Lunch with... Bill Ng

Hougang United are propping up the S.League table at the moment, a far cry from their plucky performances last season. FourFourTwo's Weixiang Lim sat down over lunch with Chairman Bill Ng...

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Hougang United Chairman Bill Ng is a somewhat controversial figure these days. The merger with Woodlands Wellington at the end of last season was unpopular, as Rams fans suddenly realised that their club's identity had effectively disappeared.

FFT managed to catch up with him this week, as he hosted us at the Tower Club on the 62nd floor of Republic Plaza.

Ng’s handshake is firm. He has a bright smile as we take our seats at a table close to the window which affords us a wonderful vantage of the CBD and the harbor beyond it.

“Go ahead, ask me the hard questions,” he says. “We can be honest. The league is in a bad state. That is why I was asked to come in in the first place.” 

“You see, away from football, my specialty is mergers and acquisitions - rescuing companies in distress.”

Do you think the S.League will still be around in five years time? What do you think needs to be done for the S.League to improve or survive?

Definitely. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t have come in.

For too many years, S.League clubs have been subsisting on handouts from the government. If one day the government decides to turn off the tap, the league will fold. This is not healthy. We need to move away from the handout model. At the present, the clubs are registered societies under the jurisdiction of FAS. Chairmanships are appointed by the FAS. We are all volunteers.

All football clubs in the world need to be run as businesses, no different from other industries. We need the profit motive and threat of losses to encourage efficiency and thinking out of the box to stay alive. In this digital age, things move very quickly, we need our clubs to continually evolve to stay competitive.

My view is that we need to move the league towards privatization and allow clubs to be privately owned. Privatization allows clubs the freedom to develop their own income streams. Football clubs must be fully liable and accountable for their own profit & loss.

In my line of work, I get to meet a lot of rich businessmen and tycoons and many of them are football fans.  I think a few of them are willing to fork out the money if they are allowed to own a club.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating a complete break from the football association. The football association is the backbone of the League. We need the football association to play regulatory, marketing roles and lead developmental strategies.

Clubs should be allowed to lease their own stadiums. Right now it’s a challenge for us to engage in effective marketing because we are often unable to secure a venue to hold our events. Hougang Stadium may be our home ground, but we are only given 20 slots a month for training purposes. We planned to organize a carnival to coincide with our first RHB Cup match against Global FC later this month; most of the activities are already organized for Hougang residents to come down to the stadium, only for Sports Singapore to come back to us – out of nowhere - to say that they had already rented out Hougang Stadium for a religious event.

So you see it can be very challenging if our clubs do not have control of their own stadiums. For example, if we had a twenty year lease of the stadium, we could work towards generating more revenue streams, sub-leasing out space for a sports shop or perhaps a restaurant.

To improve our S.League, we really need all our clubs to be financially sustainable before we talk about any other dreams. This is a cardinal rule.

The S.League CEO’s job is not an easy one. A lot of people have criticised him and I think a lot of the criticism has been very unfair. In the last two years, Mr Lim Chin has been bogged down by a lot of trivial problems from the clubs. If every club is self-sufficient and practices self-governance, Mr Lim’s daily problems will diminish at least 50 percent. In my opinion, a CEO’s job should focus on marketing the league and developing branding. He should be spending his time speaking to sponsors or negotiating TV deals in the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

Under your stewardship, Hougang has reportedly managed to turn a $2 million profit. How did you manage it?

I’d like to clarify. After five difficult years, Hougang recouped our debts which stood at $1 million and we further turned it round further to accumulate a $2 million profit, from 2009 - 2014.

The profits do not come from football operations. Just like Formula 1, football is a high “burn-rate” sport. Without sponsorship or alternative income sources, you wouldn’t be able to run these sports. An S.League ticket costs $5. Even if we were to fill the stadiums with paying spectators for every game, we wouldn’t make enough to cover even a small fraction of players’ annual wages. Just to illustrate, our stadium seating capacity is 2000, so the math is clear. If we were to rely on gate receipts, we would not be able to even pay 10% of our playing squad’s annual salary.

Our profits are generated mainly from our clubhouse operations.

Part of the successful formula comes from my day job in M&A and as a distress manager. I have had experience working with (Cambodian Gaming and Entertainment Giant) NagaCorp in my early years. I was a member of the listing team that helped NagaCorp to be successfully listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2006 after the fifth attempt. I have developed many insights that enabled us to run our clubhouse a little more efficiently than the gaming sector norms.

The main part of this formula is the ability to find a good group of administrators and partners that are creative, committed and meticulous.

I know we cannot only rely on jackpot earnings forever, but it has given us a good base to work from and we are actively exploring other ways to bring in money.