CAST Chair, Heather McKinlay, catches up with CAFC independent director and CAST member Gavin Carter to find out more about his background and plans for the club.
I spoke with Charlton Athletic’s independent director Gavin Carter last Wednesday – the day after Michael Appleton’s heavily anticipated yet shockingly abrupt sacking within half an hour of another late defeat. “That 97th minute winner summed up our season so far,” bemoaned Carter, the pain of a lifelong fan mixed with the steeliness of a businessman determined to make a success of a very important venture. I don’t think it had even crossed his mind to rearrange or postpone our call, a good sign in terms of respect for supporters and transparency.
Carter was firm and professional on the topic of Appleton: “I don’t want to say too much at the moment because there are human beings involved. It’s not lost on anybody that the next recruitment is an incredibly important one. It’s been a difficult time and clearly this is a position none of us wanted to be in. It’s important now that lessons are learned and that the next head coach is the best person for the job – it’s as simple as that.”
Having been at The Valley for the Northampton match, I described the aftermath where the players hung back on the pitch bonding with those fans who hadn’t already made an early exit. Carter had been watching on a stream from North America but reinforced a view often expressed by Alan Curbishley that when the ground is not particularly full, the players can hear the fans and it can impact their performance. He was pleased therefore to see the spirit between the team and the stands in a time of adversity.
“I want this on the record – there’s no doubt that when Charlton Athletic is most successful is when fans, sponsors, players, management, owners, all stakeholders feel connected. Clearly there are different degrees of connection but it’s important for all to feel connected. It takes a bit of time to achieve that but it is a priority. We’re starting internally within the club to make sure the club is working as one and connected with those other stakeholders.”
A rather nervous laugh is the response when I ask how he’s feeling, six months in. “I came into it with eyes wide open so while I’m obviously disappointed where we sit in the league, I didn’t come in imagining that simply by changing ownership suddenly everything would fix itself because Charlton has declined quite a lot over a number of years. To think you could just roll back – I don’t necessarily want to use the word repair – but to think you could just correct everything overnight…it would be incorrect to come in with that thinking so I’m not surprised with anything I’ve seen.” He strikes me very much as a realist, talking of the constraints such as the transfer window and EFL regulations, including the length of time it took for the takeover to be approved. However, he is not citing them as excuses: “You have to operate within those constraints. It’s a lot of hard work and we need to keep working hard to get it right. It is a project and we’re all aware of that - it’s a long-term project and it needs to be that way if we’re going to get long-term sustainable success.”
We Addicks love a timeline so I ask what he means by “long-term”. He side foots that one back to me. “It depends on your definition of success. Success for us isn’t necessarily just getting promoted to the Championship. A lot of fans see that as the next milestone. We want to create the most cohesive, community-driven football club operating at an elite level. And so league position is the major KPI but lots of things will go into that. I think a reasonable timeline to get promoted to the Championship is three to five years.” I feel a bit flattened at this point as though I’ve just been on the receiving end of a Dobbo tackle. He explains that this is year one. “Next year we should definitely be looking to build and will build but there are constraints – such as the squad we inherited. We’ve shared the 8-8-8 squad planning approach. That’s not something that can just be implemented in one transfer window but we have made some serious strides this window. It’s about getting the right ins and the right outs and that takes a period of time. If you rush the process you don’t put yourself in the right position for long-term and sustainable success basically.”
I’m still needing treatment for the idea of five more years in the third tier, without even contemplating worse, and seek some reassurance. Thankfully it is forthcoming: “Don’t get me wrong – our ambition is greater, of course we want to do it quicker, but we’re not putting together a plan that is ill-conceived. We’re thinking about the constraints we operate under. The owners recognise it could take a bit longer to get right. A concern that fans could have is that if we didn’t get promoted next year would we be as committed to CAFC as we have shown we are to date? It’s important that fans understand how committed we are to this project and that we are under no illusions that there’s a lot to do.”
Carter points to the current signings as proof of intent. “We are looking for players that can play at Championship level. It can be difficult to attract them – they need to buy into the project. We need to build belief and demonstrate our conviction in the project. A lot of work is going on to help the players understand the project and for those already here it is important for them to understand the greater level of ambition that we now have. There’s a lot of work internally on improving communication, general culture and all as one.” He references the “town hall” meeting that he described on the recent Fans’ Q&A. “Everyone in the club comes and hears from the management, hears from the ownership. Players, management, support staff, back office staff all together.” The plan is to hold such gatherings every couple of months.
Gavin Carter grew up in Tonbridge in Kent and is genuinely a lifelong Addick, following home and away as a young man. He vividly remembers the promotion season of 99/00: “I was going to every game from university at Oxford, I spent my student loan on it – a Friday night at Grimsby, a Saturday afternoon at Crewe.” He studied software development at Oxford Brookes but moved into the business rather than technical side on graduating, embarking on his career at a media firm in London. In 2007, when he was in his mid-twenties, the opportunity arose of a company move to New York. He jumped at it, later becoming a US citizen. He then became involved with private equity about ten years ago “because they carved out the business I was running for the media firm. Private equity can be a difficult world to get into without experience but I was fortunate enough to be involved in a carve out. I’ve gone on to run several different businesses for private equity.” He currently heads up TechInsights, a company specialising in providing research and information for the semi-conductor market. “Our customers are global – but equally there’s a concentration in the Middle East, Asia, North America.” The head office is in Ottawa, Canada, so this is the place he calls home, “It’s where the children go to school,” though he travels a lot between the States and this base. “I’m a season ticket holder from abroad. I try to get to as many games as possible and the streaming service has made it easier to follow remotely. When I first moved we were in the Premier League and all games were on TV. Then we got relegated and it was so much harder.” I ask if his interest waned at all, did he lapse as a fan during this period? “No, I still came to games whenever I could – I travelled to England at least once a month. Every business I’ve been with has had an English board. I’ve got two brothers in England, nephews, nieces and my mother. My wife is English too so we’re constantly travelling across the Atlantic.”
His Addicktion was not a family thing, his father hailing from Lowestoft with an Ipswich allegiance. But friends in school were Charlton fans and it was the closest professional club. “My father took me because it was local. Father and mother both became fans and season ticket holders. The Ipswich games were always fun for my father – he would have enjoyed last year’s game - the 4-4 draw - if he’d still been alive. My daughters are Charlton fans so it’s in the blood line now.”
I enquire about transferable lessons between the business he runs and football. “The biggest similarity is people. TechInsights doesn’t have a factory – it’s 500 people writing content and researching the industry so it’s a very people orientated business and a football club is a very people orientated business too, not just because people are delivering the product but all the stakeholders are people and very connected to and passionate about the product they are creating or delivering or watching.” He stresses the importance of “making sure you have clear plans, clear structures, clear vision so that can inspire a positive culture and establish a belief system. You need that north star to know where you’re going to be successful. To be honest, that’s not why the vision at Charlton Athletic is as simple as saying we want to be a Premier League club. We want to be a community-driven, cohesive club at the elite level. He refers back to an initial meeting with CAST: “When we sat in the boardroom we discussed what makes Charlton Athletic so special – right from the establishment, it’s been a community driven football club. And we’re very proud that the Community Trust is as successful and award-winning as it is. We need to put that [sense of community] back at the centre to achieve sustained success.”
Another comparison he draws is around the need for authentic and transparent leadership. “You learn by getting as many perspectives and opinions as possible. We aim to be as communicative as we can be. The Fans’ Forum [Fans’ Q&A in January hosted on Charlton TV] is not a one-off thing, though equally it won’t always be in that format. We want to accommodate as many viewpoints and communicate externally as widely as possible, to be transparent and be available.” He caveats that some things need a level of discretion and confidentiality and that they wish to continue to retain professionalism while being open and transparent. “We’re not going to be like Peterborough – negotiating player deals on social media. That’s not going to be our style.”
Despite what has just happened with Appleton, Carter emphasises the need for stability to bring results on the pitch: “Look at the example of CAFC Women. Karen Hills and team are continuing to fly and get results. There are lessons to be learnt there.”
I wonder who he admires in business. He draws on his experience in the tech space, modelling himself on what he describes as “strong, authentic leaders”. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple is one. The other is a more controversial figure: Elon Musk. He elaborates: “I think you can be a maverick and authentic at the same time. Elon Musk is a maverick but he comes from the point of good intentions – it’s my mantra to always assume positive intent. He is someone who will not be scared to take a different approach in order to drive a better outcome. I don’t have to share the views of leaders I admire – don’t get me wrong I don’t share every view of Elon Musk – but I do find him an intriguing leader who can think differently in order to get a better outcome. Along with Tim Cook at Apple – they both run companies that have continued, sustainable success. They are never comfortable with results, always pushing for more, uncompromising and unaccepting of good – always looking for excellent.”
We agree that such continuous drive, never settling and basking in success, is vital when it comes to professional sport and I mention how season after season Alex Ferguson always drove on for more, no matter how bulging the trophy cabinet. “Success is an ongoing journey” agreed Carter. “Owners come and go and Charlton Athletic Football Club will continue. We have to makes sure it is on an upward trajectory but never be content with success – we need to keep pushing on.”
So just how did a lifelong fan based across the pond become involved with the ownership group? “I was a season ticket holder last year in the Vista Lounge with directors’ box seats. TechInsights supported and sponsored the club a bit as well. Within the directors’ box I had a bit of observation of Thomas Sandgaard and others and had some limited interaction with him. I became aware of interest in the club and possible change on the horizon. I was in no way involved. In fact it was a complete coincidence.” He goes on to describe a casual exchange of pleasantries following a TechInsights board meeting in London that led to him discovering that one of the directors was also heading to The Valley that weekend, not as a fan but because he had a family friend in the States who was evaluating Charlton. The friend turned out to be Spencer Friedman, son of Joshua Friedman. Carter eventually met up with Spencer and was invited to join in a small way. “I had to take the opportunity to communicate with the ownership group about Charlton and what differentiates it from others. Every club has a story but you need people to communicate and convey that story to build the best possible project and I saw that as very clearly an opportunity - and a responsibility as well - to help them learn about Charlton.”
Carter’s investment sits alongside other smaller investors within an entity called GFHILP. This is also where Charlie Methven’s 5% or so is contained. At this point, given the earlier talk regarding transparency and authenticity, I raise the fact that the club have named the seven investors with 5% or more but never provided any further information on the relative shareholdings. Carter admitted that he did not know why this was not public and said he would follow-up on it with the owners.
He reiterates that “They are not investors, they are owners, let’s be clear about that. And therefore they devolve the decision making authority. And it has been designed that there is not a single person making decisions. That’s different from how Charlton has operated under the last several groups but more commonplace than we think. It means that everyone needs to understand the decision-making process and that has to be clear so that the right decisions are made and in a considered way. It’s a healthy structure that will benefit CAFC. The decisions impact on the stakeholders. It should not be about personalities impacting that. It is definitely work in progress – for example advisory board structures will take time to establish – and there is always opportunity for things to improve.”
CAST and others are at an early stage of discussing fan engagement structures with the club. Carter is at pains to emphasise that he is passionate about the establishment of a fan advisory board / shadow board as an important part of structure. “For the club to have on-field success and continued on-field success everything off the pitch has to be in good shape. I know that fans – and I’m in that category as well - we want instant success but we have to be realistic about what can be achieved, when and where. What I can tell you is that the ownership group is incredibly authentic, is in it for the long term and is in it for the right reasons. It’s another reason why I got involved because I wanted to ensure that this group was involved for the right reasons.”
He confirms that the day to day running of the football club is left to the CEO and executive team through delegated authority. They are held accountable by the Charlton Athletic board on which he and Paul Elliott sit as independent directors - and adds that there may be more in future. The football club board in turn advises and communicates with the GFP board – the owners. The Charlton Athletic board meets regularly in person whereas the ownership group is more geographically widespread. “Though there’s a bit of a concentration in California where they get together to watch the stream.” Carter believes that all the owners have been to The Valley across this season but not all at the same time due to the reality of their business schedules. “The structure is set-up to make sure CAFC gets sufficient attention – it’s a key part of why the structures are the way they are.” It strikes me that the club is no longer at the whim of 2% of Roland Duchâtelet’s spare time, but it does sound like a bit of a meet and greet and team-building session for the full ownership group would not go amiss. Carter shrugs this off, “It’s healthy for there to be multiple owners. The football club board have been together in person a lot usually at The Valley. I’ve also been at the majority of the games - most of the home games plus Shrewsbury, Stevenage and Lincoln on a very wet Tuesday.”
We touch on his role in bridging the gap between English football and North American sport and potential benefits in sharing ideas. “In the US the fanbase is more distributed and bigger – there are less teams to support. Here we have the pyramid and beyond – there are many clubs to support so the fanbase is concentrated and a bit more connected to the team. There are good lessons to be learnt both ways by picking apart the things that work very well while recognising the differences.” I ask for particular examples. “The owners have made some observations regarding the club store and how can we make it easier for people to buy a shirt. In North America a club has many stores – though I’m not saying we’d have that. Then there’s the opportunity to engage with fans before and after the games. In US football it’s called tailgating. They create a party atmosphere before and after the game with fans’ bars staying open later, making it more engaging.” He floats the idea of Charlton TV being partly done in the fans’ bar instead of the studio – just throwing out ideas, observations and suggestions, while acknowledging that it takes a bit of time for such plans to form.
When it comes to finances, the difference is stark. “Most US sports have a salary cap. We’re looking for a structured approach to building the squad in the right way. Financial Fair Play is going in the right direction plus the regulator coming in so we will go more the way of the North American system and allow us to be more sustainable. The size of the revenue base and the cost base at Charlton Athletic should make us more than competitive enough at the current level – help us to win and to win well. No-one thinks you can have long term sustainable success on a shoestring. We have our eyes wide open. To attract Championship calibre players, we need to invest in the squad. The January transfer window is showing that. A lot goes into the window before and after. As soon as this one closes the team involved will be looking to the summer.”
Returning to supporting the Addicks, I ask him to select a couple of favourite matches beyond the obvious play-off finals. He immediately becomes more animated: “That 4-3 win at Villa Park that kept us in the Premier League…for one more week. I remember Steve Brown in goal, pulling off that save. Then when we became champions at Blackburn – that season it was a fun season, winning every game. The confidence and connection between the fans and the management team and players was perhaps at its highest. Curbs says to experience the highs you have to have the lows as well to enjoy the highs. That’s where we’re different from Man U – why it hurts so much to be where we are because we have felt it before. Clubs like Man U and Liverpool are used to success every season, so you get different reactions, than fans at a Shrewsbury or Lincoln – not being disrespectful, but they have never experienced success at those levels so perhaps they are not as passionate and involved.” I add at this point that we’ve also known our struggles and had to fight to keep our club going and to return to The Valley. “Absolutely,” Carter agrees. “As a Charlton fan we know what really, really bad looks like and we know what really, really good looks like both on and off the pitch. There’s lots for us to learn from.”
To round off, I ask if he could bring anyone at all along to The Valley, who would it be? His immediate answer is a poignant one: “This may sound corny but I lost my father a couple of years ago – I would love to bring him along in the capacity I’m in now.” While he further contemplates his answer, the serious professional side caveats that “whoever you bring always creates speculation”. Then he goes on to name Ronaldo or Messi, and I’m getting flashbacks to the mid-80s and maverick owner Mark Hulyer signing Allan Simonsen! But Carter is actually intent on self-improvement: “When you get the perspective of professional footballers, you learn a lot. I’ve found sitting with Paul Elliott and Dean Kiely incredibly enjoyable. David Pleat’s been there a few games – to learn from people like that is what I want to do. Charlton can be such a wonderful atmosphere and so enjoyable – I want to share that with as many people as possible – yes, maybe Tim Cook and Elon Musk – but we have to get it right on the pitch for us to experience those highs.”
Just before Christmas Gavin Carter did bring his family to The Valley. “I’ve got two daughters – 10 and 13 years old. Their first passions are gymnastics and ice skating but they’re following football more. It was a real pleasure and proud moment to have them and all the family at The Valley. It was the Burton match, another bloody last-minute goal. They’d like to see Charlton win as much as I would!”