Who are Ipswich Town's new American owners? - Profiles of the men involved in today's takeover
- Credit: NA
Ipswich Town Football Club has today been taken over by a group of American investors. STUART WATSON and ANDY WARREN profile the various men involved.
The 51-year-old grew up in New York City. He attended elite private prep school Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, then joined both his identical twin and older brother at Brown University in Rhode Island where he studied history and competed in rowing.
Johnson graduated in 1992 and moved to San Francisco for a job in investment banking.
He then moved to London to work at Targus (the laptop bag brand), later took over from his father as CEO before selling his interest in the business in 2004.
Speaking on WPRI-TV back in December 2019, he was asked where his love of soccer - which Johnson is clear he calls football - came from.
“Five years living in London," said Johnson, who ended up moving to Los Angeles. "After I graduated Brown I had a stint where I ran a company whose headquarters were in London.
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“From there I travelled all over the world and saw the religion by which the sport is treated.
“As I came back to the States I started to follow up my interest in terms of professional soccer in the US."
In 2005, Johnson founded Benevolent Capital - a private equity fund with investments in real estate, manufacturing and consumer brands.
Then, in 2015, his involvement in Phoenix Rising FC started.
“Five years ago I had an epiphany that Phoenix, the fifth biggest city, one of the fastest growing cities, didn’t have a Major League Soccer team," he said.
“I bought the then USL franchise called Arizona United. I found some incredible local supporters, we rebranded it to Phoenix Rising and we built the stadium which we have sold out ever since.
“We brought in (ex Chelsea star) Didier Drogba, one of the greatest players of all time, to finish up his career and become part of our ownership group."
Ex Manchester City and Chelsea winger Sean Wright-Phillips was also signed in 2017. Ex Ipswich Town stalwart Frank Yallop was the first appointment as manager.
As well as Drogba, an eclectic group of investors also included musicians Diplo and Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy) and baseball pitcher Brandon McCarthy. Further down the line (Feb 2018), Chinese billionaire and hotel magnate Alex Zheng (part of the ownership group for French side Nice) brought further investment.
Phoenix Rising moved up to the USL Championship (second-tier) in 2019 and last year reached the play-off final. This year they have moved into their new 10,000 seater Wild Horse Pass Stadium and continue to push for admittance to an expanded MLS.
In November 2018, Johnson, along with Phoenix Rising co-chairman Berke Bakay, started 'Fortuitous Partners' with the aim to invest in more football clubs in opportunity zones.
In March 2019, they invested in Danish club FC Helsingor along with Jordan Gardner (a minority stake holder at Swansea City and co-owner of Irish side Dundalk). Helsingor, a small coastal city just across from Sweden, has since risen to the second-tier. A new 4,000 capacity stadium has opened there.
In December 2019, Fortuitous Partners announced they would be launching a new pro soccer team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to compete in the USL Championship as part of a $400m project that would see hundreds of thousands of square feet of development to transform the waterfront area.
Speaking on podcast 'Shop Talk: Opportunity zone projects anchored by sports stadiums' at the start of last year, Johnson said Fortuitous Partners were also looking at Baltimore, Cleveland; Buffalo, New York; and Oklahoma City as other cities with potential for development around a sports driven model.
"It's not just about money, it's about time," said Johnson, speaking around the launch of Phoenix Rising. "The time we all invest in it will be considerable. It's practically a full-time job for all of us - and we have all got full-time jobs on top of that."
Johnson, Bakay and Mark Detmer manage the 'Three Lions fund' which has brought additional investment to Ipswich Town.
The 42-year-old is one of the original founders of Fortuitous Partners and also co-chairman of Phoenix Rising alongside Johnson.
From Istanbul he is a life-long Galatasaray supporter and his uncle once sat on the board of the Turkish giants.
He was instrumental, along with former Galatasaray striker Drogba, in striking an official partnership between Phoenix Rising and the Turkish club in 2019.
“As a Turkish native and lifelong Galatasaray member, I am incredibly honored Galatasaray has made such a significant commitment to help us improve Phoenix Rising FC and bring its proven youth soccer development approach to the United States,” said Bakay in a press release.
“This partnership will help us create international game experiences and an enhanced path to the very top of European professional soccer for our players.”
Bakay once headed Kona Grill, a 45 restaurant chain that was publicly traded on NASDAQ.
The 49-year-old is the managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated (JLL), a global commercial real estate services company.
According to his LinkedIn page, Detmer is a nine-time Broker of the Year award winner who has 'successfully negotiated over 2,000 transactions encompassing a half a billion square feet of sales and leases totalling more than $40 billion dollars in value'.
Along with Johnson and Bakay, he was a co-founder of Phoenix Rising FC.
Detmer used his real estate expertise to develop the club's recently opened new 10,000 seater stadium which has plans to expand to as much as 25,000
In an interview with AZBig Media in 2017, Detmer said his passion for football dates back to playing in American Youth Soccer Organization teams.
“Even then, soccer was like family,” he said. “Our club’s culture is the same.”
He added that his wife and two children regularly attend games with him to 'cheer on players and soak in the energy of the fans'.
The financial driver behind Gamechanger’s Ipswich Town takeover is investment group ORG Portfolio Management, with Edward Schwartz their representative.
ORG own 90% of the company which has bought Town and are injecting funds from a US state’s pension fund, understood to be Arizona. Schwartz brings real expertise in this field.
He has a heavy real estate background and that, along with a role in representing pension and retirement funds, sees him oversee an estimated $6.5billion (£4.75b) in assets.
Schwartz co-founded ORG in 1999, with his company proud of its high standards, ability to identify investment opportunities and its charity work.
It remains to be seen whether he has any day-to-day involvement with the club.
Ipswich Town’s new chairman arrives with a background in English football, having been West Brom chief executive between 2002 and 2004 and then sitting on the board of Oxford United for a year before stepping down in 2015 due to work commitments elsewhere.
The Brit has held other positions at major companies in the past and will now be charged with ‘overseeing and managing’ Ipswich Town.
O’Leary has kept a low profile in the media in recent years, with no publicly available images of him available prior to one being published by the club today, but speaking during his time at West Brom, he stressed the need for good lines of communication with supporters.
“You’ve got to be able to be level headed when people are screaming at you,” he said in an interview with the Express and Star.
“I was lucky, most of the time I was there, we were doing well and fans were supportive.
“The communication we had with supporters was very good, we were talking with them all the time, we made a lot of effort to do that.
"If you understand the difficulties, it’s easier to be more supportive. If you’re left in a vacuum you’ll draw your own conclusions.”
He has been at the club today for meetings.
Ashton’s is a name not included in the official announcement of the takeover but he’s been closely linked to the Gamechanger group along the way.
He’s currently CEO at Bristol City, where he has been an integral part of the South West side's regeneration in recent years, but has close links to O’Leary having previously been at both West Brom and Oxford.
They have also both served as directors of investment advisory firm Alycidon Ltd, formerly Ensco 1070.
The announcement of the Gamechanger takeover at Town included a line stating the new owners ‘will be joined by a UK based CEO, an appointment that it is hoped will be made shortly’. Ashton is likely to be that man.
He was named Championship CEO of the year in 2019 but is said to have become a divisive figure at City, with the 49-year credited with earning the club significant sums in the transfer market but becoming the subject of criticism since increasing his role in the club’s recruitment.
Watch this space.