This interesting interview with Amit Bhatia was conducted by Mihir Bose and appeared last week in the London Evening Standard – Steve Russell
Amit Bhatia is the sort of owner any football supporter would want. The Queens Park Rangers Vice-Chairman does not believe owners should load debt on to their clubs. He believes clubs should live within their means and he supports a salary cap for Championship clubs. As for QPR, Bhatia and his father-in-law, Lakshmi Mittal, the third richest man in the world, feel: “We have never seen a sport as a business and we have this great passion for football. QPR are not a trophy asset. If we had wanted a trophy asset there were more glamorous clubs we could have bought.”
Yet it is not easy to get Bhatia to talk about QPR – a club who were finally given financial stability in 2007 only for affairs on the pitch to be destabilised by an incredible turnover of Managers. Neil Warnock is the latest man to test out the Loftus Road hot-seat but on the day I met Bhatia his sensitivities were all the greater for he was in the middle of negotiations with Flavio Briatore, whose future as Chairman had been in doubt since his life ban from motorsport for his role in Formula One’s ‘Crashgate’ scandal. Although a French court overturned that punishment, a few days after I met Bhatia, Briatore had resigned. The Italian and Bernie Ecclestone still have shares in the club but the Mittal family are now the major player, having increased their stake from the original 20%.
The total Mittal investment, including lending money to run the club, is now believed to be more than ¬£15m. Bhatia will not be more specific but says: “It is enormous.” Describing spending on a football club these days as “enormous” requires much more than ¬£15m though. Last year’s ‘FourFourTwo’ rich list put Mittal at No.1 with ¬£18.4billion – a billion and a half more than Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan. However, the ¬£7m City spent on signing Adam Johnson from Middlesbrough last month brought transfer spending under Sheikh Mansour in 16 months to almost ¬£250m, which really does justify the enormous tag.
Bhatia has come a long way since the day in 2007 when, as he was leaving his Berkeley Square office, he looked up on the giant television screen in the reception to see an announcement, which was to signal a new chapter in his life and that of Rangers. We are sitting in the same office and, as he glances out at the reception, he says: “I saw on Sky News that Flavio and Bernie had bought QPR. I shot a text message to Flavio: Congratulations, I hope you have lots of success with the club.” A few days later Briatore and Bhatia met at his father-in-law’s home in Kensington Place Gardens, the house which Bernie had sold to Mittal. Briatore did not have to work hard to sell QPR to the Mittals.
“The idea of being involved in English football had existed for many years. We had been approached by many Premier League clubs. QPR were the only Championship side we looked at.” QPR’s London location was an advantage. Bhatia had memories of watching them as a teenager but, before committing the Mittal money, he did what he calls ‘due diligence’. “I went to a lot more games, sat in the Stands, tried to speak to the people to understand the club,” he says, “It felt to me like it was a family club. That was more important than having a big glamour club.”
In the past, the Mitttals have turned down owning IPL franchises because they are not in India enough. “It takes me 10 minutes to get to QPR for every home game. I take my son, Armand aged one, my wife goes, so do my friends and the family. It is not just about owning a club, you must experience it. This is a family shareholding. It belongs to the family and I represent the family.” Right from the beginning there was shared labour in the QPR Boardroom. Bhatia, who runs the family’s financial services company, told Flavio and Bernie, “My expertise is running businesses. This is where I can make a contribution. He had his work cut out. It meant appointing a new Chief Executive, a new Finance Officer and giving a much needed overhaul to the business side. “When we took over there were outstanding debts which we paid off,” he says. “But we found leakages everywhere. Everybody should be accountable, everything should be invoiced. The efficiency was combined with a simple principle that QPR should not have external debt.
Although he will not talk about other clubs, Bhatia’s message is clear. “The only debt QPR have we’ve given as shareholders. We could be loading the club with debt for tax reasons but that would be very dangerous. The club are on a sound footing.” For football to get its finances in order, Bhatia believes a salary cap must come. Many prominent people in the game support the idea and he says: “Having a salary cap in the Championship will make for fewer clubs going under and for potentially even more competitive football.” Portsmouth last week became the first Premier League club to go into administration with excessive wages being blamed in part for the club’s demise. Bhatia, though, does not think salary restriction would work in the top flight. He said: “Premier League football is like gold dust. It adds to some of the sensationalism and excitement to have a Manchester City or a Chelsea with people who are able to spend so much money and do these exiting things. That has its own commercial benefit for football.”
Seeing QPR in the Premier League is a goal for Bhatia. “I have a burning desire for the club to play at the highest level,” he says. But he will not set a target date, adding: “Let us make the club financially secure, get everything in place, have a firm foundation and then become a Premier League club.” But with QPR just three points above the relegation zone, if the club are to leave the Championship this season it will be into League One, not the Premier League. Under Briatore, Rangers finished 14th and 11th in the Championship and the dug-out was never a place anyone could feel settled: 10 Managers, including caretakers, trooped in and out during his reign, with 47 new players coming in as well. Bhatia refuses to talk much about it except sighing and saying: “Yes there have been a lot of managerial changes.”
With Briatore now gone, Bhatia will be more involved on the playing side with his first major decision being the appointment of Warnock. Bhatia is a long-term admirer of the former Crystal Palace Manager and with his man now in place he wants some stability at Loftus Road. Bhatia is a very unusual owner in the English game. His heart is in Indian sport and he recalls with sorrow how he and his father-in-law felt at the Athens Olympics. “We watched a variety of disciplines but there were very few Indians to support. We were very disappointed.” On their return to London, prompted by a suggestion by Mahesh Bhupati, the Indian tennis player and an old friend, Bhatia set up the Mittal Champions Trust. The idea, says Bhatia, was to help “sports nobody cares about in India – Olympic sports.”
The initial aim is for more medals at London 2012. Bhatia is realistic enough to know India cannot aim to own the podium. Perhaps if the odd Indian got on the podium, that would be something. It was only in Beijing, thanks to the Mittal Trust, that India won its first Olympic individual gold in shooting. The trust had also hosted a football tournament for kids in Mumbai. And this summer Loftus Road, says Bhatia, will be the venue of football’s equivalent of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. “We will have two kids coming to QPR to play with our youth side. It is a wonderful story of a child from the slums of India coming to England.”
So does he not fail the Norman Tebbitt cricket test ? For the first time in our conversation the 31-year-old becomes a bit tetchy, “What do you mean ?”
“I mean you support India not Britain.”
“I have a British passport but the rest of the family have Indian passports but I am Indian.”
Bhatia is a Punjabi Hindu, whose family hail from Lahore. He was born in England but went back to India to study at Delhi’s St Columbas School before cricket brought him back to England for his A-levels. “I made the junior Indian team that was touring at that time and was offered scholarships by a couple of schools to play cricket. I came to Dulwich and played for a year here.”
In the end it was work, not play, that claimed him and he graduated from America’s Cornell University. His time in England also meant a friendship with Vanisha, Mittal’s daughter and, although the Mittals are from a different Indian community, this was not a barrier. The wedding in a French chateau saw father Lakshmi spend an estimated ¬£35m. Many QPR fans would love Bhatia to commit a fraction of that on the team in the summer but he says: “I don’t feel any pressure to spend money on the club. I do feel a responsibility to take good decisions.” The history of QPR is littered with owners who took the wrong turning. Fans will be hoping that Bhatia’s cautious approach puts them on the road to sustainable success.
Mihir Bose – London Evening Standard