Is Xia Jiantong the man to save Aston Villa, or will fans be wishing Randy Lerner never left?

Jury out on Chinese businessman’s credentials as he tries to take over historic English club

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 11:34am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 9:08am

After 10 years of stagnation and finally relegation under American owner Randy Lerner, the news that he had sold storied English club Aston Villa for £60 million (HK$676 million) to China’s Tony Xia Jiantong was greeted with fervour by fans.

Xia declared that he wanted Villa to become the best known team in China, “even the best well-known in the world – in less than 10 years.”

His football credentials – he’s a fan of Villa and played at college! – were given the seal of approval. A wild notion that he had a fortune of £27 billion started doing the rounds, before common sense prevailed.

But the reaction among those without a vested interest in the club’s future was “Who?”

“Like most of the world, I’ve never heard of the guy or any of his companies,” a CEO of a sports-related investment firm in Beijing told me when I tried to find out some info.

Reports in British – and notably Chinese – media simply cut-and-paste the bio from Aston Villa’s official statement.

A bit of digging turned up some dubious-looking tales, notably a collection of anonymous posts on the ‘New Threads’ website set up by Fang Zhouzi, who campaigns against pseudoscience and fraud in China.

They claim Xia said he was a professor at Harvard when he was actually a teaching assistant, may have exaggerated his academic credentials, and treated his ex-wife shabbily. Not exactly hanging offences, especially not in mainland China, but not hallmarks of probity. Harvard did not respond to emailed enquiries.

Xia is chief of Recon Group, whose website is somewhat light on concrete detail as to how the company actually makes money. ‘Smart economy’ and similar buzzwords are thrown around with abandon.

One of the main businesses, it seems, is making monosodium glutamate through listed subsidiary Lotus Health Group, which lost the equivalent of around HK$600 million last year (though shares rocketed on one day when it was announced Xi Jinping’s cousin was going to join the board).

Xia’s mentor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, professor emeritus Charles Harris, did give me a glowing reference. He was Xia’s ‘host family’ in Massachussetts, he said in an email.

“As a result of knowing him ‘almost as a son’, I am pleased to say that from my first meeting with him, I realised that he had a very remarkable mind, a wide range of life experiences, and self-interests in many things,” says Harris, who travelled with Xia to China in 1990 and met his family.

“I expect to remain his life-long friend and am eager to follow his career as it continues to evolve. I hope to visit him in China within the next year or so.”

Harris told him about a company he started in 1963 called RECON or Resource and Development Consultants, which he and his founders suspended in 1970.

“I encouraged him to consider creating his own version of RECON with a possible initial base in both USA and China,” he said. Thus the source for the ‘50 years of history’ Recon and associated firms trumpet on their websites.

One in the plus column then, though I’d still be far from confident were I a Villa fan.

The club said Recon “owns the controlling interest in five publicly listed companies on the Hong Kong and Chinese Stock Exchanges”. I haven’t been able to find sign of the former, and the Financial Times reports that a spokesman for Recon told them Lotus was their only firm, though “acquisition deals for the remaining four companies are still being finalised and should come out soon.”

That sentence has since been changed from “five publicly listed companies” to “several” on Villa’s website.

Recon has a seemingly dormant urban planning firm called XWho and a ‘smart city’ company called Teamax which was apparently listed in Shenzhen by dint of a reverse merger with a shampoo company, raising all sorts of red flags.

These and other nuggets of information have been gleaned from SCMP colleague Xie Yu and Caixin business magazine, and blogger Mark Dreyer has summarised them well in English.

You wonder if they and other journalists have done more due diligence than Villa’s board. Key figures, including former Bank of England governor Mervyn King, resigned last month.

Chairman Steve Hollis was quoted as saying that Xia was responsible for the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, which even a cursory search would have revealed as nonsense.

Xia’s takeover has yet to be confirmed; the Premier League are seemingly doubtful and the Football League has to run its notoriously pointless ‘fit and proper persons test’.

The overwhelming feeling among fans seems to be ‘anyone’s better than Lerner’. Hopefully they’re right.