How Gary Neville and the Class of 92 fit into Peter Lim’s business plan
Links with Singapore business man increase after Neville’s Valencia appointment
Valencia owner Peter Lim also owns a 50 per cent stake in Salford City. Photograph: Getty
Gary Neville’s startling appointment as the head coach at Valencia has promoted to a spectacular new level his own and his four Class of 92 Manchester United team-mates’ partnership with the Spanish club’s owner, the Singapore billionaire Peter Lim. Having first met Lim as young players, when they promoted the United cafe franchises he operated in the far east, the five are now financially backed by him in their hotel and property projects and the ownership of Salford City FC.
Lim, who made his fortunes in paper pulp and other investments in Singapore, holds his stakes in his international businesses, including the Manchester and Salford ventures, via the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. He has a longstanding interest in football and tried to buy Liverpool in 2010, a corporate battle which he lost to the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group principally owned by the financier John Henry. A friend of Jorge Mendes, the agent to many of Europe’s most coveted players including Cristiano Ronaldo, Lim has used Mendes’s services to augment the squad at Valencia, the club he bought out of financial difficulties last year.
A fortnight ago Lim extended his business interests with the Class of 92 players, completing a transaction to take 75% ownership of their Hotel Football and Cafe Football businesses, which are close to Old Trafford and appeal to fans attending matches at United, who opposed the original planning application. A circular issued by Lim’s Singapore stock exchange-listed investment company, Rowsley, revealed that these Manchester businesses are owned via a company, Orchid Leisure, registered in the BVI. The document stated as well that Lim’s company Incanto Investments Limited, through which he holds his 50% stake in Salford City of the Evostik Northern Premier League, is also registered in the BVI.
The former United players are understood to be paying UK tax on all the transactions and do not hold their Salford City shares offshore. Lim is public about holding his international businesses through the BVI, which will mean he will not pay UK capital gains tax when he sells the ownership of UK businesses held there. However, the Manchester and Salford ventures are understood to be committed to fully operating in the UK, not charging fees from the BVI parent company. They have stressed the contribution to Manchester’s economy, where Hotel and Cafe Football were built on derelict land, and employ local young people.
Neville, the driving force behind the Class of 92 business activities with his brother Philip – who will be his assistant at Valencia – Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, is the largest shareholder of the five in the new structure. Lim’s Rowsley company paid the five £1.9m for their shares in the BVI parent company of Hotel Football and Cafe Football and repaid their loans to the venture – £3.1m had been loaned by Gary Neville, £1.5m by Giggs and £380,658 each by Phil Neville, Butt and Scholes. Rowsley, Lim’s company, also paid Gary Neville £1.3m and Giggs £404,012 for half their shares in GG Collections, a Singapore-registered company which owned the Cafe Football and Hotel Football management company. The deal also repaid the former players’ £167,000 combined loans.
The restructuring means Gary Neville owns 12.5% of Orchid Leisure, the BVI parent company, Giggs 6.1% and Phil Neville, Butt and Scholes 6.4% combined. Rowsley owns the other 75%, as Lim prepares to invest further in the Manchester property market.
The circular stated the restructuring would enable Lim to expand the businesses, understood to include the St Michael’s office, hotel and residential development and a hotel being built in Manchester’s old stock exchange where a group of homeless people are being allowed to stay temporarily. The stated corporate aim is to expand Lim’s real estate business beyond Iskandar, Malaysia, where he has major developments, and “enable the Group to enter the Manchester real estate market to tap on growing demand, limited supply and future capital appreciation and build a platform for the Company to further venture into real estate in the United Kingdom.” The former United players own equal shares in Salford City, who play Hartlepool United in the FA Cup on Friday. Lim’s Rowsley deals have left unchanged his 50% stake in Salford City, which he acquired last year, but the document does mention the vehicle through which he owns the shares, saying: “Incanto is a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands on 8 October 2010.”
At the time he bought into the non-league club, where the plan is to build a new stadium and invest in players to win promotions to the Football League, a Lim spokesperson said: “The only reason for Peter’s investment in Salford City is aligned with his personal philanthropic interest in youth development, and of course his support for the members of the Class of 92.”
Gary Neville, who turned down the option of moving up the Old Trafford coaching ranks when he retired in favour of this frenetic portfolio of business, football and media activities, was instrumental in transforming the friendship with Lim into a partnership. His surprise anointing as the Valencia head coach elevates that association to a different dimension, in a post-playing career bristling with ambition.
Additional reporting by Daniel Beizsley