The appointment of David Jones and Tom Sloanes as non-executive directors at Sunderland AFC was announced today and the presumption is that the purpose was more than to have a neat rhyming couplet sitting round the boardroom table. What the purpose is remains something of a mystery at present but they are now part of the decision making process at boardroom level.
Firstly, it is worth exploring what a non-executive director actually is as it is a term we will have heard but perhaps dismissed as corporate speak. Essentially a NED is summarised quite succinctly by the words in the title. A person who doesn’t actually decide what to do (non executive) but advises what they think the best course of action should be (director). So as an example, if Stewart Donald thinks that hanging piñatas around the concourses to have a bit of fun on matchday is a good idea and raises it at a board meeting the NEDs might turn round and say that it would be a health and safety nightmare Stewart Donald could still hang piñatas around the concourses and the NEDs would be powerless to stop him but their function is to represent stakeholders independently from the board.
This simple example leads to the next question, who exactly are the stakeholders represented by the rhyming couplet? Behind this lies one of the answers to why they have been appointed. Let’s face it, the relationship between boardroom and terraces has become, shall we say, fractured. Having two Sunderland fans advising on actions makes sense in terms of reconnecting the fan base with the club. You are a stakeholder. The NEDs are there to represent you. Now I’m not saying that they will be slamming their fists on the table demanding Parky should be sacked or Maddison should be signed, but they can relay the need for direction in terms of fan satisfaction. Whether or not their advice is followed is up to the board and majority shareholders. They may still prefer the option of piñatas. In terms of image, it would seem to be an attempt from Stewart Donald to address the gulf between terrace and top room. When Milliband was appointed NED it led to the Invest in Africa campaign where we were going to be beneficiaries of the cream of African talent. Similar to the South Americans we were promised a while back I guess. It was his reputation that opened the door to certain things and his local connection helped to facilitate acceptance from the fans.
The other function of a NED is in terms of networking. We know that Tom Sloanes brokered the deal to bring Betdaq in as sponsors and so he would appear to have connections with local business. If that is the case then you would assume that his appointment is to tap into local investment and boost the revenue streams for the club. That’s no bad thing. I’m more confused about David Jones on this side other than his links with the media so perhaps it’s an attempt to raise the profile of the club in terms of media. We know that the old Netflix thing brought us attention so perhaps he has been brought in to build on that. David Jones also worked in the same role with Oxford United where he was appointed to exploit his “footballing intelligence and knowledge he’d gained in 20 years working in the industry and his network of contacts”. He was linked with all sorts, brokering transfer deals, appointing managers, sealing deals for shirt sponsors.
So there is some sense behind the appointments. They are there to offer a guiding hand to the board and perhaps it is an acknowledgment that they are a little short in terms of contacts, knowledge and engagement right now. We will see how the roles develop as time goes by, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the issue of what appears to be a poor set up behind the scenes immediately. Charlie Methven and Tony Davidson leaving has left a void in terms of organisation. The old days of a board sitting around a table to hold meetings are long gone as most board meetings will be held via Skype or similar but to have a couple of objective voices on those calls may provide balance to some of the decisions made. The fact they are Sunderland fans with no shares and nothing to really gain other than the progression of the club is a good thing and probably shouldn’t be viewed with any suspicion. Their appointment may well point to the fact that the board have recognised shortcomings and are doing something about it.
It’s all speculation of course, ultimately we all know that if we have performances that excite the fans and get results all of this boardroom nonsense is immaterial, but above all else these appointments acknowledge we’re in a sticky place and things need to change.