In defending his enormous ambitions for Aston Villa, the English club he officially became the new owner of on Wednesday, a few short weeks after the team had been relegated from the Premier League in disastrous fashion, 39-year-old Chinese businessman Tony Xia said in an interview, “At least [until] now what I have planned [in my career] everything has been achieved. Nobody believed in the beginning but I made it happen no matter how many years it took.”
Some of that ambition and self-belief should make Villa fans excited about their club’s future after toiling for so long under the widely-deplored ownership tenure of American Randy Lerner. But some other aspects of Xia’s comments and his past should give supporters pause. Because Xia might be kind of shady and/or crazy.
Xia is the CEO of Recon Group, the China-based multinational holding company that actually owns Aston Villa. He became the head of that company in 2004, after striking it rich in the urban development industry. At least as originally laid out in a laudatory introductory statement posted on Villa’s website, Recon Group has a controlling stake in several other businesses alongside its “six core business sectors”:
IT Infrastructure and Services for Smart Cities, Health & Agriculture, New Energy & Smart Transportation, Engineering & Design, Recon Capital including financial services and Sports, Leisure & Tourism.
The introduction originally made reference to five companies Recon Group controlled that were publicly traded on the Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges. The Financial Times investigated these claims by looking up the subsidiary companies’ names on Recon’s website and checking the stock listing, and found that Recon actually owns only one of the named companies. A Recon spokesman confirmed this, chalking the error up to a “miscommunication” with Aston Villa. The page on Villa’s site has since been updated and no longer mentions the five companies Recon supposedly owned.
This is not the first apparent miscommunication on the part of Xia and people at the club he now owns. Club chairman Steve Hollis was quoted recently bolstering Xia’s resumé:
“Again, you need to ask him but he is responsible for the Bird’s Nest in Beijing and some of the other major iconic developments in China” Mr Hollis was quoted in an article in the Birmingham Mail.
The same Recon spokesman also clarified to the Financial Times that Xia did not in fact have anything to do with the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. You could possibly write this off as another small misunderstanding by a person who wasn’t too familiar with Xia, but Hollis went on in that same Birmingham Mail interview to describe his hands-on role in guiding Xia’s purchase of the club: “I was given the job of the heavy lifting. The big job was to find a new owner. What you’ve seen is the culmination of my work.” A curious thing to get mixed up by someone so intimately involved in Xia’s bid.
What is definitely true is that Recon Group has a controlling interest in Lotus Health, which, going back to Aston Villa’s introduction, is “the largest glutamic company in China and the second largest in the world with 12,000 employees, 10,000 distributors in China and 40,000 worldwide in 70 countries.” Lotus sells tons and tons of the food additive MSG—150,000 metric tons, in fact, of the stuff in the last year. All of that umami goodness earned them a $77.7 million net loss on the year. Hopefully that £60 million check to Lerner clears.
Regardless of what businesses Recon Group does or does not actually own, and which iconic projects Xia did or did not help construct, Villa fans are probably more concerned about the state of their club. On that front, Xia has a lot to say.
His first goal is of course to get Aston Villa back into the Premier League as soon as possible. To that end, he plans on spending between £20-50 million on “six or seven” new players. After that, he sees no end to Villa’s ascent. From the Guardian:
“My ambition is to bring Villa to the top six in less than five years and I hope it can be [one of] the top three in the world – even the best well known in the world – in less than 10 years,” Xia said in one of his first interviews since the deal became public.
Reaching for the stars is generally a good thing, since, as Kanye taught us, even if you fail, you might land on a cloud. To get there, though, he’ll need to spend more than £50 million on transfers and player salaries and coaches and everything else. By that point, hopefully Lotus Health is doing a little better at slanging MSG so that he can afford to.
To that end, Xia has proposed a potential solution to more than one of his problems. Presumably as part of a sponsorship agreement, Xia would like to rename the club’s stadium to include his food company:
“Villa Park is a very historical stadium, so we will not simply and callously destroy a club’s history. We want to use Villa’s history and its substantial fan base around the world to also promote Lotus Health products and services globally. The ideal scenario would be for fans to enjoy Lotus Health products at Lotus Villa Park, it would be a great advert for both brands.”
This couldn’t possibly go wrong.