A deal-maker on Wall Street, an altruist in China. But can Huang be a saviour at Anfield?
As details emerge about the leading contender to take ownership of Liverpool, one thing is clear: this is no cash-rich billionaire
Tuesday 03 August 2010
Martin Broughton, the non-executive chairman hired by Tom Hicks and George Gillett to find a buyer for Liverpool, warned before he set about his work that any serious contender for the keys of the Anfield boardroom would only become known when they had signed on the dotted line. Beware those offering salvation in advance, he cautioned.
It is too early to know whether Kenneth Huang, the Chinese businessman now in talks to take control of Liverpool, will bear out that prognosis, though there were certainly more questions than answers last night about his ability to help take over the club. No one is pretending that Huang has the money to buy up Liverpool. It is said that he will be backed by Chinese sovereign wealth – state-owned investment funds. But it remains unclear precisely which funds might be at the disposal of the bid Huang is fronting and the biographical background on this individual also remains fairly sketchy.
Huang came to public attention when he launched a reported $70m bid to buy a stake in a National Basketball Association team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 15 months ago. The NBA said last night that Huang had no involvement in the bid for the Cavaliers. A bid did come from another south-east Asian, Albert Hung, though that came to nothing, too. Huang's main link to the NBA was to help link up a top Chinese player to the Cavaliers and he was also described yesterday as an "ex-exclusive Chinese marketing partner of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers", though precisely how significant that role was remains unclear.
Huang, who was born Huang Jianhua in southern Guangdong province in 1964, does have a sporting background – he is said to have been an outstanding badminton player in his youth – and he certainly has business acumen. He made headlines in China for becoming the first Chinese graduate to work at the New York Stock Exchange, having graduated from his hometown's Zhongshan University and moving overseas to study first at Columbia University and then complete a masters degree at St John's in New York.
Reportedly speaking Japanese as well as Mandarin, Cantonese and English, Huang has built a reputation for bringing people and organisations – specifically, American and Chinese – together. He seems to be a facilitator rather than a tycoon – and Liverpool have needed the former in recent years – but the extent of his achievements in China remain as vague as in the US. He has always maintained a low profile, giving few interviews or press conferences.
Foremost among the achievements Huang has been credited with is the founding of the QSL Youth Sports Development Foundation, the largest sports-related charity fund for under-privileged children in China. It is difficult to ascertain the size of the foundation from its website yesterday, which crashed because it was "above service capacity". It is understood that Huang's partner in QSL, Adrian Cheng, who is believed to have had financial resources, left the role in May. No one at QSL was available to comment.
His track record outside of sport is more tangible. Huang is managing director of Rocket Capital – the investment platform he launched with Leslie Alexander, owner of the NBA's Houston Rockets – which focuses on emerging markets and particularly China. So far they have invested in companies ranging from the China Railway Group to car makers Brilliance Auto, the Xinjiang Xinxin Mining Industry Company and the Longrun Tea Group.
Such clues – along with obscure achievements including the award of "2009 Philanthropist of the Year" by his nation's BQ magazine and Sina.com, the largest Chinese internet portal – are all that Liverpool fans can hold onto as they ponder whether this businessman and altruist is the key to a new, more affluent future. He is certainly only one of six individuals who might come under consideration when the Liverpool board of Broughton, managing director Christian Purslow, director Ian Ayre, Hicks and Gillett sit down to consider who might be the future custodian of the famous club. Barclays Capital, brought in by Hicks and Gillett to find a buyer, certainly do not place Huang and his backers any higher on the list than any of the other suitors following Broughton's pursuit of new investors, which he said from day one would involve a process of separating the wheat from the chaff during July.
Optimists will say that Huang agreeing to reveal himself – contrary to what Broughton told us about serious buy-out contenders – is a device to muscle out Hicks and Gillett before the transfer window and that the nature of the sovereign funds will reveal itself. But as always with Liverpool, uncertainty rules. One financier with knowledge of the process muttered darkly last night: "It's been like the 100 Years War without the fighting."
Who is Kenneth Huang?
* Born Huang Jianhua in 1964 in southern Guangdong province, China.
* Excelled at badminton as a youngster.
* Graduated from Zhongshan University before studying at Columbia University and St John's in New York. Then worked at the New York Stock Exchange.
* Speaks Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
* Chairman of Hong Kong-based QSL Sports Group and managing director of Rocket Capital investment group.
* 2008: First linked with potential buy-out of Liverpool.
* 2009: Reportedly bid for 15 per cent of NBA side Cleveland Cavaliers.
*March 2010: Issued statement denying comments attributed to him about Rafa Benitez, but declined to comment on reported interest in buying the club.
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