Carson Yeung: 'I'll bring China's finest to Birmingham'

In his first interview since buying City, the Hong Kong businessman reveals his plan to dominate the world's biggest market – and introduce unknown talents
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Carson Yeung is the owner of Birmingham City, this season's upstart team in the world's most visible league, but until now there has been no end of unanswered questions about him. The latest, and loudest, came yesterday, when fans were left wondering who is really running their club amid claims that investment bank Seymour Pierce had seized control over a disputed unpaid debt of £2.2m.

The less alarming reality is that Yeung is still definitely running the show. The fees date back to his takeover of the club; Yeung lost a High Court case over the matter last week but intends to appeal, a convoluted process that will be dragged out but is unlikely to have real menace for a man said to be worth just a couple of million pounds.

Seymour Pierce has a "charging order" on Birmingham's shares, which means they are frozen, but does not affect the day-to-day running of the club. If Yeung's appeal fails, and he has not paid the bank by 27 May, Seymour Pierce could theoretically sell shares but the matter should be resolved before then.

But it certainly adds to that long list of questions about Yeung. Wasn't he a barber just a few years ago? did he really make his money trading in penny shares? How much is he actually worth?

For Birmingham City fans, another question is paramount: what is his grand plan for the club? And why has nobody heard him speak in public since October, when a press conference led to headlines that blared "Yeung promises £40m transfer kitty" and umpteen variations?

For a man shrouded in such mystery, Yeung is in a jovial, talkative mood when we meet in the club's boardroom. His unbeaten season at home against the "Big Four" must certainly help. As must the club's ninth place in the Premier League. Or it may be because one of Yeung's guests, Kenny Dalglish, has popped in to say "thank you" for the hospitality.

"Anyone have a camera?" Yeung asks. I oblige. Yeung and King Kenny stand shoulder to shoulder. It will make a marketable snap for Yeung's Hong Kong newspaper, the Sing Pao Daily News.

His personal holding in the club, 16 per cent, is worth £13m. One Chinese estimate of his assets is £150m, but there is no way of corroborating that. So how much is Yeung actually worth? He pauses for a moment before laughing, and says: "I'm rich enough to have a company that buys a football club for £81m. And to buy a house in London, my second home."

The second home in London is also the permanent home of his 16-year-old son, Ryan, who is at school in the capital. "Named after Ryan Giggs," Yeung says. "Really! I have been watching English football for many years, more than 30 years, and I have admired Manchester United in the Premier League, and I love Ryan Giggs. My son is a United fan."

Cracking the Asian market is every club owner's dream. And Yeung may just be right to say that, with his connections, Birmingham City might just have an edge that makes the sport's established superpowers jealous. His plan? Sign the best Chinese talent he can find.

Yeung is the chairman of Birmingham International Holdings (previously Grandtop, with a most recent turnover of just £1m) but he has other interests in firms registered in the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong and China. As a business source in Hong Kong puts it: "Yeung isn't high profile. But given there are so many billionaires in Hong Kong, you can be worth a lot and fly below the radar."

Asked to describe his business portfolio, Yeung replies: "The football club is part of the entertainment sector of my businesses. We also have a newspaper [the Sing Pao] and magazine as part of a media company... an interest in a casino, and investments in energy, water and property." for Yeung, the Premier League is the ultimate international brand. "The exposure is unparalleled and unrivaled," he says. "I'm the first man from Asia, from mainland China, to get involved, and that will give me a head start [marketing a club] in Asia."

Yeung insists he controls Birmingham, with no "Mr Big" behind the scenes. There is a diverse, primarily Chinese, ownership and investment structure, although the vice-president is Michael Wiseman, son of the late former chairman, Jack, maintaining a family link to the club dating back to 1928, and the chief executive is Michael Dunford, once of Everton. The vice-chairman is Peter Pannu, a former Hong Kong detective, "a Triad-busting cop" who left the force in 2000, retrained as a barrister, and in Yeung's absence is his eyes and ears around St Andrew's.

So what of Yeung's past? Was he a hairdresser 10 years ago? "That wasn't 10 years ago! That was 30 years ago. And it's just a rumour that I was actually a hairdresser. I was the owner of a salon, which became a chain of salons, and I was also in the fashion business and expanded into clothing, and from there into other business."

A strange beginning for an empire, but Yeung believes he is well-placed to profit from guanxi, the complex set of obligations and understandings in Chinese business. "We're not saying Manchester United or any other club is destined to fail where we might succeed," Yeung adds. "But I think that we have an advantage in terms of guanxi. For us to build the necessary repertoire with partners is easier."

Birmingham have already done a five-year kit deal, starting this summer, with one of China's biggest clothing firms, Xtep. It is worth a basic fee of £8.5m including image rights deals for "future players."

But Yeung has a much more important masterplan. He wants Chinese stars at Birmingham. A reality TV show starts soon in Hong Kong to unearth youngsters and Yeung has told his scouts to find the best player in China and recruit him. It's the "Yao Ming model", after the player who helped American basketball become the No 1 foreign sport in China.

"The NBA took off [in China] thanks to the combination of the potential market then Yao Ming igniting it," Yeung says. "I'm mindful of the promotional effect of Yao Ming. But obviously we're not going to just bring in a mediocre Chinese player. We will source the best Chinese player, in due course, and we're already looking for that player. Maybe it's actually better to sign someone who is on the verge of being very good, and then grooming them to be better within the British system.

"But let me be clear that this is not something that we are doing in isolation. Alex McLeish is on top of the situation and aware of what we want to do. There is no notion that we would ever tell Alex McLeish who to play.

"McLeish is excellent. We couldn't ask for anyone better. He has a very good commercial sense. We're not going to impose a [Chinese] striker and remove James McFadden!

"But McLeish is excited that if we can unearth potential, and under his hand a player could be groomed to become English football's Yao Ming – that can be positive for the club."

Birmingham will get exposure in Asia this summer when their pre-season tour takes them to Hong Kong, Beijing, Liaoning province, and probably to Shanghai. Senior Chinese politicians will attend games. "Everywhere I go in Hong Kong people want to talk to me about [Birmingham]," Yeung says. "The same in China."

So, Yeung is a man with a plan. But does the current state of Premier League finances not sound a note of caution for him? "Control of player wages has to be zealously guarded," he admits. On the subject of money, does he regret saying on TV in October that he was planning to "support the club for £20m-£40m in January"?

"I was in a catch-22 situation," he says. "Fans wanted to know who this Chinese guy was, and what my commitment is. Had I not indicated my intention, people would have said I'm reluctant. I emphasise that the intention to invest is still there. But to talk about specific amounts of money, in hindsight, I can see that wasn't the best thing to do for any number of reasons. We learnt one lesson: suddenly prices shot up.

"Money will be spent as and when it's warranted. We're not going to spend £20m on a striker or £35m on this or that player. But I will support the manager in the summer. I'm just not going to talk about figures."

He adds that Birmingham were the second-highest Premier League spenders in January, buying Michel from Gijon and Craig Gardner from Villa, each for £3m, "and it's well known we tried for more."

Yeung says this season's results have exceeded expectations. "Alex understands he needs to work with certain resources. He's a smart guy." And the future? "I'm here for the very long term. My dream for Birmingham is to do better than we've done before. If we try our best and improve from where we have been in the past, we'll be happy. I want to push them up the table but not set unrealistic targets."

The billion dollar quest to exploit Asia's potential

Lee Bowyer may believe that there are 22 million people in China, but Premier League chief executives are all too aware of the potential size of that market. It was at Birmingham's Christmas party that Bowyer was asked to guess the population of China by Peter Pannu, Carson Yeung's right-hand man. It actually stands at 1.3bn, which is why Birmingham are just the latest in a string of English and European clubs to seek to tap into that potential gold mine.

How they do that, though, remains the billion dollar question. Manchester United are estimated to have 100 times as many fans in China as in the UK, but less than 2 per cent of their income comes from abroad.

The NBA has made headway in China and claims a 300m-strong market worth $2bn (£1.3bn) a year. The Premier League have compared notes with the NBA on their approach in China. The presence of Yao Ming at the Houston Rockets is seen to be crucial but a number of Chinese players in England has not had the same affect. Sun Jihai spent six years at Manchester City, Dong Fangzhuo made little impact at United.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham have gone on tours to China in recent years. A new TV deal will see at least one Premier League game a week shown free-to-air from next season. It had been limited to pay-per-view only and that, above all, could be the key for a real breakthrough.

Robin Scott-Elliot