How the Buds were bought

This article was written by SMISA committeee member Colin Orr and originally appeared in The Saint newspaper edition of December 2016

It’s watched by millions worldwide, their source of 24-hour updates from the multi-billion-pound world of Mourinho, Guardiola, Wenger and all.

And there, surrounded by the familiar blue and red of the Sky Sports News ticker, was us.

The first of three messages read: Former director Gordon Scott and independent supporters group finalise takeover at St Mirren

I hit pause on the remote and took a picture of the TV on my phone. And that was the point it hit home – not only had we just bought a football club, but the world had noticed.

For myself and a small group of others, it had taken a year to get the #BuyTheBuds campaign to that point, an incalculable number of hours spent in meetings, emails, and painstaking negotiations.

That included a two-month fundraising campaign that saw a trickle turn into a tsunami as nearly 1,400 of you played your part in helping create a landmark moment in the history of our club.

And here – in a level of detail never revealed before – is the inside story of how we did it.

Back in the beginning...

It all started back in May 2015 when then-chairman Stewart Gilmour – with the club facing a relegation from which it is yet to recover – contacted long-serving SMISA secretary John White to ask if we would consider making a bid for the majority shareholding in the club.

At that time, the trust had less than 200 members, most of whom were paying £2 a month, and the sum we had in the bank was a fraction of the club’s price tag.

Those of us on the committee didn’t dismiss the idea. But we didn’t see how we could pull it off on our own either.

Initially we saw our role as facilitating a group of St Mirren-minded businessmen to come together and provide the expertise and financial muscle needed.

At that point – whether by coincidence or not – we were contacted by Gordon Scott, who had twice tried and failed to buy St Mirren, but in spite of his success in business, had never lost his burning ambition to be chairman of his home-town club.

We met in the back room of Paisley’s Saporito coffee shop – and soon formed a plan that would ultimately consume a big chunk of our lives yet also change the path of the club we love.

Gordon’s negotiation style is up front. He was willing to commit a six-figure sum towards the buyout but couldn’t stretch to the whole purchase.

Instead, he wanted to partner up with us – we would part-fund the buyout then buy him out over the long-term and the fans would become majority owners.

But this could only work if St Mirren fans wanted it. So we did an online survey, where 92% told us they would make a financial contribution to a scheme which would see the fans own the club.

More than 1,000 had signed up to the 10,000 Hours bid a few years before – a flawed scheme but one which had laid the foundations for ours – and we knew the demand was there to be captured.

We tested the waters by going public on our intentions – to a good reaction from our fellow fans – but the hard work still lay ahead.

Tense negotiations

While it might have seemed from the outside like all went quiet after that, it was anything but behind the scenes.

Something we got right was the decision not to show our working in public – we needed a deal and fundraising model robust enough to withstand the inevitable intense public scrutiny, and weren’t going to expose it to that until it was ready.

Advice was sought from various people – Supporters Direct, the Foundation of Hearts, fundraising consultants, lawyers. We commissioned a report on the finances of the club written by the former finance director of West Ham.

Various fundraising models were investigated – community shares, up-front donations, crowdfunding and credit-union loans were all pursued.

But while we were better educated and making progress on that front, it would be in vain if we couldn’t agree the structure of the deal. And the first discussions didn’t go well.

The negotiation was happening on two fronts via three different parties with different concerns – Gordon, the selling consortium and ourselves.

Gordon had his personal fortune on the line and understandably needed to protect his own interests, while the consortium had sums of money in mind they weren’t leaving the building without.

At the same time, we were negotiating hard to get a deal which wasn’t just good for the fans but which we could gamble the trust’s future on them signing up to.

The legal agreements the consortium had with various other shareholders added another layer of complexity and progress was slow, frustratingly so for Gordon.

Every time the figures shifted, the financial planning underpinning it was knocked – literally – off balance.

As spreadsheets were edited and re-edited we thought the numbers might never add up. All parties refused to budge and we were ready to walk away more than once.

But deep down everybody involved knew there wasn’t a better option out there for St Mirren – and it was up to us to find a way through.

New year, new breakthrough

That arrived in the new year of 2016 and all of a sudden, the pace moved to a different level, of the Lewis-Morgan-accelerating-away-from-a-full-back variety.

Concessions had been made on all sides and we now had agreement, not only on a price with the consortium but on some of the sticky points regarding the set-up between ourselves and Gordon.

Out of those negotiations came a mutual respect and strong working relationship with our soon-to-be club chairman, and it felt like getting a new team member – his input was crucial as we finally settled on a fundraising model we knew could work.

With other bidders circling, the consortium were piling on the pressure to show we could deliver on our promises.

This was the point where the late nights kicked in and the pressure really told – we were trying to pull off a near-million-pound share purchase in our spare time, while holding down day jobs.

Personally, I was getting set for a wedding which I was told more than once might not happen if I didn’t stop spending all my time on SMISA (she did marry me in the end).

We remain grateful to David MacDonald of Black and White Army for revamping the trust website while the rest of us went into full-on logistics mode to plan the fundraising period.

The full detail of the deal went before members for the first time at a special general meeting on 30 March and they gave a unanimous thumbs-up to the plans.

#BuyTheBuds

The #BuyTheBuds campaign was launched with a mass leaflet handout at the traditional derby-day spanking of Morton on 16 April – timescales were being compressed but we knew it had to start while the season was still going.

We gave ourselves two months to sign up 1,000 fans at a minimum of £12 per month – the number we needed to make the deal not just viable but robust.

There was a communications and fundraising strategy in place to help us do that – including public meetings, social media activity, frenzied online debate, more leaflet handouts, and a series of media stories designed to keep us in the public eye.

The pattern of sign-ups went more or less as we expected – a spike at the start (we had 250 within three days) followed by a slowing-down, followed by a late rush.

With a week to go we were 150 short and well aware some doubted we would make it – but we were always confident the inherent human tendency to only do things when needed would carry us over the line.

And as people realised it was now or never the sign-ups took on a new momentum and we smashed the target with days to spare, with numbers climbing further in the days that followed.

The finishing line

But while there was euphoria at reaching the target, a lot of work remained and the deal was far from done.

On the basis of financial advice received, our plan was to borrow the £360,000 needed for our share of deal.

After starting the fundraising campaign it became clear that was not going to work within the timescales we had hoped for.

With time running out there was no option but to ask the consortium to accept staged payment rather than all their money up front, as they had been promised.

To their credit, they were willing to accept that but it meant we were soon back at the negotiating table as the final details of the share purchase agreement were pored over, revised and agreed.

Those on the outside wouldn’t have known it, but it could easily have fallen apart at that point.

SMISA’s soon-to-be-club director David Nicol was the man leading on the financial and legal elements from our side, and the last week saw him put in some long days in a final stand-off with the consortium, as three sets of lawyers had their say.

But 21 July 2016 was the landmark date in the history of St Mirren as – following a vote to approve the legal documentation by the 11-man SMISA board – the final documents were signed.

As the SMISA board member in charge of the group’s communications, that evening I literally ran home from our meeting at Saporito, where we by now practically had season tickets.

Once home I pushed the button on a pre-written statement letting everybody know that at last, the deal was done. You had #BoughtTheBuds.

The reaction and good wishes were overwhelming. That night, my phone buzzed incessantly with every retweet, comment and message on the SMISA social media accounts.

The Facebook post announcing the deal has now been seen by close to 100,000 people.

The hard graft was never going to stop there of course. We very quickly had to move from campaign mode into running-a-mass-member-organisation mode and the work involved in that is covered elsewhere in this publication.

But for those of us involved, finally pulling off a deal which means our club can forever stay in the hands of the people who care about it most – you – remains a moment of absolute triumph.

Personally, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. And I’ve got the pictures from Sky Sports News to prove it.