So, I am myself only eight days into my own retirement from “just” 18 years at Goldman Sachs and here is Sir Alex Ferguson, copying me! Contrary to some of the rumours I heard on Wednesday, we do not have any pre-planned scheme of doing something together, although if he thinks of an idea, I will be all ears. During Sir Alex’s 26-year reign, I have had the pleasure of getting to know him somewhat and seen many angles of his extraordinary talents.
It is almost impossible to think of a comparable example to the success he has achieved. He joined United at a time when the club had considered selling itself for almost a pittance and has been at the core of turning it into the global mega-brand that it has become today.
He might not have achieved the same European success as Liverpool or of course, powerhouses such as Real Madrid, but is there a bigger football name in the world than United? I travel the world extensively, and as soon as I breathe that I am from Manchester, the words United, and Alex Ferguson soon follow. And in terms of business, the brand has become perhaps the best “BRICs” content in the world today, or at least with Sir Alex at the helm, it is.
United’s domination of the Premier League since 1993 under Sir Alex’s leadership is staggering. He has essentially done it with four very different and revamped teams, the 1993-96 class, the 99-2003 vintage, the 2006-2008 team, and of course, the most recent years. Not only has he knocked Liverpool off their perch, but he has out-battled Arsenal (remember the late 1990s when they were the only two teams in the mix), and of course, dealt with the separate, albeit similar challenges of Chelsea and Manchester City.
He has done all of this while maintaining at his training ground “home” a family atmosphere where everyone not only calls Sir Alex the boss, but sees him as part of the core passion that is what really gets under the skin of the fans. And then he has used that to take on all comers over at the huge stadium and commercial operation that modern Manchester United has become.
For an individual to have had the longevity and success of Sir Alex at one club during the staggering changes witnessed since 1986 can only be possible with a remarkable range of skills. To have dealt with an Eric Cantona, a Roy Keane, a David Beckham, a Cristiano Ronaldo, and for most of these icons and others to regard Sir Alex with such huge regard is just a tiny sign of the powers he has.
His 26 years have traversed many forms of ownership and individuals , from Martin Edwards’ reign, the first days of the plc, the period of the Irish tycoons taking a huge stake, to, of course, his remarkably skilful navigation of the current controversial ownership period. I hope they realise just how lucky they have been, and without Sir Alex having been there, I suspect their ownership would have been more troublesome and even more unpopular.
What is the special secret of Sir Alex? I would guess it is essentially threefold.
Firstly, I think his interest in people and their diversity is part of what makes his awareness of people’s characters so strong.
Secondly, he reminds me of some of the most successful traders and investors I have met. He is not scared of taking risks and getting things wrong, because he knows that, without taking risks, you can’t improve.
And third, with this, he has this admirable ability – which at times I am sure is tough to be on the wrong end of – of telling people when it is time to move on. I have often joked for years that once he finally hung up his boots, economic policymaking could use some of these skills. Indeed, I suggested to Mark Carney, the incoming Bank of England governor, when I ran into him recently that he should probably have lunch with Sir Alex and learn how to deal with such high expectations.
Maybe Mark could invite him to join the Bank’s monetary policy committee. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps he could be the next head of the IMF.
Jim O’Neill is the former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former Manchester United director