In an exclusive interview with Football Italia, Como CEO Michael Gandler explains why running the Serie C side is not dissimilar to his previous work. ‘At Inter, we were able to take virtually every area of the business and increase it from 50 to 100 per cent.’

Words: Alasdair Mackenzie

In an exclusive interview with Football Italia, Como CEO Michael Gandler explains why running the Serie C side is not dissimilar to his previous work. ‘At Inter, we were able to take virtually every area of the business and increase it from 50 to 100 per cent.’

Words: Alasdair Mackenzie

It wasn’t the way Como CEO Gandler would’ve hoped to celebrate an important milestone. On April 4, SENT Entertainment marked their first anniversary as owners of the Serie C club, ending an eventful year that included promotion on the pitch and tangible progress off it, but the COVID-19 crisis ensured there was no time for popping champagne corks.

Based in Italy’s worst-hit region of Lombardy, Como have suffered more than most after tragically losing a member of staff, youth team secretary Giorgio Bressani, to the disease.

One thing the lakeside club can be thankful for, however, is that they don’t share the financial concerns of many third division sides. Gandler described SENT’s owners, the Hartono family from Indonesia, as “one of the richest families in the world”.

The Hartonos have moved into media in recent years, acquiring Premier League and Bundesliga rights for Indonesia, while a film is currently being made centred on Gandler’s work at Como: “It’s a much more holistic look at the turnaround of a football club that has historically been important,” he explained.

Gandler previously explained SENT’s novel plans for Como to become a “digital Ajax” in an interview with Football Italia shortly after the takeover.

Just over a year later, he spoke with Football Italia again to outline some of the challenges he has encountered, and the progress being made towards the long-term goal of making Como a Serie A club once again.

“There were tons of issues,” he said. “There were financial issues which, one year later, we continue to uncover. A lot of unpaid debts, a lot of agreements which were never contractualised, players not being paid, all sorts of things that are just coming out of the woodwork. That was a mess, that was the first thing we needed to clean up.”

What followed was a concerted effort to improve the club’s off-field situation, with sustainability the key objective. “We launched the women’s team and re-launched the youth sector, which had been outsourced due to a lack of funds. We’re now working on a long-term agreement for the stadium, which previously had a rolling two-year agreement. We locked down multi-year agreements on training facilities that we’ve upgraded.

“We’ve launched the OTT channel, we’ve essentially doubled our staff from a very small amount of people to a relatively small amount of people, we’re now redoing our website.  If I told you we didn’t have insurance and now we have insurance, I would say that’s also a pretty decent upgrade!”

On the face of it, the move to Como last year looked like a bold one from Gandler. The American served as Chief Revenue Officer at Inter from July 2015 to December 2018, but he insists that the challenges he faced at San Siro were not unlike those he is now wrestling with 29 miles further north, albeit on a different scale.

“(At Inter) we were able to double our ticketing revenue from €15m to more than €35m a year excluding the Champions League,” he said.

“Our sponsorship went from less than €10m to about €18m per year. We were able to take virtually every area of the business and increase it from 50 to 100 per cent. That was really the exciting bit for me about the project.

“Once that was done, the Hartono family came to me and said: ‘We’re looking to do the same thing on a much longer-term basis, and we have a vision that’s about not counting nickels and dimes.’ The idea of taking what was at the time a fourth division club to the first division and building a stadium, training centre, OTT platform and youth sector, the idea of building something meaningful with the family and ownership group like the Hartonos, was just too attractive to pass up,” he added.

Make no mistake; a return to Serie A, a division Como haven’t graced for 17 years, is the objective for SENT.

Earning immediate promotion to Serie C was a promising start, but any chance of back-to-back successes was effectively ended when league presidents agreed that the season should be terminated early in a meeting last week.

When football was suspended, Como were 12th in Group A, four points outside the play-off spots and five clear of a relegation play-out.

“Our stretch target was a play-off berth and we were a handful of points away,” he said.

“We had a completely new team, so the longer the season went on, in principle the better we were meant to do. We were about in line with our first-year expectations. As a newly promoted club, finishing mid-table and never really risking relegation is not necessarily a bad thing.

“Serie A is definitely the goal. However, it’s not an ownership group that’s just going to throw money at the problem. The business philosophy is that we don’t buy value, we create value. Spending a bunch of money on players isn’t creating value.

“That’s why when you look at our initial investments, they’re focused on things like facilities, infrastructure and staff. We’re probably the only club that spends less than 50% of our budget on players. Most of them are probably 80-90%.”

Como’s fellow Lombards Atalanta spring to mind as an Italian club that has thrived from a similar philosophy, building a side capable of reaching the Champions League knockout stages despite having the 13th-highest budget in the league.

But Gandler believes the lakeside club deserve their share of the credit in Atalanta’s success story, as La Dea’s capture of famed youth scout Mino Favini from Como in the early 1990s kick-started their youth revolution.

“It’s funny because people say: ‘do we want to take Atalanta’s model’ – I would say that Atalanta took Como’s model first,” he said.

“Favini was with Como about 15 years, and he was the one who got us to the point where we were developing Gianluca Zambrotta, Pietro Vierchowod, all this top national team talent.  

“What he built stayed with Como for a while, because the youth sector takes a long time to grow, but also takes a long time to dissipate.

“He took his coaching, training and development philosophy to Atalanta and what you see now is the result of a youth sector developed by the guy who built Como.”

Could Como’s renewed focus on creating talent see the emergence of a new talent factory in Lombardy?

It would certainly be a fitting tribute to Favini – and likely set the club on course to meet their ambitious targets.

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