Following on from our features on The Mariners Trust of Grimsby Town FC and the Wrexham Supporters Trust, HUST continue our tour around Supporters Trusts with a trip to Barrow where Chairman Richard Ward met with Bluebirds Trust Chairman Steve Herbert and Barrow AFC fan director Levi Gill.  Here we learn more about their recent community share issue and the role of the Bluebirds Trust in the Barrow AFC community.

In 2014 when Barrow AFC was then owned by fans the members voted to approve the take over of Barrow AFC by Paul Casson, a Texas based businessman, whose significant investment and time as Chairman oversaw Barrow AFC’s 2014/15 promotion back to the National league.  A four-year spell saw over £4 million injected in the club, however, Casson’s dream to return Barrow AFC back to the football league for the first time since 1992 did not become reality as the club battled against relegation.

The Bluebirds Trust used a community share issue to buy a stake in Barrow AFC.

When local businessman Paul Hornby expressed an interest in getting involved with the club Casson took the opportunity to move aside and made the club available to Hornby who immediately sought to pull together a consortium to take over the club.  While the club was handed over by Casson both for “free” and debt free, Hornby and business partners raised the required £0.5 million for the general running of the club for the remainder of the 2018-19 season via share issue and, recognising the importance of fans as a community being involved in the club, approached the Bluebirds Trust with the offer to invest in the consortium.

Did you know:

  • Barrow AFC was owned by fans until as recently as 2014, when the fans voted to approve a take over by a US based businessman.
  • The Bluebirds Trust was formed in 2014 by an amalgamation of several supporters’ groups within the Barrow AFC Fan base and is affiliated with the Football Supporters’ Association.
  • In 2018 the Bluebirds Trust raised £50,000 via crowdfunding to purchase a 10% stake in Barrow AFC as part of a consortium take over led by a local businessman.
  • The Bluebirds Trust has an elected official on the board of Barrow AFC football club.
  • The Bluebirds Trust play an active roll in the running of Barrow AFC, running away travel for fans, the club lottery, programme sales, and fundraising initiatives, and have a shop/bar within the ground.
  • All members of the Bluebirds Trust are shareholders in their club.

The Bluebirds Trust was formed in 2014 by an amalgamation of several different groups within the Barrow AFC fan base with the aim to provide a single, unified supporter voice between fans and the club, and to work within the community of Barrow to raise awareness and increase support of Barrow AFC.

Working with the backing of Supporters Direct (now part of the Football Supporters’ Association) the Board of the Bluebirds Trust agreed terms of investment with the other consortium members and put to their Trust members the options for investment; 1) no investment, 2) 5% shareholding for £25,000, 3) 10% shareholding for £50,000.

Appreciating the value of having fans involved at the club, the then interim Chairman supported the community share issue, offering different types of incentives to donors based on the size of their individual donation, including reductions on Trust membership fees, free drinks in the Trust shop, and discounts on club merchandise and season tickets.  With the investment opportunity very clearly defined in advance by agreement between the Trust board and the consortium (You can find details of their share agreement here) the members voted to pursue option 3, to purchase 10% of their football club and the fundraising began.

HUST’s Richard Ward (R) with Bluebirds Trust Chairman Steve Herbert on a very wet evening in Barrow.

Using the skills of the membership base the Trust quickly launched a fundraising campaign for the community investment and through a series of fundraising initiatives, individual donations and rainy day reserves they quickly achieved their target and completed the share purchase.  As a community benefit society the Bluebirds Trust was ideally placed to lead and facilitate this community investment, and as is commonplace in this instance, while many fans made individual donations to the fund, the shares are held collectively as a single block, due to “the legal constraints and consequences on the issue of shares to the general public, the administration of multiple small shareholdings and the merits of a strong supporters’ voice through one substantial shareholding”.

Not only do members of the Bluebirds Trust now own part of their club, the investment terms agreed in advance secured the Trust membership a formal position on the board of Barrow AFC, a position filled by an elected representative of the members.

As part owners of the club the Bluebirds Trust members are actively involved in the day to day running of the club, volunteering time and skills on commercial improvements, infrastructure projects and match day logistics.  They run fundraising initiatives and support community activities, provide sellers for match-day programmes, run the club’s lottery and have a presence in the ground in the form of a Trust shop. Investment in Barrow AFC is continuing as they look to improve the infrastructure within the club and ground and improve the business model at the club in search of the return to the Football league that we all look to.  The terms of the consortium shareholding allow for new investors to join the team or for existing shareholders, including the Bluebirds Trust, to increase their financial commitment for the benefit of the club.

So, what did we learn?

Community share issues really do work, and what is maybe most interesting from the Bluebirds example is that this was a community share purchase for a part ownership of the club, rather than to try to achieve full fan ownership as has happened in other examples.  The Bluebirds Trust have joined other private investors in an ownership consortium following the take over from Paul Casson and they have the potential to increase investment in time or to support additional investors joining the consortium.

Importantly before the necessary fundraising took place the share agreement ‘terms’ were very clearly defined between the Bluebirds Trust Board and the consortium members, identifying what the investment was to be, i.e. what the Barrow fan community could expect to receive for their investment, and conversely, it also defined what would be expected of them as consortium members.

Thank you to Steve and Levi for taking the time to speak with HUST and we wish all at Barrow AFC the best for the coming season … except when they play Pools again! You can find out more about the Bluebirds Trust here.