 and had to give fellow board members "first option" on shares until October 2012. However, there was a termination clause in the agreement in October 2010. Fiszman was then subsequently said to have been instrumental in the removal from the board of Nina, Lady Bracewell-Smith, Keith Edelman and Richard Carr, allegedly for disagreeing with him on club issues; one being behind the appointment of Ivan Gazidis, the Major League Soccer administrator, as chief executive, seemingly on the advice of Kroenke, who was by now a board member himself.
Although Fiszman stated his desire not sell any more of his shares for the foreseeable future, on 27 March 2009, he sold 5,000 shares for £42.5 million to KSE UK, controlled by Kroenke, who now owned 20.5 per cent of the shares. Just three days before his death, it emerged that Fiszman and Nina, Lady Bracewell-Smith had sold their remaining shares to Kroenke, enabling him to take control of the club with a 62.89 per cent holding. It now paves the way for a full takeover.
In 2007, Fiszman sold the diamond business for £150million. Other shareholdings took his total worth to around £236m, ranking him 348th on the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List.
Described as "extremely quiet and extremely pleasant", the short, balding, bearded and immaculately dressed entrepreneur maintained a low public profile and rarely spoke to the media. In 2007, Fiszman sold his £20m house in Hampstead and moved to St Prex near Geneva, Switzerland, to live as a tax exile. His hobbies included running and flying; he was a qualified commercial jet pilot and on numerous occasions flew his own jet to London for home games, as well as flying fellow directors to the away legs of Arsenal's Champions League fixtures and players to and from international matches.
The driving force behind Arsenal's incredibly successful move to the Emirates, the stadium will be a lasting testament to Fiszman's love for the club. This week the South Bridge, which contains giant concrete "ARSENAL" letters at one end, was renamed "The Danny Fiszman Bridge" in his honour.
Fiszman died after a long battle with throat cancer, aged 66. He is survived by his wife Sally.
Daniel David Fiszman, entrepreneur; born Willesden, north London 9 January 1945; married Sally; died 12 April 2011.
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