Interview with ADO CEO Maarten Fontein

Recently I got the opportunity to do an interview with Maarten Fontein, the CEO of ADO Den Haag. I wanted to know a bit more about the man behind the successful takeover of ADO Den Haag and his thoughts on the clubs future.

“I came to ADO six months ago, I did not know about how the inside of the club was being run; but as I am originally from Den Haag  I already knew the way of the people I would be dealing with. My main task was to oversee the transition between the old and new shareholders. I wanted to get stability back into the club, there had been no CEO here for a long period until I came in.

When I started, the transition process was just beginning and everybody was hoping it would go through quickly. I had to tell them that from my experience in China that the acquisition would take at least a year for the deal to be finalised. This is indeed what happened as it started in March last year and was concluded just in time for the 110th anniversary of the club at the end of January.”

Maarten Fontein had been working in China and all over Asia, which certainly gives him the knowledge and experience to push ADO forward into new markets. He worked for Unilever for thirty years and his last function there was as head of the Asian, Australian and Africa markets. So why the move from Unilever into the world of football?

“I moved into football due to personal reasons. I had a fantastic job in Asia, but was basically working from home in the Netherlands, so I was travelling three weeks out of four. We had four children, and two more that are adopted Chinese and we wanted to give them a Dutch education, all our other children had been given an international education because we were living abroad for seventeen years. So I wanted to base myself in Holland, but Unilever wanted me to remain in Asia. I had lived in China for five years and then decided it was the right time for me to retire, I was 53 then.

When I was back in Holland I was then approached by Ajax of Amsterdam to become their CEO. I was there for almost three years before moving onto AZ Alkmaar. I had also been working for FIFA and UEFA, I was a board member of the European Club Association and that absorbed most of my time. I did that for eight years and retired from that last September.

Then I was approached by the Chinese group wanting to take over at ADO Den Haag due to my experience working in Asia. At my time at Ajax I prepared a plan for Aegon to become a sponsor and made plans for creating value for them in Asia and those plans were never implemented. Mr Wang of United Vansen then got in contact with me and asked me to become CEO of ADO, and as I come from The Hague, I thought it would be a nice challenge.”

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So now ADO Den Haag had a new man in charge, what were his feelings about the club and what did he see as its future?

“When I arrived at the ADO I immediately had a good feeling about the club. hen working abroad it is easy to see the difference in working cultures, but even here in Holland it was easy to see the different ways of working between Amsterdam, Alkmaar and here in The Hague. So here it is very similar to my local amateur club HVV. So for me it went very smoothly. I soon got a good relationship with the fans and with people inside the organisation. I found myself enjoy it very much.

The whole process of the transfer of shares took a long time, actually too much time. Even when I was in China a month ago I had to wait until the final day of my stay. I had to get the bank invoice signed by all the relevant people. It was good that my son who lives in China and reads Chinese was around, as he called me to say Dad, you still have someone missing and that was one week before the 110 year anniversary celebrations and it was important for me to have the deal closed by then. So that was exciting and now we had to start to think about the future. I want to keep the ADO culture, that is very important. The new people coming in must understand that, also that you can not run a Dutch club in a Chinese way.”

So now to My Wang, the new owner, does he have any experience in football at all?

“Mr Wang has experience in brokering matches. So he has arranged that the Italian super cup will be played in Beijing and has signed a contract with the Spanish football association for the coming ten years an exclusive right to host some Spanish games, so five times in the next seven years the Spanish super cup will also be held in Beijing.

His company was also involved in the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They are involved in sports marketing, but he originally started with a law firm. What you also see now is many rich Chinese buying clubs all around Europe and Mr Wang wanted a club in Holland as they are famous for their youth academies and development of youth talent and he wants the youth academy of ADO to also develop talent back home in China. They have entered into an agreement with one of the most prestigious schools in Beijing, one where the current Chinese president was educated. That is a school with over 100 players, which is a large amount for China as there is no football infrastructure there. So we want to help start that infrastructure.

Professional football started in 1995 in China. In those twenty years it has gone through many changes of redeveloping, trying to get things right, but they did not succeed. Like many countries who want to build their own league, many players are not home grown, the majority tend to come from abroad, players ending their careers which there is no local talent coming through. This means there is no interest from the local population to visit games. They get to watch the best football on libe television from England, Spain, Italy and Germany etc. So the stadiums are empty. Even the bigger clubs with large stadiums can attract crowds numbering around 2,000.

Mr Wang knows all this, so he wants to use ADO in a way that will be good for the club and be good for football in China. People also want to see Chinese children come here, to see them develop, but this too has issues. I was working on this when at FIFA/UEFA a resoltion that forbids the transfer of children below the age of 18 was decided on. So also must be careful due to criminal elements to do with child abuse and the trade in children. So bringing children here is not a solution, yes they can visit for a few months on a visa, but then must return home. So the development of football in China has to be done in China, using proper coaching skills and philosophies.

The fact that now there will be some of the biggest teams in the world playing in China for their cup competitions, means the public will want to see the world’s biggest stars in their own cities. Not only would this attract more people to the game, but will also allow the money made from these games to go into the Chine youth academies. Hopefully within five years we will see many more Chinese players playing in their own league, as at pesent I would estimate that around 80% of players are foreign.

At this time there are no plans for ADO to join up in a partnership with any particular club. Along with the university, Mr Wang also owns a club in the Chinese second division. Which they want to develop along the school. Which means we can develop in both directions.”

So that is about ADO Den Haag in China, what are the future plans for ADO here in The Hague?

“With Chinese owners we of course want to involve the large Chinese community here in Den Haag. We need to engage with them and we have ideas, we are thinking of maybe having a Chinese lounge here in the stadium, also maybe something in China town itself, so we can connect more easily.

As for the large expat community in The Hague, well we want to to start an International department at the Aftrap, in Zuiderpark. There we hope to maybe get some Chinese kids over here, then look at the possibilities of getting some expats involved there too, so they feel part of our club and who knows, discover some more expat talent. We already have two expats at the academy whose parents work in The Hague.

We also need to get the expats into the stadium, to watch games. An idea we have is to hold a tournament in the stadium for the big companies in the region. It would be nice also to make a team from the expat community. Once inside and see the beautiful stadium and they like what they see, they will of course come back. We know they are out there, we just need to try to get them in quicker.”

So all is looking good for ADO. The signals coming from within the club are great, a growth in the future of the club in the long term, not just the short term is what we all want to hear.

A huge thank you to Maarten Fontein for fitting me in to his busy schedule.

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