April 6, 2021
Steve Davison dedicated his life and career to huge sustainable building projects across the globe, working his way up from newly-qualified engineer in the 1960s to number two of the UK’s largest engineering consultancy in the 21st century.
Now he is the man building bridges for Sunderland Football Club on behalf of new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus.
The proposed new links from the city centre across the River Wear to a weary- looking Stadium of Light could not have come at a better time.
Years of uncertainty and misdirection in the boardroom not only saw Sunderland achieve their lowest ever league position, but staff numbers, morale, attendances, revenue and interest have also been in rapid decline. Once close relationships between the football club, the city and supporters have been shattered.
But the club have their new super-rich engaged owner and they look like the perfect fit.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus wants to take Sunderland back to the Premier League. And he is determined to take the whole city with him.
“Re-engagement with the city is massively important,” says Steve, the club’s newly-appointed chief operating officer and the man who played a significant role in the Swiss billionaire’s successful takeover earlier this year.
“It is absolutely fundamental to what we are going to do.
“I have described my job as being paid by the football club, but I am working for the whole city.
“The two are absolutely synonymous; without the community and local businesses, we will struggle to exist.
“The football club and the city and wider community are integrally linked because when the city does well, the likelihood is the club is going to do well, and vice versa.
“The whole community has an interest in the club. You can’t not have an interest if you live in the city, so it is really important we represent that community effectively and they are absolutely proud of what we are doing.
“We might not win every game, but it is important to me that they feel pride in what we do.
Steve continues: “Part of what is so great about this football club is that link to the city and if you look back in our history it has been really close to the community all the way through, even if we have had a few periods when perhaps it wasn’t quite as close as it should have been – although I think funnily enough, they probably coincided with times when we had less success.
“I do feel building those close links is really important.
“We have to build bridges. We’ve already tried some very small things so far, but you can expect to see us do more in that area and work with the businesses and the community going forward.
“It doesn’t do anybody any favours if we are not equally strong, and we have to work together as a partnership between the city, the club and also the SAFC Foundation, which does fantastic work.
“There’s been a breakdown in the relationships across all of those areas and a period when they were not as strong as they could be. We are very aware of it.
“As a fan that is a process, I have been through myself.
“They might well have been unhappy and upset at things that have gone on in the past, but I think most people are prepared to put that behind them and see this as a new era and they can see we are at least trying to do the right things.
“I have to say that my early engagement with the various parties has been very positive and I think everybody has looked at this as an opportunity for a fresh start.”
The decline of the 142-year-old football club has been dramatic but it has also been long, slow and painful, and most of the fans’ despair and boardroom delusion was captured in two compelling Netflix documentary series before the cameras were eventually turned off.
The implosion and exodus of staff at the core of the everyday business was inevitable after the unstoppable fall from the Premier League to League One.
It also came as owner/benefactor Ellis Short lost interest, and too much money, and in 2018 sold the club to Stewart Donald; a flamboyant choice whose entire quick-fix, quick-sale plan backfired on yet another miserable afternoon at Wembley Stadium to signal the end of manager Jack Ross’ first and last season.
Floundering in the division under Ross’ successor Phil Parkinson, the pandemic and panic hit last year, and, with no crowds or match day revenue, the club issued a fire sale of some of the most talented youngsters to emerge from its Academy of Light for years.
“Heart-breaking,” says Steve of talent like Durham-born Joe Hugill, 17, now on the verge of Manchester United’s first team.
“That won’t be allowed to happen again.
“Our aim is to give the opportunity for young players, particularly in the region, to come and play and develop as footballers at the football club.
“That is clearly part of what we’re doing, which is why we brought in Kristjaan Speakman from Birmingham City as the sporting director.
“We may end up selling some of course and they won’t all be right for Sunderland but giving them football career opportunities is a really important part of our plan,” continues Steve, who, as a youngster, was given the opportunity to sit next to hero Jim Montgomery in the stands at Luton Town.
“I loved the players in the 1980s because we had players who were born in Sunderland playing for Sunderland who had come through the youth ranks.
“We would like to see lots of Sunderland-born Gary Rowells quite frankly – that is definitely what we are aiming for.”
Steve was coming to the end of his 12-month notice at engineering consultancy Atkins when he was invited into the Sunderland boardroom.
He stunned work colleagues in 2019 when he announced his departure from the company, he had served for 35 years, having travelled the world from the London headquarters or the Cheshire home and wife Janet, to establish Atkins as world leaders.
But unhappy with its acquisition by SNC-Lavalin, he quit in November 2019 with no clear plan – and no idea his dream job was around a very long corner.
“It was quite upsetting actually,” he says.
“But I didn’t agree with the values of the new French/Canadian company.
“Thirty-five years is obviously a long time to spend in one business and it was an incredibly difficult decision. I don’t think people really expected me to leave, so I did find it quite hard.
“And I didn’t leave with anything else in mind. I had to do something completely different because I didn’t see any point in leaving one engineering consultancy to join another one.
“So I started to think about what I was going to do, and the opportunity came up to join Sunderland.
“Obviously I grasped it with both hands. I have gone from my dream job and walked into my dream job.”
The principles that forced him to quit Atkins also led him to temporarily abandon Sunderland and games at the stadium, which is now his office, in the wake of the Adam Johnson scandal a few years ago.
They are the same values which will be at the heart of Sunderland Football Club now as it aims to re-establish its reputation in the region, and in the English game, which will welcome a fully functioning club with open arms – with the possible exception of fans from Newcastle United, of course.
He says: “I didn’t like the club’s handling of the whole thing. I thought it was inappropriate, so I didn’t come for a couple of seasons.
“When Ellis Short sold the club, I started coming again. You have to draw the line somewhere and as it happened Charlie Methven, a club director, was working for Atkins. I got to know him, and he invited me to the Stadium of Light.
“I actually quite enjoyed the first season in League One, although it ended so badly.
“There were reasons to be a little bit more optimistic for
a period and the messages at the start seemed to align with messages I was more comfortable with, such as trying to build links with the community.
“We all know how it ended but they started with the right intent.
“I didn’t really know them at that point, but I thought ‘you’ve got to give them a chance and try to make it work so let’s get behind it’.
“I felt there was a turning point, but it was yet another false dawn.”
But all that is set to change under Louis-Dreyfus, England’s youngest football chairman, who has already moved to Wearside with his fiancee from their home in Switzerland so he can work closely on his dream project.
The Swiss has football and business pedigree, studying economics before spending time overseas on a sports management course, and as the son of the late Marseille owner Robert, took an active interest in the club’s business dealings.
His father was an astute businessman and chief executive and rescuer of Adidas and Saatchi & Saatchi, and mother Margarita, a Russian-born Swiss billionaire businesswoman, is now chairperson of the Louis Dreyfus group, an agricultural commodities giant.
Kyril is the heir to the group with twin brother Eric, and they have a trust fund believed to be worth £2 billion.
Steve’s profile will have to change too.
He has rarely had his picture taken in business, and never needed publicity.
At 60, the North East Times Magazine photo shoot was his first. And he knows it won’t be the last.
He adds: “You can imagine there have been a lot of opportunities for Kyril to buy football clubs.
“I told him Sunderland is the perfect club to buy, although I would say that of course.
“When people buy football clubs, they usually inherit a poor infrastructure and have difficult decisions to make about whether to concentrate on the playing side or the infrastructure.
“Here, we have the physical infrastructure although it does need some modernising.
“The club has been up for sale for seven years and there has probably not been the most investment.
“The two biggest surprises about the business were, one, it is actually quite small in revenue terms, compared to what I’m used to.
“It is much smaller in League One than it would be in the Premier League, of course.
“And two, it is a very different type of environment. I have gone from a business with 22,000 employees across 32 different countries to one which has 100-plus, many of whom are still on furlough, working in two locations, two-and-a-half miles apart in one city.
“And it is so diverse too.
“There are lots of different strains on the business side of a football club, with hospitality, retail, match day, streaming.
It goes on and on and on and is a much more diverse business than I was used to.
“Of course, the level of interest in what you do on a day-to- day, hour-by-hour basis is massively different to working for an engineering consultancy.
“Not only do you get scrutiny, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday, but scrutiny from almost everything that you say on the website or that gets tweeted.
“You have to be really mindful of that and make sure it is still consistent with what you stand for as an organisation.
“When working for an engineering consultancy, the big challenge is just avoiding a bridge falling down because in that case you have massive, unwanted media coverage.
“Some of the biggest companies you’ve never heard of avoid that kind of publicity.”