From Zoom calls with club skipper Jack Grealish to convince the talismanic number 10 to stay not once, but twice, supporting employees through unprecedented times of austerity and uncertainty – they’ve already cemented themselves in Aston Villa folklore, and we’re lucky to have them.
Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens’ exemplary running of Aston Villa has been magnified in the success the club has seen on the pitch, how its community has been supported during the coronavirus pandemic and in recent weeks when football club ownership has been scrutinised under the microscope.
“Our goal is to bring sustainable success to the club, building on its rich history while respecting its loyal fan base and unique culture,” Edens and Sawiris promised after taking control of the club in 2018.
“We understand that we are stewards of Aston Villa on behalf of the fans and we take that responsibility seriously.”
Villa’s ownership pair might not shout from the rooftops like former regimes and owners of football clubs elsewhere, but in their three years at the club, they’ve let their actions do the talking.
‘There’s hope’. That the text message sent to Dean Smith by Villa co-owner Wes Edens who knows a thing or two about the unpredictable narratives that only sport can produce.
It’s the mantra that the Montana born, self-made billionaire has followed throughout his rewarding business career. The Wall Street Journal describes Edens as a man who “likes a counterintuitive bet,” and if that’s anything to go by, Villa was always the club for him.
In truth, Edens and fellow Villa owner, Sawiris have already been confronted with enough chaos at the club they saved from the abyss in 2018. A Wembley play-off final after a season involving managerial sackings, appointments and record-winning runs wasn’t the baptism of fire the two were expecting having drawn up a two-year promotion plan.
Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the coronavirus pandemic hit, B6 was quieter than it had ever been before. The longest Premier League season was the stroke of luck Villa needed having been written off before Project Restart. From afar, Edens and Sawiris would watch Jack Grealish – the player they kept at the club as their first statement of intent – carry the club over the dotted line.
Having secured Premier League survival on the final day of the season, Villa’s ambitious owners plotted a second summer of spending, with another £100million war chest available to Smith to supplement his squad ahead of the 2020-2021 campaign.
Between Edens and Sawiris, the two boast some serious financial muscle, and according to Forbes, their combined wealth comes within the top five of the Premier League owners rich list. After 58-year-old Edens and private equity investor Sawiris bought a majority stake in the club from Tony Xia in 2018, the two immediately pumped £30million into the club to solve a liquidity crisis that had dogged Xia and led to his sale of the club.
Their investment certainly didn’t end there, and their ambition is for all to see. Actions speak louder than words and from significant transfer fees to providing enough funding to ensure all non-football staff wouldn’t be furloughed during lockdown, NSWE have been nothing short of exemplary in the running of the club so far.
“As lifelong football fans, we are excited and privileged to have become part of this great club,” Sawiris and Edens said after taking control of the club. Villa fans are eager to see Edens replicate the well-publicised success he encountered in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Their first statement of intent was to reject Daniel Levy’s approach for prized asset Grealish whose move to Tottenham was blocked when Sawiris and Edens swooped in to save Villa from financial ruin in 2018.
Winning promotion back to the Premier League through the playoffs a year earlier than expected was the first step achieved for NSWE who had big plans for Villa upon arrival back in the big time. Smith hadn’t been in the job longer than eight months but Villa’s daring owners would put their money where their mouth is and back their head coach to the hill with confidence and two very healthy summer transfer budgets.
Bodymoor Heath has shared the highs of an era headed by Martin O’Neill when the club was knocking on the door of Champions League football, but also the toxic lows of relegation from the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history.
Yet since Smith’s appointment, the club have only seen success in firstly gaining promotion, then surviving relegation and now finishing the 2020/21 campaign in mid-table. Smith’s appointment is the only one Villa’s hierarchy have made since taking control of the club in 2018, but the Villa gaffer was reluctant to take his dream job at Villa if the culture installed wasn’t right.
“I was quite happy to walk if it didn’t fit. Everyone knows that Aston Villa was my club growing up but it wasn’t a no-brainer,” Smith said.
“It had to be right. The culture, how we want to grow the football club because there was no difference to Walsall – there was a disenchantment between the football club and supporters. That had to come together and the only way to do it is from the top all the way down.
“And it fitted. I sat down with Christian Purslow, Jesus Pitarch and had a phone chat with Nassef (Sawiris) and Wes (Edens), the owners, and they are everything about education, learning, progressing, getting better – that’s all they want to do, for everyone at the football club to get better.
“I believe there is a good culture here but within that there has to be a togetherness of pushing in the same direction, because it is very difficult if you don’t do that.
“You can’t have individuals, you can’t have fragmentation of any sort.”
NSWE helping local communities cope with the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic presented football clubs with a number of difficulties but whilst their responsibility to serve the wider community remained more prevalent than ever, Villa took a lead in providing support to those most in need.
Smith’s Villa hadn’t kicked a ball in anger for exactly 100 days between March 9 at the King Powers Stadium and June 17 when Sheffield United visited Villa Park to kick-off Project Restart. The following week from Villa’s heavy defeat at Leicester in March, Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta contracted COVID-19 and the Premier League took notice.
The wake-up call forced the hand of reluctant league officials. Villa’s opponents that weekend, Chelsea would too self-isolate when Callum Hudson-Odoi became the first player to announce he had contracted then recovered from the virus.
Matchday was a perpetual operation. This proud club, a cornerstone of English football heritage, has witnessed a decade of turbulence like few before. Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the coronavirus pandemic struck, B6 is now quieter than it has ever been. The shutters are down, the fast-food wrappers flutter violently in malevolent gusts and the Trinity Road is no longer a fortnightly parade.
The longest Premier League season was, however, the stroke of luck Villa needed having been written off before Project Restart, and while there’s no question that loyalty is deeply rooted amongst these stands, in recent times, optimism has rarely been traded in these parts.
Locked chains secure the car park as a golden lion sits proudly, one paw raised, with the beautiful Holte End mosaic in the background. That mosaic is a masterpiece of broken promises from former regimes, but also one to provide hope. After some 14 months of gruelling weekends without the Villa, it seems that those ninety minutes are indeed a lifetime and the 11 celebrated inside of Villa Park represent the thousands connected to the crest embroidered on their chest, more than ever before.
As fans returned to the stands of Villa Park for the final game of the 2020/21 season against Chelsea, Holte End steps were scaled, pork scratchings flogged in their dozens and supporters caught a brief glimpse of the best Villa side for nearly a decade.
Villa’s matchday preparation for game’s during the Premier League’s suspension wouldn’t go to waste though, literally. Over 850 staff packed lunches and hot food was donated to support homeless organisations and sheltered accommodation units through the Aston Villa Foundation.
Many more thousands of hot meals were cooked and sent to feed vulnerable people across Birmingham too with the expansion of the Villa Foundation’s Villa Kitchen accommodating the capacity to deliver up to 500 hot meals each week.
The club also worked closely alongside the Active Wellbeing Society throughout the pandemic. They’ve coordinated initiatives to tackle food poverty on behalf of Birmingham City Council as part of a ‘Brum Together’ campaign.
After a month had passed since the Premier League announced the initial postponement of top-flight football in England, the coronavirus pandemic had tragically taken over 20,000 lives in the UK. On April 24, Villa announced that they’d joined forces with the West Midlands NHS Trust to deliver maternity care at Villa Park.
Supporting local hospitals and indeed those in need of immediate care was another step Villa made to aid the second city’s coronavirus efforts. Delivering maternity care in a football stadium is probably a first and the thought of birth underneath the North Stand roof just proved how crazy times were only a year ago.
Villa Park’s clinics were staffed by 10 midwives, and two support workers, with two health visitors taking appointments to ensure the virus’ safety guidelines were met while upholding the necessary requirements to deliver maternity care.
A day after Villa announced their pledge to assist NHS trusts and the communities they serve, club CEO Christian Purslow declared that Villa’s first-team players, coaches and senior managers had all agreed to a 25% wage deferral for four months.
Following ‘substantial funding’ from owners Sawiris and Edens, there was to be no furloughing of non-football staff members, both full time and part-time who would be retained and paid in full throughout the lockdown period.
In the midst of the crisis, around late April time, Purslow was ‘pleased to announce measures to protect livelihoods.’ Sanctioned by the top of Villa’s hierarchy, all the positive messages that NSWE sent by helping people manage through the hardest part of their lives couldn’t have made fans any prouder to support the club as they set an example of how to contribute to the club’s surrounding community during some incredibly tough times.
‘An investor with an affinity for the underdog’
While Sawiris is determined to become a major player in the football ownership business and with his partner, Edens already boasting a successful portfolio in sport, the pair have built enviable reputations in the business world.
In January 2013, a consortium of investors led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, invested $1billion into Sawiris’ Orascom Construction Industries, and Edens himself very much lives by what the United States’ second richest man embodies.
Gates said: “To win big, you sometimes have to take big risks”, and Edens’ business portfolio is proof of it.
The Milwaukee Bucks hadn’t tasted victory in the NBA Championships since 1971, and scepticism was rife when Edens teamed up with fellow billionaire businessman Marc Lasry to buy the franchise in 2014, in a deal worth a reported $550million.
Edens’ Bucks delivered a 26-game turnaround in the 2014/15 season combined with the fourth largest year-on-year increase in ticket sales across the NBA. During his ownership, Bucks have made play-offs three out of four seasons and secured first back-to-back winning seasons since 1999.
While New York Times noted that Edens had a “taste for distressed assets,” the investment plowed into Villa didn’t propose the same level of risk compared with the NBA franchise, even if Villa were staring down a barrel when NSWE swooped in to save the day.
“Our goal is to bring sustainable success to the club, building on its rich history while respecting its loyal fan base and unique culture,” Edens and Sawiris promised after taking control of the club.
“We understand that we are stewards of Aston Villa on behalf of the fans and we take that responsibility seriously.”
Edens attended Oregon State University, from where he holds a degree in finance and business administration. In May 2009, Edens was awarded the title of ‘Distinguished Business Professional’ by his former university, who in 2003 started to recognise past students who had achieved the greatest success in business.
The award honours those who have “demonstrated innovation and excellence in their fields with quantitative and qualitative results that evidence great impact.” Edens also became a key member of the university’s sport societies: he was a competitive skier throughout his youth and also played baseball at Oregon State.
After working in senior roles for the now defunct Lehman Brothers and BlackRock Financial Management, Edens helped co-found Fortress Investment Group LLC, an investment management firm based in New York.
Edens has also taken an active interest in social causes and is believed to have donated more than $2.7million to educational and charitable foundations over the years.
According to Wealthx, Edens donated $1million to Macalester College between 2011 and 2016. Charity foundations GiveWell and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital between them also received over $1million since 2010. Edens has also been instrumental beyond his personal contributions to charities, pledging more than $90,000 to educational and health causes in his position as trustee of the Chinook Charitable Trust.
Philanthropy is a big part of NSWE’s individual business exploits, and Sawiris is also a keen advocate of giving back to those who’ve helped him in his business career.
Villa’s joint-owner donated $6million to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to launch the first custom-designed Executive Education program in Egyptian town, El Gouna. Sawiris made the donation through the Sawiris Family Foundation in May, days before Villa’s play-off final success over Derby County.
The Sawiris Foundation for Social Development also donated $6.3million to the Egyptian state for Coronavirus relief efforts in a bid to aid COVID-19 efforts in Africa. The foundation dedicated $2.5million of the donation to daily wage workers and 60 million $3.8million to support medical facilities and provide them with ventilators.
The billionaire also owns about 1.5million LafargeHolcim shares according to Bloomberg. In fact, the whole Sawiris family have made an incredible fortune over the years. Forbes estimated the family’s combined net worth at $36 billion – it’s, therefore, no surprise Nassef has managed to mastermind Villa’s escape from turmoil to Premier League headliners once again, following his large investment in the Birmingham-based club.
Nassef Sawiris’s business background and Wes Edens’ approach to analytics
Sawiris was born into a wealthy family in Cairo, Egypt and is the youngest of three sons born to Yousiriyya and Onsi Sawiris in 1961. By the time Nassef turned eight years old, his father’s (Onsi) construction company became one of Egypt’s largest contractors, building roads and waterways along Egypt’s upper Nile region.
After its establishment in 1950, the business was nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, before Onsi made and left another successful business in Libya. On his return to Egypt, Nassef’s father set up Orascom Construction Industries in Africa – they’d shortly grow to be one of the largest private builders in Egypt by the mid-1990s.
Nassef – who had attended high school at the German International School of Cairo – went to college in the United States and in the year Aston Villa became European Champions, graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Chicago.
After studying at university, Nassef rejoined the family business which was diversified into communications and real estate. Orascom Telecom, helmed by the oldest brother Naguib; Orascom Hotels and Development, headed by the middle brother Samih; and Orascom Construction, now led by Nassef were the three separate entities.
As CEO, Nassef focused on expanding the business abroad and into a new sector – cement and building materials – a division he sold to Lafarge in 2008 for $12.8billion. That same year, he entered the fertiliser business with the purchase of Egyptian Fertiliser Company. Through the expansion of its own operations and acquisitions, Orascom’s fertiliser operation grew to become the world’s third-largest nitrogen-based fertiliser producer.
Nassef’s business acumen was growing by the year, and in January 2013, a consortium of investors led by Microsoft co-founder Gates invested $1billion in Orascom Construction Industries to help the Sawiris family transfer the company’s listing from the Cairo Stock Exchange to NYSE Euronext Amsterdam.
Sawiris, 58, is Africa’s second-richest man with a fortune Forbes estimates at $7.2billion. His wealth was registered as 330th in Forbes’ 2020 Billionaire’s list.
He also sits among Adidas supervisory board members having become the biggest investor in the Herzogenaurach, Germany-based sports apparel giants, who ended a very successful 2015 trading year by the news of Sawiris owning six percent of shares.
His partner in crime, Edens shares a prolific record of improving the practices of recruitment and performance at sports organisations, particularly at the Bucks in the NBA.
In a Q&A last year, Edens opined that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Villa’s approach to analytics and data has vastly improved since the American took joint control of Villa several years ago. With the appointment of Johan Lange a clear indication of this after the club secured its Premier League status in 2020, the club’s sporting director has modernised Villa’s approach to recruitment and player identification.
Headhunted from Copenhagen, Lange’s former club had a clear strategy. Identifying, developing and making profitable margins on young talent on the face of things may seem very ordinary, but the Danish template is one envied by most across Europe.
This use of statistical analysis helped Copenhagen to branch out into new markets and explore niche pools of talent like in South America which has seldom provided northern European clubs with teenage talent.
In every department, from academy operations to recruitment, handling every employee with absolute respect and ultimately putting Villa on track to regaining their elite status in English football, NSWE are only just getting started at Villa Park.