What to expect as Santini Group invests in Tranmere Rovers
In early August, Planet Prentonia reported on Simon Nainggolan, an Indonesian businessman who gained attention amid a string of social media posts from behind the scenes at Prenton Park.
Attending matches, strategizing with ownership and wearing Tranmere Rovers merchandise around the world, Nainggolan became something of a mystery, leading to our original reporting on his involvement with the club.
This morning, Rovers owners Mark and Nicola Palios shed light on the situation, announcing that Nainggolan acts as a conduit to Santini Group, an Indonesian enterprise with wide-ranging interest in automotive products, real estate development, financial services and natural resources.
According to an official statement from the Tranmere chairman, Santini Group has purchased a minority stake in the club via the issuing of new shares. This completes one of the Palioses core projects in regenerating commercial operations at Prenton Park, delivering the secondary investment that was always a key part of their business plan.
What is Santini Group?
Santini Group is an Indonesian-headquartered business formalised by Sofjan Wanandi, an influential dignitary, in 1994.
A proven entrepreneur, Sofjan’s business empire has its genesis in the 1970s. A key player in the manufacture of automotive parts, Sofjan grew his interests through different guises, adding various arms to what ultimately became Santini Group, a multi-national operation of considerable power across Asia.
Sofjan used his business success to leverage a successful career in politics. During the 1960s, a tumultuous period for Indonesia, Sofjan became a discerning voice in the anti-communist movement. Fighting to supress the ruling PKI, a large communist party, Sofjan Wanandi carved a sphere of opportunity after the subsequent transfer of power. As the Indonesian economy grew, Sofjan played an influential role in its definition, leading several large companies to great success.
Amid his rise to political and entrepreneurial renown, Sofjan Wanandi transferred the management of Santini Group to his three sons: Wandi, Lukito and Paulus Wanandi. They have led the company to further growth, inclusive of the newly announced stake in Tranmere Rovers.
How much money does Santini Group have?
In 2018, Sofjan Wanandi had an estimated net worth of $610 million (US) according to Globe Asia magazine. An earlier study by the same magazine estimated Santini's annual revenue at $515 million (US), although the credibility of those reports cannot be verified.
Various sources rank Wanandi among the top 100 richest Indonesians in the world, and Tranmere fans can rest assured that he has more money than we have ever encountered as a club.
To what extent Rovers benefit from those resources remains to be seen, but Wanandi certainly has a proven track record in developing businesses, and his group has a strong financial footing.
What does Indonesian investment mean for Tranmere Rovers?
The official press release welcoming Santini Group offered a few details as to the practical implications of the deal.
“The injection of capital into the club will enable us to move ahead with a number of projects which will enhance our community and commercial offerings,” wrote Palios, who explained how Santini’s involvement will allow the club to “reduce some of the debt incurred during our period in the non-league and allow for some increase in the playing budget.”
In particular, Palios mentioned two few key projects that Santini will support, namely the installation of a 3G pitch at the Campus training complex and the improvement of wi-fi functionality at Prenton Park.
“In short, it [the investment deal] gives us the confidence that we will be a stable and financially sound football club which is, year on year, growing its asset base and its financial resources whilst maintaining a competitive playing budget,” Palios concluded. Indeed, this has always been the plan.
When Mark and Nicola gained control in 2014, they shared a vision to make Tranmere Rovers a commercially viable business independent of results on the football pitch or upheaval in the boardroom. Implementing techniques from a successful career as a business turnaround specialist, Mark developed a sustainable model to make Tranmere survive and thrive through its own means, unhindered from reliance upon a solitary benefactor.
As a result of chronic inaction, Tranmere were so far behind the modern mean in all aspects of marketing, commercial operations and non-matchday income. After years of stagnation and commercial entropy under Peter Johnson, the first stage of regenerating Tranmere focused on damage limitation and salvaging hope from the wreckage of non-league turmoil. The Palioses found the black box from Rovers' implosion, analysed the data and plotted a course back to respectability.
After two consecutive promotions, the recruitment of quality staff, the revamping of facilities and the development of sound corporate acumen, Tranmere have just about worked their way back to normality in terms of contemporary football clubs. Even after winning at Wembley in successive years, we are nothing special in terms of the economic ecosystem of lower league football. Culturally, this is a towering club of remarkable heritage, but commercially, it is just about average.
So much hard work has gone in to our resurgence, but that fact illustrates just how bad things were and how far we had to progress just to compete against the standard Football League entity.
Any designs on further progress beyond League One required a leap of faith and fresh impetus at scale. To live sustainably in the Championship, that graveyard of fallen Premier League giants, Tranmere Rovers required secondary investment. That’s exactly what we all want to achieve, and that's what the Palioses have today secured.
Will Tranmere press ahead with plans for a new stadium now?
In an August interview with Business Live, Nicola Palios said that plans for a new stadium are ‘on the drawing board,’ driven by the ambition to generate more non-matchday revenue using a ‘modern, state-of-the-art facility’ that would ‘make Wirral a more attractive place to live and visit.’
Interestingly, Santini Group has active infrastructure and property management arms, while maximising natural resources for the benefit of clients is a core mission that drives the company. This would appear to mesh well with Tranmere’s apparent desire to find a new home, in line with the continued evolution of football’s commercialisation.
Of course, on Day One of the relationship, such ponderings may appear far-fetched or fanciful, but it is intriguing to explore the symbiosis between Rovers’ future plans and Santini’s proven expertise. There is tremendous potential there, but deciphering what becomes of it is beyond our kin at this point.
What do we know about Lukito Wanandi?
As part of the investment deal, Lukito Wanandi, president director of Santini Group, will take a seat on the Tranmere Rovers board. Mark and Nicola Palios will retain control of club operations, assisted by the senior management team, but Wanandi will have influence as the public face of Santini.
A graduate of Boston University in Massachusetts, Lukito Wanandi has a Master’s degree in Business Administration. He oversees many companies in the Santini Group portfolio, maintaining a hands-on approach to management.
Reading between the lines, we are unlikely to see much of Lukito around Birkenhead. The aforementioned Nainggolan, a major player in Indonesian commerce, seems to be the personable nexus between Tranmere and Santini. Indeed, Rovers’ official statement earmarks him as “the bridge between the club and the international business.”
Amid the fallout from executive-wrought hardships endured by Bury and Bolton, this is a sensitive time for football fans with regard to ownership, investment and autonomy of a club’s soul. The phrase “due diligence” has become coda for our desperate pleas for owners not to jump into bed with the first sugar daddy that comes along. In this regard, Tranmere have undertaken a lengthy courtship of possible investors, waiting to find what they believe is the correct partner.
“In seeking investment, it was critical to us that we found a partner who understood the ethos of Tranmere,” said Palios. “We were not looking for a partner who would simply inject large sums of money into the club’s playing budget and put the club at risk of disaster if they chose to walk away.
“This year, more than ever, the dangers of such an approach have become very apparent elsewhere. Instead, we were looking for a partner who could help us invest in income-producing assets to sustain the club for the long term, and that is what we believe we have now found.”
The future of Tranmere Rovers in Asia
The desire of football clubs to crack the Asian market, selling shirts to millions of passionate fans, has become so common as to border cliché. Once the preserve of megaclubs Manchester United and Real Madrid, expansion overseas is now a standard entry in the football business playbook.
Just as budget airlines have made international travel more accessible than ever before, improvements in the internet and television have opened the gateway for any football club to find fans around the world.
“Santini Group will also help the club in developing the international market, including Asia, to give an extra added value which coincides with the club’s positioning as More Than Just a Football Club,” said Palios.
Tranmere have slowly built an international footprint, launching an academy and participating in strategic partnerships internationally. Rovers have sent coaches to a wide range of locales, spreading the word and intelligently scattering the seeds of growth.
Partnering with Santini Group, a definitive force in the Asian market, will likely open new doors and generate new opportunities for the club. One only hopes that Tranmere pick the right initiatives to become involved in, remembering the purpose of our club as an extension of its community rather than as a plaything of its stakeholders.
Where do we go from here?
As fans, we are always guilty of looking too far ahead, rushing to construct a narrative that excites and inspires. Of course, only a few select people know what the investment of Santini Group actually means for the future of Tranmere Rovers. As fans, we aren’t privy to such information.
However, inumerable thoughts rush through your mind on a day like this. Pre-season tours. Commercial sponsorships. Transfer budgets en route to the Premier League. I know you have been pondering these things all day.
In reality, the extent to which Santini Group will wield any significant power at Prenton Park remains to be seen. We don’t know the extent of their investment, in terms of percentage nor of finance, and we don’t have much information about their motivation for expanding into football.
I wouldn’t bank on too many major changes, however, as the Palioses maintain such tight control of everything at Prenton Park.
This could well be a great move in Tranmere Rovers history but, as football fans, we judge actions rather than words, so let’s wait and see what the future holds for that ancient peninsula jewel.