Time for 'We Are Rangers' To Take Control At Ibrox

Last weekend Rangers were playing East Stirlingshire. It followed yet another insane, mad week for us Rangers fans. Boardroom trouble and strife oozing from every media pore, a new Chief Operating Officer who might never actually take up the post if the Interim CEO gets his way and news that we appear to have our own keyboard warrior.

There is something rather–as my Father-in-law would say–apposite about the claim that Imran Ahmed was perhaps only the latest high-ranking insider to masquerade on a Rangers fans forum as ‘IamRangers’. There, revealed in rather comical fashion, is a very worrying truth. As a support, we have perhaps been too willing to place the stewardship of our club into the hands of the ‘IamRangers’ types. To date, we have embraced with less conviction the ‘We are Rangers’ philosophy that would underpin fan ownership at Rangers.

A very Rangers paradox

In days gone past, Bill Struth might have made a good ‘IamRangers’–a man who ruled Ibrox with iron like discipline but with intentions characteristic of a benevolent dictator. Fast forward to more recent times and we find ‘IamRangers’ reinventing himself with Doctor Who like frequency. From Murray to Whyte to Charles Green (and friends), a sequence of owners–legal or otherwise–have lorded over Ibrox. But they have often done so in ways befitting only of Gordon Gekko.

I’m sure most of us know Gekko. If not, Gekko is the Michael Douglas character in the 1987 movie Wall Street. It was said to be director Oliver Stone’s tribute to his stockbroker father, but it is synonymous with 1980s corporate excess and brutality. Gekko is the type of character who justifies wrecking companies (and lives) simply because he can.

In the hands of ‘IamRangers’ owners moulded more by Gekko greed than Struthian values, Rangers Football Club was and is vulnerable. We know it and we fear it.

Which brings me back to the game with East Stirlingshire. Twitter, in its usual immediate way, alerted me to this banner:

‘RangersFC is OUR football club. Not a commodity for businessmen to plunder. We want our club back’

No sooner was I heartened by that sentiment than I also read:

‘As a collective fan-base though we’ll do nothing to achieve it.’

Herein lies the Rangers paradox. As fans we rightly claim in our hearts and our minds ownership of OUR club, and in our hands it would never be defenceless (again). But we appear all too willing to put our faith and money into the pockets of the next high-net-worth saviour or saviours and hope this time everything will be all right.

The time for a new approach is now. With wrangles over ownership and developing rumours about takeovers, the current situation demands a more strategic push on fan ownership at Rangers.

Fan Ownership at Rangers

We already have fan ownership and a decent chunk of it. Many of us bought individually in the RIFC public share offering, somewhat fewer of us bought into the RST’s BuyRangers scheme. I am informed, if all those individual holdings are taken together, fans might already own about 11% of RIFC’s share capital. If broadly right, fans are already the largest minority shareholder-at least when considered collectively.

But the current ownership structure means all those individual voices are drowned out by the Gordon Gekkos round the table. Even after dipping into our own pockets, ordinary fans have no chance of influencing the resolution of the current Boardroom troubles. We are left praying that the next ‘IamRangers’ is one of the ‘real Rangers men’ often talked about. Ally McCoist has as much acknowledged this. With impeccable timing, we had reported by the Sky Sports website:

‘Manager Ally McCoist has urged Charles Green and Imran Ahmad to sell their Rangers shares to people who have the same vision as the fans.’

McCoist said: ‘The fans need somebody to come in that they can relate to and who can agree with their vision in taking the club forward.’

I am sure real Rangers men are out there. Even if they are ready and willing, however, I’m not convinced this is the right way forward is because it requires yet more faith. Yes we want and need professional people; stability is essential and more financing is undoubtedly required. But I’d rather see these objectives achieved with a new ‘We are Rangers’ mentality.

And ‘We are Rangers’ has to be much more than just a catchy slogan. I have written previously about how fan ownership in itself is only part of the longer term solution (http://www.therangersstandard.co.uk/index.php/articles/fan-culture/168-achieving-renewal-through-the-fans-corporation).

The legitimacy of business objectives–what they are and who defines them–together with structures of governance and accountability also matter if we want to ensure that what is done in our name is indeed the right thing for Rangers.

We have heard time and again fine words from Rangers’ owners and CEOs about how the fans are the club, that the fans’ voice will be heard and, more than that, acted upon. But with an investor-owned business controlled by a single or consortium majority holding, the only guaranteed outcome is decisions that serve their interests. Those interests may align with those of the fans and club but this is not guaranteed. Real ownership means the ability to exercise influence.

So the question becomes how do we finally put a stop to the Gekko-style plunder of our hard earned cash and our club’s reputation? How do we ensure the ‘We are Rangers’ ethos is translated into the ownership and management of Rangers as opposed to the circumstances that appear to prevail at the moment?

Two avenues strike me as viable: one short term and tactical; the second longer term and strategic.

The Short Term

In the here and now, a mechanism is clearly needed whereby all those small fan shareholders can, if they wish, express a common collective voice. My understanding is that RST has been busy developing a legal basis whereby all fan shareholders (not just RST members) can appoint a proxy (presumably the RST) to vote collectively on key business matters. This is an essential development if fans want–irrespective of their views about the RST-their current shareholdings to matter.

With new investors believed to be hovering with a view to the future purchase of shareholdings currently subject to lock-ins, a formal coalition of small fan shareholders could be part of a new controlling interest aligned to, as Ally describe it, the fans’ vision. Exercising collective influence on dividend pay-outs, director appointments and pay is all readily achievable and would provide a powerful signal of intent.

A Longer Term Vision

Beyond current uncertainties and even the next few bumpy years, there remains the question of what form of corporate entity is best for Rangers Football Club. The German model, which is guided by mutual co-operative membership principles, is much applauded and little wonder when we witness the recent success of Bayern Munich and the resurrection of Borussia Dortmund.

Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but the prescription that Rangers need only copy the German model is far too simplistic. As part of rebuilding process, however, I believe that the current plc model should be seen as having a finite shelf-life and merely a necessary part of the transition to something more sustainable and desirable.

Viable alternatives to the plc corporate form already exist and are increasingly finding traction in the football sector. Portsmouth, at long last, are now effectively a Community Benefit Society organised on co-operative mutual principles via the new ownership of the Pompey Supporters Trust.

This co-operative model already exists at Rangers in the form of the RST’s BuyRangers scheme. The aspiration of BuyRangers is to one day achieve a majority 50% shareholding. I myself bought into the scheme but realistically this objective seems very distant.

What could be a game changer for the longer term future at Rangers is the current plc engaging actively in a debate about what corporate form is best able to deliver on the fan vision. Is it so farfetched, for example, to suggest the current plc could transform itself into a Community Interest Company (CIC)?

CICs are a form of social enterprise company introduced in the UK in 2005. They allow for equity investment similar to the plc model but what makes a CIC different is that they exist for the benefit of the community they seek to serve, taking precedence over individual shareholder interests. Investors can still receive dividends, albeit controlled, but fundamentally all business decisions must serve the community interest. For me the community in our case is the Rangers fan base and more widely Scottish football–where I firmly believe the club should remain.

Statutory asset lock-ins ensure that future shareholders can never morph the company into a for-profit business. In short, the CIC offers a potential way to combine the equity investment model with ensuring and preserving the community benefit provided by a football club. It is probably not that well known that last week’s game against East Stirlingshire was played at the home of Scotland’s first football CIC–Stenhousemuir Football Club.

At the moment, the travelling Bears will find themselves back at Ochilview next season–this time to play Scotland’s first football CIC. That journey most probably faces fewer obstacles than the one that could see the corporate transformation of Rangers into something like a CIC. In short, will the Gordon Gekkos who bought into the successful IPO be easily persuaded to buy into the CIC vision?

The plain truth is probably not at the moment. But the current diffuse ownership structure and the time limited nature of things like tax relief benefits for investors means that is not always going to be true. And of course investors come and go as share prices go up and down. The controlled dividends and asset lock-ins of a CIC will remain attractive to certain classes of equity investor including those who favour stable and prudent returns over speculative punts. It will be even more attractive to those sharing the community benefit ethos and business objectives of the CIC. The continued growth in the CIC sector and ever increasing demands for socially responsible investment products put this all into the realms of the possible at Rangers.

In the past 12 months there has understandably been much pre-occupation with matters of history. Concrete visions and plans for the future have been notable by their absence. My own feeling is that the aspiration to convert from an investor-owned plc to a member-owned club, whether that be a mutually owned business or a Community Interest Company, deserves serious discussion and debate. Only then will ‘We are Rangers’ ring true.

Movie Postscript

Even Gordon Gekko eventually realised the errors of his ways. In the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko returns as a bit of an anti-hero after a stint in jail. In his words: ‘It’s not about the money–it’s about the game’.

Scott Reid is a regulatory economist by training and Director in an Asset Management and Economics consulting business. Originally from Glasgow he now lives in the Midlands. More importantly he is a Rangers season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter: @thecroakgang

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