‘There’s hope’. That the text message sent to Dean Smith by Aston Villa co-owner Wes Edens who knows a thing or two about the unpredictable narratives that only sport can produce.
It’s the mantra that the Montana born, self-made billionaire has followed throughout his rewarding business career. The Wall Street Journal describes Edens as a man who “likes a counterintuitive bet,” and if that’s anything to go by, Aston Villa is the club for him.
In truth, Edens and fellow Villa owner, Nassef Sawiris have already been confronted with enough chaos at the club they saved from the abyss in 2018. A Wembley play-off final after a season involving managerial sackings, appointments and record-winning runs was the baptism of fire Edens wasn’t expecting having drawn up a two-year promotion plan.
Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the Coronavirus pandemic hit, B6 was quieter than it had ever been before. The longest Premier League season was the stroke of luck Villa needed having been written off before Project Restart. From afar, Edens and Sawiris would watch Jack Grealish – the player they kept at the club as their first statement of intent – carry the club over the dotted line.
Having secured Premier League survival on the final day of the season, Villa’s ambitious owners are now plotting a second summer of spending, with a reported £100m war chest available to Smith who is keen to supplement his squad ahead of the 2020-2021 campaign.
Between Edens and Sawiris, the two boast some serious financial muscle, and according to Forbes, their combined wealth comes within the top six of the Premier League owners rich list. After 58-year-old Edens and private-equity investor Sawiris bought a majority stake in Aston Villa from Tony Xia in 2018, the two immediately pumped £30million into the club, solving a liquidity crisis that had dogged Xia and led to his sale of the club.
Their investment certainly didn’t end there, and their ambition is for all to see. Actions speak louder than words and from significant transfer fees to providing enough funding to ensure all non-football staff wouldn’t be furloughed during lockdown, NSWE have been nothing short of exemplary in the running of the club so far.
“As lifelong football fans, we are excited and privileged to have become part of this great club,” Sawiris and Edens said after taking control of the club. Villa fans are eager to see Edens replicate the well publicised success he encountered in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.
‘An investor with an affinity for the underdog’
In January 2013, a consortium of investors led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, invested $1 billion into Nassef Sawiris owned Orascom Construction Industries, and Edens himself very much lives by what the United States’ second richest man embodies.
Gates said: “To win big, you sometimes have to take big risks”, and Edens’ business portfolio is proof of it.
The Bucks hadn’t tasted victory in the NBA Championships since 1971, and scepticism was rife when Edens teamed up with fellow billionaire businessman Marc Lasry to buy the franchise in 2014, in a deal worth a reported $550million.
Edens’ Bucks delivered a 26-game turnaround in the 2014/15 season combined with the fourth largest year-on-year increase in ticket sales across the NBA. During his ownership, Bucks have made play-offs three out of four seasons and secured first back-to-back winning seasons since 1999.
While New York Times noted that Edens had a “taste for distressed assets,” the investment plowed into Villa didn’t propose the same level of risk compared with the NBA franchise, even if Villa were staring down a barrel when NSWE swooped in to save the day.
“Our goal is to bring sustainable success to the club, building on its rich history while respecting its loyal fan base and unique culture,” Edens and Sawiris promised after taking control of the club.
“We understand that we are stewards of Aston Villa on behalf of the fans and we take that responsibility seriously.”
In a Q&A last year, Edens opined that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Villa have been proactive in changing their approach to the transfer market and youth academy operations and Edens is the driving force for change. Newly appointed Sporting Director, Johan Lange will help the transition for Villa, who wants to become a leading football club to use certain markets and scouting networks to acquire players with the very best numerical and statistical references possible.
Edens’ vision for Villa, coupled with Sawiris’ aspiration to become a major player in the football ownership game, is quickly becoming a formidable partnership, and Villa will be all the better for it.
Under the Edens’ stewardship, the Bucks’ fortunes have been on the rise: as of February 2020, Forbes puts the Buck’s worth at $1.58billion. After Villa received the £100million payment for Premier League promotion the year before the Bucks’ spike in valuation, it’s safe to say Edens has a knack for saving crisis clubs.
Wes Edens’ business career
Edens is neither short of business acumen away from the sporting world. He attended Oregon State University, from where he holds a degree in finance and business administration. In May 2009, Edens was awarded the title of ‘Distinguished Business Professional’ by his former university, who in 2003 started to recognise past students who had achieved the greatest success in business.
The award honours those who have “demonstrated innovation and excellence in their fields with quantitative and qualitative results that evidence great impact.” Edens also became a key member of the university’s sport societies: he was a competitive skier throughout his youth and also played baseball at Oregon State.
After working in senior roles for the now defunct Lehman Brothers and BlackRock Financial Management, Edens helped co-found Fortress Investment Group LLC, an investment management firm based in New York.
Fortress was founded in 1998 with $400million of assets under management and Wes and team have grown this to $40.9billion AUM after taking joint control of Villa in 2018. Edens is currently co-chief executive officer and has been a member of the board of directors of Fortress since November 2006, with responsibility for the company’s private equity business, which primarily invests in transportation and infrastructure, real estate, health care, financial services and media.
Edens’ audacious, risk-taking culture in business is no more obvious than in his role as Chairman of New Fortress Energy and Brightline, a new privately-owned express passenger train that connects Florida’s major cities.
In a post-Covid world, as people settle in for a period of minimal travel, especially if it involves being squeezed among others, breaking into the travel industry is a no go for most entrepreneurs. But Edens’ vision is to provide tax-exempt bonds to create high-speed train lines linking Las Vegas to Southern California and Miami to Orlando with hopes of replacing the success of the London-to-Paris Eurostar – even more so considering the $100 million outlay. If things go to plan, and 20 million passengers travel in 2026, revenues upward of $1.6 billion can be expected.
When not tied up in multi-million dollar deals from the boardroom, Edens has passions for mountaineering and equestrian. He might be climbing a mountain with Villa after getting the club back in the top-flight saddle, but after enduring three major surgeries after his pastimes left him with a herniated disc in his spine, a torn tendon in his finger, and a broken arm, he might be bound to the office for the foreseeable future.
Recently on mountaineering expeditions, Edens conquered Grand Teton, the highest peak in the state of Wyoming, before moving on to Matterhorn in Switzerland. While mastering Pingora Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, Edens ‘had trouble sleeping for a while” after slipping to an almost fatal free fall.
Philanthropy is an important part of Edens’ work
Edens has also taken an active interest in social causes and is believed to have donated more than $2.7million to educational and charitable foundations over the years.
According to Wealthx, Edens donated $1million to Macalester College between 2011 and 2016. Charity foundations GiveWell and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital between them also received over $1million since 2010. Edens has also been instrumental beyond his personal contributions to charities, pledging more than $90,000 to educational and health causes in his position as trustee of the Chinook Charitable Trust.
Edens is married with four children, and Mallory Edens, his youngest daughter said: “First Villa game ever was insane,” via her Instagram after visiting Villa Park for the first time as Dean Smith’s side confirmed their Championship play-off spot last year.
A few weeks later and only days before Villa’s play-off final at Wembley, Mallory was caught up in a social media storm with none other than Drake, whose Instagram account boasts 71.2m followers. His many Insta fans were caught off guard when he changed his profile icon to that of Mallory posing in Villa’s 1982 European Cup shirt.
The spat began when Toronto Raptors and Wes Edens’ Milwaukee Bucks battled it out for a chance to face the Golden State Warriors at the 2014 NBA Lottery Finals. Drake’s court-side antics came under fire from Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee fans – 24-year-old Mallory wasn’t standing for it.
She went viral for the Pusha-T shirt she wore court-side that was widely seen as trolling Raptors superfan Drake. Mallory was very vocal herself about her desire to own an NBA team in the future. According to TMZ Sports, she has her eyes on two-time NBA Champions, the New York Knicks.
“I want to buy the Knicks one day,” Edens told Bleacher Report in 2017.
“I don’t need to swap, my dad can keep the Bucks. I’ll take the Knicks, and I’ll see him in the Eastern Conference Finals!”
Mallory Edens is a keen advocate of equality in sport
Mallory graduated from Princeton University in 2018 and ran cross-country for the university. She’s a big advocate for women’s issues and rights, as documented on her Instagram page. She recently participated in the #StoptheBans march, after Alabama lawmakers voted to pass the most strict abortion law the country. Edens’ message is however more about increased representation for women across sports in general.
“I think women are hugely underrepresented in sports,” Edens said.
“I think it’s not something we talk about enough. There are no female GMs. There’s one team president who’s a woman in the NBA. There are no female head coaches – hopefully Becky Hammon gets a head coaching job soon. But other than that… there’s never been a female commissioner in any of the four major American sports leagues.”
It’s highly unlikely that there would’ve been anyone prouder than Mallory when her fathers Women’s team were promoted to the Women’s Super League. Wes will no doubt continue to support Eniola Aluko and Gemma Davies’s team as they adapt to life in the WSL – the club’s first appearance in the women’s top flight.
Villa has become united with marketing and social media efforts to bond both Men’s and Women’s teams. At the beginning of the 2019-2020 campaign, the squad photo, for the first time in the club’s history, was pictured with both teams together, and during Project Restart, there were plenty of visible nods towards the team’s Women’s FA Women’s Championship promotion.
Ahead of the new season, Villa’s kit reveal has been modelled by the Villa Ladies, with Amy West and Elisha N’Dow appearing across billboards around Birmingham too. The club’s recognition and support for the Women’s game has developed massively since NSWE took over in 2018, and CEO Christian Purslow has also been a huge advocate of equality within the club.
Wherever Wes Edens choses to take his future investments, the impact he and Nassef Sawiris have already made on Aston Villa will not be overlooked. They’ve restored pride in a great club on its knees and offered hope where all was seemingly lost. Here’s to a bright future once and for all.