Official Meeting Minutes
Wolves welcomed Stuart Howard, chief executive of The Money Shop for the last 18 months, to their final Fans' Parliament meeting of the season.
The invitation was made following criticism in some quarters of the club's choice of main sponsor and around 40 fans were present in the Hayward Suite last night to hear him.
Stuart opened by saying he wanted open dialogue and hadn't wanted to be seen as a leader in the pay-day lending sector but preferred visualising himself as CEO of a consumer finance company.
“There were some terrible things in the industry and it was worse than I thought. "We were close to going out of business with 3,200 people and 600 stores and had to make cuts, otherwise we wouldn't have a business.”
He explained that consumer lending still accounted for only about half of the business at a company whose image he has aimed to improve by ensuring they work very closely with the independent regulator – the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) – to ensure stringent affordability checks are in place and caps on default charges. "Previously, the only conditions for loans in the overall market seemed to be that a person was 18 or over, and had a bank account," he added.
“We had people below minimum wage, so I put them on a living wage and it cost us £2m a year. It is legitimate business that has come a long way. We're not perfect but there are two million customers out there who don't (otherwise) have access to credit and they need a service which we provide.”
Jas Bahia asked from the floor why the company had selected Wolves to sponsor and was told it was a natural step as they had been prominently advertising around the Sir Jack Hayward Stand for years and had had a shop in Wolverhampton since 2001.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with you and I want us to be active in the community," Stuart said. "We do a lot of charity work, such as £150,000 to Help the Heroes and a hospice in Bicester where we've given a large amount of cash for four or five years.”
Steve Phillips said he had found the charity aspect in the press release announcing the sponsorship as 'quite condescending'. "The company has a bad reputation," he said to Stuart. "As a proportion of income, I give more money to charity than The Money Shop. You want to associate with a brand that will improve your image. It's the way.....13,000 people have signed a petition and I will not buy a shirt for the first time in 15 years as a small token that my club is associated with an organisation like yourselves."
Steve described The Money Shop as 'almost the last legal resort' but Parliament chairman Matt Grayson said the club had written to three MPs and councillors and listened to points made by fans. He stressed that the company were funding financial education in secondary schools in the area and said that an individual who needed a short-term loan had a regulated option. He also pointed out that Stuart and The Money Shop had been at the forefront of targeting illegal loan sharks.
Dave Benton told the meeting he previously worked for a ‘doorstep type of finance company’ for eight years and described the approach then as 'very much in your face.' "What I'm finding odd is that people don't object to betting companies who are probably worse," he said. "They don't object to alcohol companies. The Money Shop provide a service and are pussy cats compared to some of the people I worked with. And high street banks have been involved in more scandals than they have."
Wolves chief executive Jez Moxey said he hadn't found the PR condescending and felt there was a long standing relationship between the parties. "One of the fundamental outputs of sponsorship is to create a positive image for the sponsor," he said.
Simon Wade used the phrase 'a bit tatty' and said the petition had built up momentum nationally. "It's guilt by association," he said. Jez replied that raising sponsorship money was very competitive and not one person had said anything about the seven-year association the club had had with the company already, albeit one that hadn't reached the front of the shirts. "We think everybody wins," he said. "We have commercial support, we give them a platform to promote their business......you might not like their business but it's nowhere near as bad as some people see it as. They are a high street business doing their best to provide a very good service to consumers.
“The reality is there is a genuine market requirement for access to regulated, short-term credit - something which the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) recognises – and we, as a football club, cannot be held responsible for the fact that legitimate need exists.”
Mark Griffiths stood up to reveal he was wearing a new shirt with the company's branding on it and said: "Had we played better football, we wouldn't have had this size of petition. It's another thing to moan about after a bad season." Jeff Bagnall said having Sporting Bet on the shirt was far worse. Dave Quarrell asked with a smile whether the company's parent company, Dollar, might be interested in buying Wolves and said the deal had raised brand awareness with a lot of negativity. "How about if you donated the space on the shirt to Compton Hospice? It would be win, win, win." Jez said having the name on the shirt for the TV cameras and the photos was another fundamental aspect of what the relationship was all about. Dave felt the club had jumped into bed with a company with bad publicity.
Adam Thompson described himself as deeply concerned at the lack of acknowledgment as to what the club meant to the city. "Wolverhampton is one of the most impoverished cities in the country," he said. "As the lifeblood, you should acknowledge that we do have some responsibility for the city." Matt Grayson replied: "The point we are trying to make is that they a legitimate company, they are here and they are independently regulated by the FCA. It's about customers having a sweep of options. We aren't the arbiter...we have gone to a lot of due diligence to make sure the partnership is good." Jez continued: "We know full well what our environment is and it's a necessary service that The Money Shop offers. We can't change the fact that people require short-term loans......that's my point. The Money Shop are providing regulated choice for the circa two million people who benefit from the service. It's much better to have that area filled by an independently regulated, high street company employing and serving many local people."
Tom Bason reflected on the mood of the past two meetings, in particular the way fan Ryan McKnight had spoken last time of his desire to see Wolves at the heart of the community. He said this development (Money Shop sponsorship) was a bit of a backward step, adding: "Just because they are legal doesn't mean we have to be associated with them." Jez said: "We think this complements our work with charity." Keith Bickley asked whether Wolves would make money out of the deal if shirt sales were significantly down and was told by Jez: "Early signs are encouraging. Sales are strong and we are comfortable that we will."
Tom Bate asked whether the club had been surprised by the furore and wondered whether they would do it again. Jez responded: "We knew there would be some criticisms. We wouldn't do things differently, no. We have entered into the contract in good faith and hope to make it work."
Steve Phillips said the club wanted it both ways. "It's about legacy and relationship with fans. Now we are told it's a business....it doesn't seem to matter that it's tatty. It will create a greater value to the sponsor than to the club. It's the first time we have ever discussed the main sponsor in my four years on the Parliament. It's just not the right thing. Expecting us to like it is a step too far." Jez answered: "We have never said this club should not be run properly on the business side. We get criticised for trying to operate in a very sensible way although Steve Morgan said he's not going to be a cheque book (club) owner."
Simon Wade said the credit union idea was positive but asked why it was only in Wolverhampton – why not work nationally with all credit unions? Stuart explained that he had to balance resources and couldn't fund all the credit unions. It was also pointed out that The Money Shop had supported their local union in different parts of the country and each area received something very dedicated. Hilary Clews said the deal was probably no worse than dealing with a betting company and it was here to stay. She suggested that a page in the programme should detail where free financial support was available in the city and Matt Grayson said this was already in hand. And they had been in discussions with Wolverhampton Credit Union.
Dave Quarrell said Wonga took the decision not to have their logo on kids' shirts at Newcastle and asked where the strategic fit was with Wolves living within their means and supporting financial fair play. Matt said parents were being offered the choice as to what goes on their children's shirts. From the top table, Laurie Dalrymple, Wolves' head of commercial affairs, repeated that 50 per cent of The Money Shop's turnover came from business other than loans.
Jez, insisting that fans' feelings had been heard on the subject of logos on kids' shirts, also said that the climate in this industry was much improved from November, 2014. Matt followed up: "Getting access to regulated credit should not be demonised."
Richard Perkins referred to the 'Love Knows No Division' theme and said this deal had created a bigger gap. "We want to be pulling in the same direction," he said. "It's another thing we didn't need." Kieran Newey added: "It's about the football and that was terrible this season....I won't be buying a shirt. I don't agree with The Money Shop." Michael Clarke wondered whether The Money Shop was the best name for the business. Stuart agreed with Michael and said a potential re-brand of The Money Shop was always on his mind.
Jez Moxey summed up that Steve Morgan was fully aware of the deal and was fully supportive of it. And Terry King said: "I'm a leader of an East Midlands county council and we would want to see a regulated lender." As much as some fans were condemning the business, he added, there would be no sponsors in the UK if all complaints were listened to. Jas Bahia said: "A lot of people didn't like Doritos but we put up with it."
Monday night's meeting moved on after a round of applause for The Money Shop's Stuart Howard and Caroline Walton.
Dave Quarrell asked what steps were being taken to improve results, given that the second half of this season had been marked by relegation form. Jez replied: "We are trying very hard to strengthen the team, irrespective of whether there is a new owner." Dave continued: "You stated that Steve Morgan would support the club financially.....will the £7m from the Afobe sale be made available or used to correct an income shortfall?" Jez responded: "See my last answer. We are going to continue to try hard to strengthen the team." Steve Phillips enquired whether that could realistically be done without new investment and was told by Jez: "We want a much better season." To a question from Ben Smallman as to what Kenny Jackett's brief was, the chief exec said: "We would like new investment if we can get it. With a new owner potentially comes with new investment policies. Ideally, we want to be challenging for promotion regardless of ownership.....I think being in the top six if at all possible is a minimum requirement. Kenny Jackett is here to help us do that. We have to improve on what we have seen in the last year."
Jez addressed Keith Bickley's enquiry as to whether there was any update on the search for new owners by reporting: "As I said at the end-of-season dinner, I remain optimistic but there's no timeline.” Dave Benton asked how long the club were prepared to put up with 'the most dire football' before they either ditched the manager or no-one turned up. Jez said: "Not long. None of us here are happy, including Kenny. We all feel the same way. It must change." Dave suggested: "There's obviously a disconnect between Kevin Thelwell and Kenny. I sensed one." Jez replied: "There is no disconnect. I'm not here as an apologist for any coach. I have never told a manager or coach who to play." He added that Bjorn Sigurdarson had been given a number of opportunities late in the season to see if he could become the 6ft 2in striker the club needed. "Joe Mason was added but not as a 6ft 2in striker and the fact he has not started every game doesn't mean there is a disconnect," Jez added. "Nor does it mean Joe is not good enough.”
Tony Grocott said six to eight new players had been brought in early season and not one had been good enough to regularly start. "What about the recruitment team?" he asked. Jez said: "Mostly, they came from Leagues One and Two. It's not just about today. It's tomorrow as well." Tony continued: "We're meant to have good academy kids. We hopefully already have the future here." Jez said: "We hope everyone can contribute on day one but it can take time. What we're not doing is buying Premier League or top Championship players ....we're not in that position. That's the reality. We have only a certain amount of money. There was big criticism about us not replacing Sako when we took in Ojo and bought Wallace......two players in the hope that one would fill the gap. It's not possible to get every player right but we have nurtured someone in Jordan Graham, who is a more than adequate replacement; a young kid of 20 and Jed Wallace has started to show what we know he is capable of. Six months after Sako has gone, Jordan Graham is making everyone smile and having experienced Championship players doubling up on him. If he had not got injured, we might have challenged, who knows?. These players may take more time than we would like to gel but I don't accept they aren't good enough."
Kerry Harris asked whether there was an explanation as to why Kevin McDonald spent the last two months largely out of the 18. Jez said: "I don't know another club who would give a fan chance to ask the chief executive this. I'm not going into full detail but Kenny preferred the other players he chose."
Clive Smith reflected on the fact Newcastle had spent £80m and been relegated, adding: "I buy into Byrne and Wallace but we needed another striker even with Dicko and Afobe fit and here. We want assurance that that's our no 1 priority." Jez acknowledged the point and, in response to comments from Ben Smallman, said: "Steve Morgan provided us with a lot of money. In the first year, we finished seventh. In the second season, after spending some money, we won the league. Unlike some clubs, we didn't yo-yo. We stayed up for three years on a relatively small wage bill. Then we all know what happened......we made a couple of very bad recruitment decisions, so I don't think this regime's position is as bad as some people on social media says." Ben said he would like to think of Wolves being in a position to go and attempt a deal such as trying to buy back Andre Gray. Jez answered: "We want to get better players and we all want the Club to be in the Premier League."
Steve Page said: "You do run the club prudently, so where is the money coming from?" Jez said: "We want to get a team who can compete." Steve Phillips chipped in: "It's trying to convince ourselves how we are going to do it without money."
On the subject of season ticket renewals, Hilary Clews was reassured that fans who have renewed seats but who want to relocate from 6th June onwards would not lose out to supporters buying new season tickets between 1st-5th June. James Davies from the ticket office said the seats wouldn't be sold during that period to new season ticket holders.
Adam Thompson stood up to deliver a special point, explaining that he had been a Parliament member since last autumn. He said he had read the minutes from all meetings since the organisation's launch and reflected that the forum had sometimes caused division when the aim was to unite. "I can only see two significant items we have contributed to....a permanent tribute to Sir Jack and the scoreboard. I want fans to have a vote, more of a say, because there's nothing worse than wanting to answer a question and getting ignored. I'd like to draft a written agreement that fans, season ticket holders, members, as many as possible, are given the right to vote on items to be decided by the club. I would like to put something more solid and formal in place. I feel it's a fantastic opportunity for the club to re-engage with the fans. We were trail-blazers with this Parliament but it has become more par for the course."
Adam offered safe standing as the sort of item which may be voted upon and was thanked by Matt Grayson for his considered address, which included sounding out fellow fans previously. "I don't think it's appreciated how important a say this group does have," said the Parliament chairman. "If it had no impact, would we have had the likes of Jez, Kenny Jackett, Kevin Thelwell and the Money Shop attending Fans Parliament meetings? It's one of the longest-running fans' consultation groups in football." Steve Phillips observed: "Adam's idea has got some legs but it's probably for future members to pick up on as a lot of us are now leaving." Jeff Bagnall said: "It's my last meeting as well but this was described from the start as a discussion group, not a decision-making one. You're not ever going to be able to make big decisions."
Dave Benton said he would love to see fan representation on the board at some point and was interrupted by Jez saying: "You do have and you don't realise it. Sir Jack wanted three fans on the board and we have two (John Gough and John Bowater) who Steve Morgan decided to keep. Dave Benton said he favoured focus groups, whereby Parliament members could go away and look into a matter with the club's blessing which could then be reported back to meetings. Amid concerns that the Parliament sessions could become stale, Jez acknowledged there was some repetition but that was understandable with new members coming on board. Also, he said the club didn't tell members what they could and couldn't ask. Matt said he would meet Adam before the next meeting to discuss his proposals at greater length.
Steve Galloway said perhaps it was wiser to phase new Parliament members in more gently rather than en bloc. Jez said: "We're proud of the Parliament and want it to work. Maybe we can keep some of you on beyond your four years." Kieran Newey felt he got laughed at by some for being a member and Patricia Stokes suggested the club might publicise more strongly that views were listened to and members weren't just 'here for a jolly.' Jez said: "This has much more resonance than the people not in the room realise."
In answer to a question as to why season ticket sales had dropped, Jez admitted the football hadn't been good enough and people always voted with their feet in that case. Jeff Bagnall said the high number of TV games was a major factor and Jez described recent talk of an enlarged Football League but with fewer teams per division as the most exciting proposal for a generation since the advent of the Premier League. "It would solve a lot of the problems we all face," he said. Keith Bickley asked how clubs would be able to cope with the loss in revenue caused by playing four fewer home games. "Clubs would have to be at least recompensed for that same amount," Jez said. "It won't get done unless they are better off and that would cost money from organisations (the FA and Premier League) who have more than the Football League."
Simon Wade asked Jez about the place he now had at FA board meetings as a Football League representative and was told: "For Wolves to have a seat at the top table and try to influence the decision-makers is good. There is an FA board meeting this week and another in July. It allows us to affect the issues that affect the whole game. It's a big responsibility but not massively time-consuming." Simon asked whether there was any progress on limiting the price of away tickets across the Football League – a question Jez answered by saying: "Clubs would not want to be restricted from setting their own prices because ticket revenue for Leagues One and Two, particularly, is much more significant than in the Premier League. I can't see there being a blanket ticket price for away supporters. If we are promoted, one of the first things I will do is offer free coach travel from Molineux to fans for every single away game....we would be able to afford to do it."
Steve Galloway remarked about noticing that the pitches at Compton Park had been relaid but not the one at Molineux. He was reassured that, too, would be done after all the community activities at the stadium had ended. Dave Quarrell recalled Jez recently saying Steve Morgan was selling his shares – and asked for clarification over the different terminology. "Yes, he gets everything," Jez said. "It surprised me that people got twitchy." Dave also said there should be more vetting of club statements.
Ben Smallman asked the chief exec about his own performance, stating: "Season ticket sales are down, quality on the pitch is down and apathy is at an all-time high." Jez replied: "I will allow the people who employ me to assess that as they control whether I am here or not. They know the detailed criteria on which I am judged."
Jez thanked outgoing members - on behalf of the club - for their dedication, time and questioning over their four-year terms and said the plan for the short term was for the Parliament to avoid a vacuum that could result from two-thirds of members now being at the end of their tenures.