March 3, 2013

Meet West Indies cricket's new wealthy benefactor

Entrepreneur Ajmal Khan's interest in the Caribbean Premier League might remind you of Stanford, but the WICB seems confident it won't be a repeat

Ajmal Khan has made a career out of making companies better. The founder of Verus Capital in 1985, and later the merchant banking company Verus International Corporation in 1999, he has made millions turning companies into successes around the world.

A profile of Khan's business career states, in part: "Verus Capital has invested in companies in the internet, media, biotechnology and real estate fields. From 1985 to 1993, Verus Capital acquired and resold over US$2 billion in real estate properties, becoming the largest syndicator of properties in Canada. Additionally, it has focused on investments in consumer product and industrial companies in the process of workouts and turnarounds."

It is not surprising then that the directors of the WICB would be interested in doing business with the man, especially since he makes his home not in Canada, where he is a citizen, or the United Kingdom, where his late diplomat father was from, or Nigeria, where he was born, but in Barbados.

However, by placing its T20 series, formerly known as the Caribbean T20, in the hands of a private entrepreneur, president Julian Hunte and his board are showing a lot of faith in Khan, Verus, and the Caribbean Premier League.

Four years ago, their faith in another Caribbean-based foreign businessman backfired in a big way. Allen Stanford, now imprisoned in the United States for massive fraud, ran his Stanford 20/20 series with the full blessings of the WICB up to 2008. The ECB also became entangled in the Texan's cricket dealings, sending a team to play the Stanford All-Stars - a virtual West Indies team - in a match in which the players on the winning team each earned $1million. The Stanford bandwagon came to a halt with his arrest in 2009.

In July 2013, however, the West Indies board will allow Khan to roll out the first edition of the CPL, a franchise-based operation which will have teams based in six territories and will include not just Caribbean cricketers but professionals from around the world.

In his public utterances about the benefits of the CPL, including at an event in Barbados recently, where the league's six icon players were announced, Hunte spoke confidently about the financial security the venture will bring to a larger pool of players in the region. He could not give details as to who exactly would benefit from the retainers but said the CPL would fund the contracts to the tune of $360,000.

It is also the CPL and Khan who are the guarantors of the players' salaries. Khan himself confirmed this. "Singly, the most important thing in my life is my reputation," he said. "I have a track record of what I've done in my life... I'm not a person who reneges on anything I do... Obviously within the fiduciary duty of the WICB, they needed to make sure that I had the means to do this and they've done enough due diligence on me to know there's enough to run the league for the next number of years... to make sure every single player is paid... The CPL are going to be the ones to make sure that every single player it hires or it retains is going to be paid, for which I am responsible."

The CPL deal with the West Indies board is for 20 years. That is a long time to place trust in a fledgling enterprise. But Hunte and his directors do not seem to feel there is too much risk involved. "I am sure that Verus would not want to do anything that is outside of the contractual arrangements that we have, and from time to time there will be issues which will come up which will require a certain measure of understanding between us despite what is in a contract, and it is that level of understanding that I hope [for]," Hunte said.

The WICB has declared that it has done its due diligence on Khan. But four years ago, that was also said about Stanford. Their interest in cricket as business aside, though, Khan appears a man of different stock to his predecessor. He at least has made an effort to be candid. "I can't mislead you and tell you [cricket] is my favourite sport," he said at his Barbados event at the Sandy Lane Country Club.

He did, though have early exposure to West Indies cricket. "What made it a major part of my life was when I was growing up in England... I remember watching the likes of Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding and Vivian Richards, and I never saw a team that would basically decimate every single team that came up [against it]. People were living in fear whenever they showed up to play. Then I moved to North America, and obviously you lose touch with the game living in North America, and then [I] got reintroduced to the game when I moved here in '97."

That decision to live in the region allowed Khan to see, as he puts it, "the other end of the spectrum within West Indian cricket, which was sadly the demise of it". He thinks his CPL is a way he can "give back to this place".

The WICB has declared that it has done its due diligence on Ajmal Khan. But four years ago, that was also said about Stanford. Their interest in cricket as business aside, though, Khan appears a man of different stock to his predecessor

He adds: "I do enjoy cricket, I love cricket, especially T20 cricket. It's very exciting. I used to watch the five-day Tests. I used to even go and do whatever I needed to do to go and watch the games at that time. And then with the entertainment factor and everything else coupled to it, I thought it quite exciting that this is something we could really add value to, based upon my relationships around the world, and our way of thinking."

But business, not philanthropy is what the CPL is about. The Stanford 20/20 series, supported entirely by Stanford's millions, was not a money-making enterprise. Neither has been the West Indies board's subsequent competition. Khan is thus entering uncharted waters in trying to make the CPL a profitable business and a product to rival the T20 leagues of India and Australia.

The small economies and populations of the Caribbean will not by themselves make this possible. It is why Khan and his colleagues are counting on attracting interest well beyond the region.

"The only way that I have an interest in doing anything is if I know that I can sustain it," he says. "The reality is that we have less than eight million people that live in the Caribbean. If you are in India, we would have 1.3 billion people to go and attract. The only way that this is going to be successful and be sustainable is if we can put together, basically, a global partnership, where the world will see this as a product not made for one market.

"The first key thing that we need to do is to bring the local, the regional and the international bodies and partners to be able to create the CPL into something where it becomes a global audience."

Khan is quick to declare he is not corporation sole. "This is not a one-man show. I don't believe in that, first of all. This is not about me, this is not about my ego, this is not about the money I have. This is about creating and building something in partnership with everyone to make this exciting."

How much regional institutions will buy into the concept remains to be seen. The July 29 start-up date for the league does not leave the organisers with a great deal of time to get the basics in place. At their February 12 event, many questions about the CPL's operations were left unanswered, including who the franchise owners would be.

Just which overseas stars decide to try the Caribbean adventure could also be critical in this first season, for at the end of it all, it is the cricket itself, not the razzmatazz that will make or break the CPL.

This is an enterprise on which Khan has staked his professional reputation. At this stage, he must get the benefit of the doubt. Certainly the WICB, with its not-so-great business record, cannot afford for him to fail.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express