The House That Jack Built

Camille Moreno
Date Published: 
Trinidad Guardian

From 'Villian' To Godfather, FIFA Vice-President, Austin Jack Warner Turns Misfortune Into Dollars

In the international football community, Austin "Jack" Warner is well known as a shrewd and tough administrator.

But for many others, particularly the players of the popular sport, Warner is a godfather who steps in and helps them out in their hour of need.

Such was the case last Friday when a footballer, fearful of losing his car which had been repossessed by a bank, caught up with Warner at the local Concacaf offices in Port of Spain.

It was by chance that the ever-busy football federation president turned up for work that day. He had returned two nights earlier from Germany for a brief stopover before heading out on Monday to Brazil where the Fifa World Club Championships are being played Monday.

Preoccupied with last Saturday's friendly match between the senior national squad and Canada, as well as the launching of Carnival 2000 celebrations in his Arouca hometown the next day, Warner seemed a bit perplexed by the distressed young man's arrival at this offices.

Rather than wave him off with the excuse of a tight schedule, the 56 year-old Fifa vice-president ushered the contrite lad into his office and immediately got on the phone with the bankers.

"What would you have done if I weren't here?" chided Warner, sounding like a schoolteacher once again.

"Sorry sir, sorry sir!" replied the player, as if he were indeed a pupil in one of Warner's former classes.

And as quickly as he came in the grateful footballer was soon on his way out to the bank, hopefully to retrieve his car, after Warner arranged to a guarantee for his outstanding payments.

The gesture is an act, which the retired teacher of Polytechnic Institute, also known as Sixth Form Government Secondary, would perform for anyone once he had "the means to help".

That's why when Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam was desperately seeking a sponsor for the trip to the international pageant in Hawaii, Warner quietly bought her a first class ticket.

Fitzwilliam, however, spilled the beans about his generosity.

"I have personally given away as much as $25,000 in a month once. But I don't run here and there to pose for pictures of me making a donation. It makes what I do seem less genuine," Warner admits cautiously.

That he is always wiling to lend a helping hand to youths stems from Warner's own struggles growing up in Rio Claro and Longdenville, Chaguanas.

Indeed, his own ascendancy to the millionaires club was not an easy climb for the Fifa executive who once cut cane in Central Trinidad to help out at home.

"We were poor, very poor. I used to cut cane, look after pigs, and walk six miles to and from school. Those were tough times," recalls the Presentation College, Chaguanas graduate.

The worn-out garb he wore in the fields is a far cry from the tailored three-piece suits Warner sports today.

Placing his personal worth in the $50 million range, the father of two is not shy about the "ultra-fantastic" paychecks he receives as Fifa vice-president, a position he assumed in 1997.

It, too, is a long way from his earnings as a teacher and general secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA).

Ever ready to dip into his own pocket for the sake of football, Warner once mortgaged his Arouca home for $30,000 to bail out the former cash-strapped TTFA.

With such financial woes a thing of the past, Warner's current assets include the football club, Joe Public, the Scarlet Ibis hotel, real estate in Port of Spain, Westmoorings, St Augustine, Arouca and Salybia. Also among his investments are a battery company in Costa Rica and "a few businesses" in the United States (US).

"I began buying properties across Trinidad from the salary and allowances I received from FIFA. This made it easy for me to invest. I have had one or two good fortunes."

Apart from a solid-gold letter opener, a gift from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Warner's most-prized fortune is Joe Public of which his wife Maureen and sons Daryan and Daryll are directors.

Ameer Edoo, executive chairman of WISE, the brokerage firm, and businessmen Peter Stone, Anand Persad and Curtis Forde round off the football club's board.

As owner of the only non-corporate sponsored team in the Professional Football League, Warner provides handsomely for his players, whose salaries range from $1,800 to $8,000 complete with insurance coverage and bonus benefits.

On the real estate front, the one-time president of the Caribbean Football Union (a position which gave him an automatic seat on the Fifa council prior to his vice-presidency) is currently remodeling the Scarlet Ibis hotel in St Augustine, which he bought in 1998 for $6 million.

Although he previously planned to use the 52-room structure to accommodate visiting football teams - a vision he also had for the controversial John John Towers for which he once made a $6 million bid - Warner has since decided to turn the hotel into an apartment block.

A multi-storey plaza is also being built next door on the hotel's car park, which the entrepreneur hopes to name "Shoppes of St Augustine".

In his adopted hometown of Arouca, Warner also owns and runs a small shopping mall, Kantac Plaza, and recently bought additional lands, which will be turned into a "Carnival City" for the eastern community's 2000 celebrations.

Warner's astute investments did not stop there.

Among the newest additions to Warner's real estate portfolio is a property in uptown Port of Spain, situated next door to his building on Edward Street, which he rents to Concacaf for its Trinidad offices. He plans to share the additional space with the TTFA.

The list goes on and on and includes a local warehouse that he bought to store the gifts he had received from 129 countries.

Given his affluence, it seems Warner always had a flair for business.

But after more than 20 years as a teacher (he retired from Polytechnic in 1993) and football administrator, Austin "Jack" Warner the businessman only came to the fore after the infamous Strike Squad November 19, 1989 loss in the World Cup qualifier against the US.

The defeat, which left Warner a broken man, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"When we lost I was vilified by the country. I cried like a baby during that experience. So that in April 1990 I thought I should leave the country because people outside were asking me to come and take over Concacaf. It was then that Jack Warner, the businessman, began to emerge."

Pushed by Chuck Blazer, a New York accountant and businessman, Warner went up for the Concacaf presidency.

The hard-worn battle against Mexican, Joachim Terrazas, who ruled Concacaf for close to 30 years, was only the beginning of what turned out to be a bigger financial conflict for Warner.

"When I got into Concacaf, I met an organisation in Guatemala City that had been there for over 30 years and which was virtually bankrupt with a table, eight chairs and US $40,000."

But with Blazer at his side as Concacaf general secretary, Warner turned the struggling organisation into a US $4 million enterprise in just two years.

He did so by moving the football confederation to the financial capital of the world - New York.

There, Warner and his Concacaf team, courted some of the top US corporations, among them international soft drink giant, Coca Cola, American Airlines and Budweiser.

"I was able to sit in the boardrooms of these guys and talk one and one with them and so I was able to get certain benefits from them for Concacaf."

Drawing on his own diplomatic skills, hones in the classroom and in countless football meetings, Warner charmed leading US businessmen, among them real estate magnate Donald Trump, who gave Concacaf a ten-year-lease on an entire floor at Trump Towers in Manhattan.

The first year was free and as an added bonus Trump gave the football organisation the right to sublet.

That Fifa had named the US as the host country for the 1994 World Cup turned out to be just the extra luck Warner needed.

Indeed from as early as the 1986 World Cup, the Rio Claro-born native knew that football would burgeon into a worldwide billion-dollar industry.

"Fifa was able to raise over US $200 million from the two World Cups, (1986 and 1990). I was then able to see that football and business are not enemies, that there is a kind of nexus between the two."

With that in mind, Warner capitalized on the 1994 World Cup fever in the US and struck up major sponsorship deals for Concacaf.

Today these include a multi-million dollar contract with US football marketers, Inter/Forever Sports which sponsors Concacaf tournaments - among them Copa Caribe - and the national football team.

The two partners have also hooked up to market the broadcast rights to the qualifying games for Concacaf countries leading up to World Cup 2002.

It is a deal like this, which helped to turn around the regional confederation's fortunes during the past ten years.

Today, Concacaf has over US $24 million in cash reserves, offices in Guatemala City, New York and Port of Spain and a staff of more than 40.

Indeed, Warner believes that eh local business fraternity continues to miss the boat when it comes to understanding the money-spinning potential of football. And more importantly, they miss out on the chance to give back to the national community.

In the former respect, most companies are far behind international corporations, particularly those in the United States (US), which traditionally has not been known as a football, in their case soccer, country.

And even today, race and class remain an obstacle to the sport's development locally, affirms Warner.

"Football is still seen as a sport for the black, the destitute, the lower class. It does not endear itself to the people who have money. But the guys who have money fail to understand that they will be insecure as can be, if they fail to give a little help to the black kid on the block."

Past governments also did not escape Warner's criticism for their lack of vision when it comes to the development of football and sport in general.

The day former PNM sports minister Marilyn Gordon gave him $10,000 at the then National Stadium on the last leg of a 16-team tournament, stands out in Warner's mind as one of the low points in the history of local sport administration.

In light of his vision for the sport, though, Warner is perhaps his own best example of how football can translate into big business for players, corporate sponsors and a country.