Supporters Trust Meeting - minutes

Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust


7.00 pm Tuesday 4th August 2009

Conservative Club
51 Charlton Church Lane

Ben Hayes opened the meeting by explaining that the reason for the meeting was to ask questions and understand what a Trust would do for Charlton Athletic fans and how the fans could, if they wanted to, set one up.

Ben introduced James Mathie from Supporters’ Direct and he began by explaining a little about Supporters’ Direct.

There are 160 Trusts across the UK and they are looking to move into Europe. Supporters’ Direct are a not-for-profit organisation. Members of each Trust are responsible for organising their own voting / policy structure and Supporters’ Direct give advice and guide the individual Trusts. Funding for Supporters’ Direct comes from the Football Foundation, and the main objective of Supporters’ Direct is to help fans.

James explained that the main difference between a Supporters’ Trust and a Supporters’ Club is the Supporters’ Trust has a legal structure, financial responsibilities and is governed by itself. They are different organisations with different structures and a different attitude to their work.

He continued to say that the organisation is known as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), which is a similar organisation to a co-operative. Elected roles are filled by its membership, which is open to anyone and transparent to all. The more members that join, the voice of the Trust is seen to be stronger.

Trusts are regulated by the FSA. There has to be an audit, annual accounts’ documents and an annual general meeting. Fans intending to stand for elected positions would have to be fully committed. Local councils and communities should be welcome to attend initial meetings as well as local businesses as it has to be transparent with nothing hidden and anyone would have access to view the accounts.

James stated that most Supporters Clubs’ work largely in partnership with the Football Club, organising events or raising funds on the Football Club’s behalf. Most do not have the right platform to be a critical friend of the Football Club, and do not tend to ask difficult questions about the way the club is being run.

A well organised IPS helps create a platform where not only can it retain a good relationship with the football club, but also a position where it can ask more difficult questions with the backing of a body of supporters behind it, or, in some cases, an equity holding in the club. Across the 160 Supporters’ Trusts, some hold a decent amount of shares whilst working with the club to find solutions to issues.

James used Exeter as an example of a club that owns and controls its club. Notts County did hold control until recently. On the other hand, Manchester United has a Trust with a large membership, yet the board do not acknowledge their existence. They are, however, successful in raising different questions by querying ticket information with the Office of Fair Trading and make a difference that way.

James said that all Trusts have different agendas and aims, whilst sharing a similar set of rules. There is the benefit of becoming a Trust that you have plenty of others’ experiences to assist and take advice from, along with the support and advice from Supporters’ Direct. There are 120,000 members of Supporters’ Trusts in the UK. The government are very supportive of the initiative. There are many successful Trusts and this depends on how proactive the fans can be.

There was a question from the floor asking for examples of similar sized clubs having Trusts that have been successful.

James explained that Exeter FC run their club successfully working within their means and assisting with community initiatives. Bristol City have a place on the board of directors as a result of having a Supporters’ Trust. They are assisting the board find a location for the new stadium and are researching and working with the club on the plans so that it is a fans’ stadium. Peterborough United are working on a marketing campaign to encourage people from the local area to attend matches. The club have provided them with free tickets, and they are then following up with finding out who has bought tickets since their visit. A good relationship with the club has helped with this. Sheffield Wednesday are the second biggest shareholder of their club and were assisting with the prospective takeover by getting involved in the takeover talks, vetting candidates and providing an extra due diligence.

James said that having a Trust could help protect the long term future of a club even if there are short term issues - finances and ownership etc. If there is an organised group, it could be easier to speak to the club to find out information.

A question was raised regarding the potential pitfalls of a Trust.

James said that there are already 160 Trusts to learn from and as long as there is an open meeting to begin proceedings, then the Trust cannot be accused of being a small exclusive group, which could cause problems further down the line. By holding a big public meeting inviting supporters, club representatives, local business and the council, it would provide a better start going forward.

The idea of the Trust being shunned by rich owners was raised as a potential issue by the floor; it was asked how this could be resolved?

James explained that the more prepared the Trust is, the more successful it will be. Proxy shareholding votes can be handed to the Trust so that the Trust has a bigger voice and a bigger influence, meaning the Trust will have to be listened to. An example of Arsenal FC was used to show how they are fighting as a Trust to preserve the history of the club as a collective small shareholder. There was no influence in the boardroom granted, but by building the membership they have got a bigger voice and have cornered the club into listening to them.

There was another question asking if Arsenal managed to get fans’ shares?

James said that the Trust had earned respect with the media and local businesses. They have media representatives and they publicly comment on behalf of the Trust.

Ben Hayes mentioned that there are approximately 21% of shares not held by the current board.

A question was asked regarding how it would work with a club that previously had been quoted on the stock exchange?

James used Southampton as an example, although adding they perhaps were not the best to choose with their current situation. Millwall and Aston Villa were others. Southampton Supporters’ Trust tried to assist their club speaking to the council, the club and the administrators, trying to find a solution to save their club and stadium. They were a considered voice that was listened to.

He added that there are other examples where clubs have been pushed into action by a club crisis, giving fans the kick they need to get involved. Forest Green Rovers did this by raising 20k and getting a fan a place on the board. They involved the local chamber of commerce and for a non-league club, they have 150 members and that is a great achievement for them.

He said that if people are willing to get involved then anything is possible. The main thing is to get people on board and galvanising what fans have got to bring to the Trust itself. For example, Newcastle United fans had been keen on organising a march to get a point across but realised that they would not get that far with making a point so decided to set up a Trust. They have 2000 members already and are organising themselves well to make a bigger impact.

A point was raised from the floor regarding the importance of identifying a CAFC Trust’s niche aims and objectives. We already have in place a very successful community initiative, satellite supporter branches, and a Fans Forum body who speak regularly with the club, so it is important that a new group would provide strength, representation of the support base, and not further dilution.

James said that a Trust is about influence and knowing that whoever is running the club or however it is being run, is right for the club. Having an influence over the way it is run means the community is more engaged with the football club. There are a wide range of options available for Trusts: good work in the community, two-way buffers between fans and board, looking at things differently etc. A strong body of supporters that are long term supporters of the club will be around a fair deal longer than the board of the club itself.

It was mentioned that it is scary not knowing who may or may not own the club in the future, and the possibility of one uniformed supporters’ body would be of great benefit. There is vagueness currently with supporters’ groups not necessarily being active, but the fans’ forum is currently working hard with the club. A Trust could legally hold shares and fund raise, which means it is much easier to mobilise.

Ben said that Craig Sloman had been researching with regards to Wycombe as to the work that they have been doing.

James added that Sheffield Wednesday Trust had worked hard to find out information regarding shares they could purchase from Companies House lists. He suggested finding out the movements and keeping on top of the shareholder list. He said that there is a Trust that had obtained 51% of the shares and managed to unseat the chairman as they held the majority of the club.

It was mentioned that the club had the VIP Scheme and a fan on the board in 92, before the Supporters’ Trust movement began, which was evidence of fan evolvement and that this Trust is being thought about with the benefit of hindsight.

James said that almost 70% of clubs in the top 5 leagues have a Trust. He added that clubs don’t have to have one, and some Trusts are more active than others. Some Trusts have already ticked all the boxes that they had been hoping to achieve.

A question was raised with regards to how the Trust would be run – using paid staff etc?

James answered that it works best to have a bigger group so that the Trust can draw on the skills of the volunteers to get involved; accountancy, web design, etc. These are not paid roles. Whatever is needed to make the Trust a success could normally be found in one room. He said that would involve hard work of individuals. He added that the Trust for Reading FC was an example of an extremely well run Trust. He said that most Trust Boards would have between 6 and 12 board members drawing different skills, and that there was a possibility to draw more into board meetings if and when required. He said that during certain periods, group meetings would need to be more regularly than once a month although board meetings would tend to be quarterly.

James was asked how Supporters’ Direct is funded. James said that it was mainly through the Football Foundation. They bid for the money every three years and it is expected that funding will be extended as there is a lot of support for the initiative. He added that they also have smaller sponsorship deals arranged with various companies.

James was also asked how much money each Trust had to pay Supporters’ Direct and what they receive for this money. He answered that it is a nominal fee of £50 a year which includes staff time/advice, access to services, legal advice and reduced rates with insurance schemes, conferences, training events, news emails and the vote.

A member from the floor asked about the current state of concern amongst fans and whether it was thought it would be a good time to wait and let the dust settle or set up the Trust immediately.

James said that anytime is a good time, and that it would always be better to aim long-term as the Trust couldn’t be set up immediately and there is always a role for fans to play within their club.

Ben added that in hindsight, a lot of supporters now appreciate it would have been a good idea to set up a Trust 3 years ago when things were rosier, but it didn’t happen. If the Trust is formed and then not needed it could be disbanded if the objectives were achieved. James agreed and added that Fulham fans formed a Trust to try to retain the use of Craven Cottage for Fulham FC which they assisted to do and the club do not look like they are moving stadiums so the Fulham Trust can be dissolved, or re-brand itself for the long-term future.

A question was raised regarding the day to day running of the Trust – with a structure, democracy or hierarchy and who sets agendas etc.

James explained that the process would begin when the decision has been made to create a Trust and the aims and objectives are considered. The rules have to be registered and the membership built. He said that the registration takes the longest to organise as the Trust would have to be registered with the FSA, which can take a month. Set aims and objectives are agreed by the membership, including financial decisions and a business plan. Subs are paid to join and elections are held yearly. Positions are generally held for two years before re-election.

He added that for a Trust to be really successful it should aim to have 10% of home gate as members which is deemed a truly representative amount of supporters. He said that there will be key strengths amongst members which should be drawn upon. When there is a crisis effecting supporters of the football club, regular meetings are encouraged.

A question was raised regarding retaining long-term interest. James was asked from experience whether the more successful Trusts were based on an initial ‘big ticket’ idea, or from smaller, more prolonged, long-term objectives ?

James said that survival of a Trust should be based on being part of something and keeping a pool of volunteers where issues will be raised all the time. Some Trusts play a part in small issues, alongside survival campaigns and takeover involvement. Sometimes it may only mean a sticky plaster over a bigger issue but keeping the club alive for a while longer. By gaining interest and more members, the Trust can gain from more money and more influence. James added that there should be strong aims from the start but defined short, medium and long term goals.

Ben asked the floor what their thoughts were with James’ comments in italics:

- I believe the supporters’ club does a job, but not in the same way a Trust could. Undecided ahead of the open meeting, but have now changed my mind, although not sure how it will run if the aims are confused.

- The Trust being in place could really bring fans together with no big egos. Rallying together like the old days. A very tangible idea.

- Three years ago there was a solid group of supporters who united and decided this was a good idea but there was not as much interest at the time.

- The Fans’ Forum are doing a great job and this shouldn’t be confused with this idea, although would be great for both to work together. If Man Utd fans are battling to make a breakthrough, it could be a challenge to be listened too but if enough numbers are behind the Trust being one voice, it could work.

- Crystal Palace have a Trust and get nowhere with their chairman. They have raised almost £1m but hit a brick wall at board level. They have £600k in the bank and are using that money to sponsor youth players. James added that they are sitting pretty for the future. If the current Chairman moves on, they may be able to get involved and the money and support they currently have will work in their favour. They raised the money through a loan note scheme although there are other money raising schemes we can discuss.

- I see a couple of potential problems with the setting up of a Trust that will need to be overcome. One is that there are some fans that are in denial and still believe that the board will get us out of the mess, and they still have trust in the board. The VIP scheme didn’t attract 10% so I’m not sure how this will. Also the second point is the people that are involved; I’m concerned it could be a bit of an ego trip for one or two individuals.

- I came here as a sceptic, what with the Fans’ forum in place and all the good work they are doing. I don’t think that messages should be diluted between the different fans’ bodies. James said that divided fan base could be a problem, and that fans groups should be clearly defined. Most FC’s will have a supporters’ club and the Trust would be separate from that, possibly including input from local politicians/business and be pushing boundaries with the Club. All organisations have boundaries, including Supporters’ Direct which work alongside the FSF who are involved in fans’ issues such as ticket pricing, safe standing etc.

- As a member of the Fans’ Forum, I do not believe that there is a problem with the two working alongside. There certainly is no conflict as long as the aims are established.

- The difference between the two is that the FF was put in place by the club as they were happy for it to be there, but the Trust will be there for the fans, and the fans will be there forever. The club could pull the plug on the FF at anytime.

- I think with the internal groups there needs to be unification. There needs to be long term sustainability. There is no reason why the FF cannot be a representative arm of the Trust and I really hope the FF can see the potential advantages and embrace the opportunity of being part of any Trust. The FF have done a great job in moving away from the initial remit set by the club which should be applauded, but at the same time it is a body that was formed by the club, with membership vetted by the club, and very much reliant on the clubs goodwill for it to be maintained. By embracing an active involvement in the Trust, it could give the FF the independence it needs, and more importantly a body of supporters behind it that it could legitimately say it is representative of.

- The fans’ rep being on board had legal constraints. How can a member of a Trust be on the board and those same issues not arise? It wouldn’t be too different as the same issues would arise. There could be a code of conduct set up whereby there were specific areas that could be spoken about and an agreement from both parties. Contracts could be drawn up. There are other Trusts where this exists so this information can be tapped into.

- If there is something that cannot be talked about at a board meeting – the Director may have an off the record comment – there would need to be clarity with regards to what can be reported back.

- At Wycombe, they were backed into a corner and 2 people on the board had to negotiate a position that was a safeguard.

- Could we come up with some initial aims in this meeting to get the ball rolling? A suggestion would be to hold a bigger general open meeting whereby aims can be discussed based on the standard list we have. It is best not to be accused of being a closed group later on down the line.

- There is a period of uncertainty at the moment, and I think that counts for why there are a lot of people in this room to show that they care about what happens to this club. I think having an influence at the club is important.

- How could we go about buying a stake in the club? Are there any examples of Trusts that have gained a foothold in their club other than through share equity, i.e. schemes that have raised funds and acquire the pitch, or part of the club’s assets as an equity to safeguard the assets? Halifax Town own their own stadium, which leaves them in a very positive position. There are ways to have input into the Youth Scheme. There are definitely routes and we can discuss these. There are lots of important things that a Trust can be involved in.

- Are there any legal constraints with regards to current directors joining the Trust? Is there a conflict of interest? If they wanted to be part of it they could be. There are some restrictions. You can only be a member if you are over 16 and you can only be on the board if you are over 17. There is a long list which I can send to everyone.

- The supporters’ club branches seem to have their own agendas and a Trust can bring everyone together. There are a lot of people in this room and all are here for the same reason, regardless of egos and big personalities.

- Would all shareholders have to hand over their shares if they joined the Trust? No. 99% of Trusts don’t have to hand over shares as part of membership. I can only think of one club where you had to. Shareholders can use the Trust as their Proxy instead of transferring the name of the shares to the Trust. That way, if there is a certain issue you may not agree with, you don’t have to always vote in the way of the Trust.

- To get a 10% supporter base to sign up for 250 of those to sign over their proxy vote to the Trust, the board would have to listen as 3m share votes could be acquired quickly.

- If a takeover did happen, could the shares be made worthless by the board, i.e. if we are sold tomorrow? There is such a thing as a nuisance level of shares. Enough to be listened to – 10% needed to make a difference and to call an AGM. Sheffield Wednesday had 17% which was the 2nd largest single shareholder in their club and that made a difference.

- What happened with Notts County? The fans owned and ran the club? Some members of the Trust agreed to sign over ownership to another company but not all members were in agreement. The Club was sold and people were upset with the decision, but the majority agreed to sell. All fans would like the best for their club, but that can differ as to what it is. The Trust had a choice to make, 15% didn’t vote in favour. At our next conference there will be a feature regarding Notts County and lessons learnt from that.

It was agreed that there would be an open meeting held on Tuesday 15th September, so that fans could publicise the event and make people aware of what a Trust could do. It would be a broad discussion for all and a vote would take place there with regards to whether it would be taken further. It was stated that the turnout was good for an initial meeting and in the past at other clubs has been 5 people, so for 51 to be present was an achievement, although it was also noted that some were there to find out about a Trust and their presence didn’t mean they would be in favour. There were some people present who weren’t in favour before the meeting but had changed their minds by the end and others took this as a very positive sign that the Trust could be formed.

Contact details were passed to Brenda Smith who was volunteered to set up a mailing list.

Derek Woolley volunteered to design a leaflet and email to the mailing list so that all that are interested can print off and distribute at the next few games home and away.

The meeting ended at 9.30pm.


Dave said...

Thanks Stonemuse. I will be at the next one.

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