Eddie McGuire and lawyer-turned-corporate-heavyweight Jeffrey Browne have been great mates for 30 years. They’re both Collingwood nuts and Browne used to help manage McGuire, negotiating some of his early media contracts. They are so close that Browne is godfather to one of Eddie’s sons.
So it is passing strange that Browne is suddenly running an intense media campaign to pressure Mark Korda to hand over the Collingwood presidency just weeks after Australia’s leading insolvency figure replaced McGuire in the top job.
From a governance point of view, Korda is not a long-term solution for Collingwood given that he has been on the board for 14 years, although McGuire did rule the roost for 23 years. However, Browne is certainly not a good short-term solution if the game plan is to close the book on the rollercoaster McGuire era.
Browne is the chair of ASX-listed financial house Moelis Australia, which held its wholly online AGM last Friday. I peppered Browne with more than 15 online questions (see transcript) and wasn’t too impressed with how the meeting played out.
I don’t like the Browne solution because he is too close to McGuire and also has too big a connection to the pokies industry.
Under McGuire, Collingwood did well to fully exit the pokies industry in 2018 but Moelis Australia is the manager of Redcape Hotels Group, the second-biggest-listed hotel pokies operator after Woolworths/Endeavour Group.
The Age’s chief football writer Jake Niall has produced an interesting series of articles about the so-called corporate takeover of football clubs. He’s right that AFL boards are full of the usual lawyers and accountants, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides, it’s better than having the AFL “boys’ club” in charge.
Being an AFL president is more like being a politician because you need to be right across the ceremonial elements, able to perform for the media, mingle with the players in the change rooms without being a “liniment sniffer”, and have the common touch with ordinary fans. The scrutiny is significant, not to mention the time commitment.
The images of fans gathering hundreds of signatures outside a Collingwood game at the MCG to call an EGM to overthrow the board just added to the pressure on Korda, although it is not clear the coup plotters actually have an alternative slate of directors ready to take over.
As the unified seven-person board declared in its letter to members on Wednesday, Browne should come clean on this aspect of his campaign, along with any plan he has developed.
It is not certain will see an actual EGM because the incumbents are unified and determined not to yield. Indeed, deputy president Jodie Sizer, the first-ever Indigenous director at Collingwood, hit the nail on the head yesterday when she told Gerard Whateley on radio station SEN that the campaign smacked of a “boys’ club” coup and declared she would not serve under Browne as president.
Given that Collingwood has signed up for the 40-40-20 board diversity pledge and none of the incumbent’s directors are expected to agree to work with Browne, the long-time AFL legal adviser will need to persuade three credible women to publicly associate themselves with his campaign.
If Browne refuses to fold his tent, the next few months will be an excellent education for many commentators, partisans and football fans about democracy, constitutions and governance issues at not-for-profits.
For instance, Collingwood gloats that it has 76,931 members, but why do only about 13,500 have voting rights? Similarly, it is important to note that the latest version of the Collingwood constitution, after some changes from this Maurice Blackburn version in 2016, only allows for a maximum of seven directors, which matches the current board.
And given that only three of those seven — Bridie O’Donnell, former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, and Peter Murphy — are up for election at the February 2022 AGM, Browne would be a vote short of the presidency even if he ran three successful candidates and booted out two well-credentialed female directors along the way.
This is why he needs to go down the EGM route, presumably with removal resolutions against at least four of the directors, so that his slate of four would give him a majority on the board.
It would make a lot more sense for Browne to patiently wait for the AGM, put himself up as a solo candidate and then work with the incumbents and win their trust to secure a peaceful handover from Korda in a year or three.
Alas, Browne seems to carry on just like McGuire, demanding the presidency or nothing and behaving in an aggressive, power-hungry and entitled manner. Korda deserves credit for declaring his intention to be a small-p president, one who won’t try to hog all the headlines and ban any other director from speaking in the media.
After 23 years, the McGuire era is over at Collingwood — and anyone who wants it to stay that way should strongly resist the blustering Browne hostile takeover.