Abramovich allies set to continue running Chelsea after sale

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Two of Roman Abramovich’s longstanding associates are set to keep their jobs running Chelsea Football Club if the leading bidder, a consortium led by US financier Todd Boehly, prevails.

Chelsea’s chair Bruce Buck, 76, and director Marina Granovskaia, 47, have been offered the option to stay in place under Boehly’s ownership, three people with knowledge of the matter said, a move that would leave the power structures set up in recent years largely unchanged.

The offer has not been formally agreed and one or both of the pair could choose to walk away, the people said.

Buck and Granovskaia have longstanding ties to the oligarch, who put the club up for sale in the early days of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and has since been hit with sanctions by UK authorities over his ties to the Russian president.

Julian Knight, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, told the Financial Times: “Any continuity with the Abramovich regime at Chelsea is certainly an unsettling development.”

“There needs to be clarity surrounding the process to ensure that everything is being done to the letter,” the Conservative MP for Solihull added.

A US consortium led by Boehly, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, was last week selected as the preferred bidder in the race to buy the London club, despite an eleventh hour bid by petrochemicals billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. The deadline to sign a deal is Friday, said one person close to the process.

Raine, the investment bank in charge of selling Chelsea, had signalled to the frontrunners that Buck and Granovskaia were important figures in the club’s success, two of the people said.

Although the bank did not explicitly demand that the pair be kept in place and did not make it a condition of the sale, bidders took the view that their approaches would be strengthened in the seller’s eyes if they agreed to keep them in their jobs. 

Raine said employment agreements were not discussed before the winning offer was picked, and the bidders wanted to keep the pair to ensure continuity. Raine denied that it had signalled or told bidders that keeping Buck and Granovskaia would strengthen their bids.

Two of the other bidders, a group led by private equity tycoons Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and another by basketball moguls Stephen Pagliuca and Larry Tanenbaum, had also planned to keep Buck and Granovskaia in place, people with knowledge of their plans said. The two were told last week that their bids were runners-up. Both groups declined to comment.

The sale process has been complicated by a debt of £1.5bn owed to Abramovich by the club’s parent company. The oligarch said in March that he would waive the debt and donate proceeds of the sale to victims of the war in Ukraine.

But forgiving the debt would create a hefty tax bill for the club, one person close to the process said. It raises thorny questions about whether and how the money could effectively be repaid while making sure the proceeds were frozen and paid to charity rather than given to Abramovich.

Buck’s ties with Abramovich date back to the 1990s. He built up the European operations of US law firm Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which advised Russian oil company Sibneft when the oligarch controlled it. Buck advised Abramovich on buying Chelsea in 2003 and has chaired the club since 2004.

Roman Abramovich, left, celebrates after Chelsea beat Manchester City in the Uefa Champions League final in Porto in May 2021 © Michael Steele/EPA

Buck once rejected the label of “Abramovich’s right-hand man” and instead called himself “the little-toe-on-the-left-foot man”.

Granovskaia joined Sibneft in 1997. The Russian-Canadian moved to London after the oligarch acquired Chelsea and represented him on the club’s board.

She was installed as a director in 2013 and handles player transfers. According to Chelsea’s website, she has been a senior adviser to Abramovich for nearly two decades.

Joe Ravitch, co-founder of Raine, met Abramovich about a decade ago while on holiday in St Barts. Abramovich appointed Raine to value Chelsea in 2018 after receiving numerous expressions of interest but at the time decided not to sell the club.

The lion’s share of the financial firepower behind the Boehly bid comes from Clearlake Capital, a US private equity group, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. Santa Monica-based Clearlake, founded in 2006 by José Feliciano and Behdad Eghbali, has about $72bn under management according to its website.

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