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From Donetsk to the Dons

In-depth interview with new Chief Operating Officer

19 February 2018

By Chris Slavin

Joe Palmer has arrived back in Wimbledon aiming to repeat the main achievement of his time with Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk – to make the move to a new stadium successful.

For those supporters who may have missed it, we featured an extensive interview with Joe in the programme for Northampton and this is republished in full below.

Following his appointment as the club's Chief Operating Officer last month, Joe is relishing the responsibility of getting involved in taking the club back to its spiritual home. He used to live in Haydons Road, close to where our new stadium is going to be built.

"Erik Samuelson has done an incredible job in helping to get the club to where it is now," said Joe. "I'll be working alongside Erik to ensure that the new stadium meets the expectations we all have for it. Key to my role will be developing the strategic plan, the ultimate blueprint for where the club wants to be and how we'll reach our goals. If you look at the club's development in terms of stages, I like to think that I'm now focused on helping to successfully complete stage two and begin stage three. The first stage was to get back into the Football League, which has been achieved. The second stage is to move back to Wimbledon and build a new stadium, which is where we currently are. Stage three is taking the club to the next level and meeting its maximum potential on and off the pitch.

"The current stadium has its limitations, but I'll still be looking at how we can increase revenue here. Also, we want to get fans prepared for the stadium move. We'll be looking at how we want things to work when we get into the new stadium and what it's going to be like in the future. Where are we going to be in five years' time? We want to look to the Championship and have a successful stadium move with good attendances, but we want to engage with Merton in the community too. That is essential. We want to be successful, though we must maintain the culture and identity of AFC Wimbledon, and it has to be sustainable as a club owned by the fans. Finding that balance will be key.

"There have been a lot of key people who have been here since day one, when the club was re-formed. They've been a part of the club's growth, and it's been great listening to their insight from the very beginning. It's very important to take these people into consideration when you're making decisions about where the club is going to go. I'm looking forward to getting to know people a lot better and working with them to take the club forward."

Joe is proud to have played a big part in boosting revenue streams at Shakhtar Donetsk, helping to bring their operations off the field more in line with the success they achieved on the pitch.

"I met a Ukrainian guy who was studying at Birkbeck College, and he was looking to take some sports marketing expertise to the Ukraine, as there was nothing like that out there. I went out there to work with clubs and players, and I was introduced to the lawyer from Shakhtar Donetsk. He asked what I was doing out there and said that the club needed some strategic guidance on sports marketing. I met with the chief executive shortly after Shakhtar had won the UEFA Cup in 2009. They had built one of the best stadiums in Europe, but they had no idea how to optimise it and to take the club forward. My goal was to match the level of what the club was achieving on the pitch.

"I developed a strategy for them, a four-year plan. I presented it to the club's president, and he said it was exactly what he wanted. He asked if I would stay to implement it – and I couldn't say no. Shakhtar is a big club, with almost seven million domestic fans, but working in one of the poorest countries in Europe is very challenging. First, you have the internal challenge of trying to get 450 people with very little sports admin experience to operate at Champions League level. It was very challenging. For example, the club had invested heavily in CRM infrastructure, but had no-one to operate it – there simply weren't the people with any experience or understanding of CRM systems and marketing. I had to bring in intelligent people and train them myself – that it was part of my job. After a few years, banks and other large businesses were trying to poach our staff, which was very flattering.

"Second, you had the external challenges. You were trying to get fans living on an average salary of $400 per month to spend some of that money with you, but of course they needed to feed their families. This has a knock-on effect with everything, because it also means that your commercial potential is limited – low wages mean there is a poor advertising and sponsorship market. Given this difficult backdrop, we had great success, in particular increasing average attendances from 16,000 to 42,000, and doubling turnover to £32 million. All this is why I'm fazed by very few challenges these days!

"The club was in a great period of ascendancy, but then war broke out. Overnight, everything changed. I managed to escape two days before the airport was blown up. It's a very sad story, but a testament to the legacy that was created at Shakhtar; to be essentially a homeless club, because of the war, but to still be in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Joe is very ambitious about helping AFC Wimbledon to progress, and he believes the new stadium can be a launchpad for the club to establish itself in the Championship.

"It was a real blank canvas when I started at Shakhtar because they were moving to a new stadium. It was about how we could professionalise the club and take it forward. I think that's very similar to the situation here. The club has already made the big steps of identifying a new site and getting permission to build a new stadium. We have to be at the same level off the pitch as on it, if not better. We don't have the same resources as other clubs to professionalise operations overnight, but we will get there.

"There are no major barriers, it is just about processes, and putting a strategy for success in place that is transparent to everyone: to the club, to the Dons Trust Board, to Dons Trust members and to fans. I've settled in well and I'm in the process of putting a strategy in place. Everyone has to understand what we are trying to do and how we are going to achieve it. Everyone has to buy into it collectively. That is a key part of professionalisation and being comparable in that respect to other London clubs such as Fulham, QPR and Brentford, who have progressed massively in recent years. We want to be at the same level as them, if not higher.

"The identity of AFC Wimbledon is unique, with its rise through the leagues and the fact that it is owned by the fans. There are two aims here: retaining that identity and doing things to breed success. That does mean changes, but at the same time we don't want to change the very core of what this club is about. The beauty is in finding the middle ground where these two facets interlock, so that we can take the club forward in the best way."

With his local connections, Joe is fully aware of the AFC Wimbledon story, and after setting up his own business back in 2005 he almost got involved with the club back then.

"I was brought up just outside Cambridge, but have lived in the local area for 12 years now, as it's where my wife is from. The first place we lived together was Haydons Road, and my eldest son was born in St George's Hospital, so I've always been aware of the club and its story. When I set up a sports marketing consultancy based at London Bridge, I had conversations with Keith McGuinness, the former commercial executive. We had discussions with the club, but we never formalised anything concrete. I'd also met Ivor before, but neither of us can remember when! Having lived locally, I know a few people who used to play for Wimbledon and also some supporters, so I'm excited now to be part of a project that I can really touch and feel."

Joe's first involvement in football came when he was involved with marketing for MUTV, Manchester United's TV company.

"My background is in advertising and PR. MUTV were one of my first clients, and the sort of work we did gave me a real buzz. That was when I first thought that I wanted to get involved in football. It was very much about trying to push subscriptions for MUTV. For example, MUTV would do interviews with the likes of David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson, and we would be able to use the interview exclusively before it was broadcast. I would get in touch with one of the tabloids and play them the interview down the phone, which they could then use provided they included the subscription number at the end of the article.

"When I set up my sports marketing consultancy, we worked with the Football Foundation, the Ladies Euro Golf Tour and Portsmouth FC. They were good times, and I enjoyed having that involvement in the wider sports business. I also did a lot of work for UEFA, helping with their education programmes for football associations in places such as Georgia and Kazakhstan to help educate federation and league administrators on how to develop football. I was also asked by FIFA to work with the Pakistan Football Federation on a league development project, which was an interesting challenge." Joe's most recent role in football was at Sheffield Wednesday as chief operating officer, a position he took up in May 2016.

"Wednesday is a sleeping giant, and when the opportunity came up I wanted to get involved with a club that had massive potential. It was a great challenge at a great club. We pushed a lot of things through there, most of them based on the requirement to meet FFP challenges (Financial Fair Play). We looked at new ways of driving revenue for the club, which included creating an energy drink and a clothing brand for the shirts made for the club and leisure-wear items. We built a partnership with a local brewery to create a Wednesday Ale that is sold around the city, not just in the stadium.

"We brought catering in house, to improve the quality of catering and profits. We also made steps towards becoming a cashless stadium in order to improve service and increase revenue, which is now 80 per cent completed. There were a lot of positives from my time there, but ultimately with my family still based down here, the opportunity to come back home and to work on such an exciting challenge was too great to pass up, especially as it felt more aligned with my skillset and experience – it was exactly what I'd been looking for."

If Joe can help AFC Wimbledon to compete with old club Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, then it's fair to say that his appointment will have been a big success.

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