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Williams' most important year

NEWS STORY
17/02/2010

After back-to-back years of losses F1 analysts expected Williams to part with a stake in the team and that day came in November last year when it was announced that 38 year-old Austrian Christian 'Toto' Wolff would take a minority holding in it. It was another step in getting Williams on the right track but as Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt explains, it looks like it still has an uphill climb.

According to team principal Frank Williams the reason for selling was personal. "It's entirely for private motives," he said explaining that "it's time to take care of some other needs and pay a few bills - my mortgage, for example."

Williams added that "I have no intention of stopping my involvement in this company or of ceasing my Formula 1 activities... I cannot stress highly enough that Toto is a minority shareholder. The company is still under my control and I will not relinquish control of the business until I go completely."

Prior to the deal with Wolff the team was 70% owned by Frank with 30% in the hands of engineering chief Patrick Head. However, perhaps strangely, the precise details of Wolff's stake in the team have not been revealed. When Williams was asked whether he had sold more equity in the team than Head, he replied "the shareholding is of a certain ratio and the sale more or less follows that. I don't want to go into too many details because our new partner is a fairly conservative-minded businessman."

This seems strange because, unless the team's holding company moves offshore (which would in itself be an unusual move), the details of Wolff's share will be revealed when its next annual return is filed. Indeed, documents filed with the UK's Companies House have shed more light on the finances of Williams over the past few years than perhaps any other source.

Things began to look bleak in 2006 when the team recorded a whopping £27.7m loss after tax following a troublesome 12 months both on and off the track.

In a dramatic turnaround from 2005, when Williams made a £29.5m profit, turnover in 2006 was down by 30.6% to £58.1m. The team used its retained earnings from previous years to support its expenditure, with its cash in the bank dwindling from £20.8m to just £30,000.

Williams won 16 world championships in the 1980s and 1990s with drivers such as Nigel Mansell. However, the changing financial climate of F1 left what was once one of the best-sponsored teams struggling to match the pace of its rivals.

At the end of 2005, Williams lost both its engine supply deal with BMW and a major sponsorship from computer giant HP. With no replacements lined up, the team spent an estimated £10m buying in engines from Cosworth. It took desperate measures to get through this with Williams and Head taking an £800,000 pay cut.

Williams should have been able to follow it up with a banner year in 2007. True, the team lost Budweiser, Castrol and Mobilecast from its sponsorship roster but it gained Air Asia, Lenovo and AT&T as title partner. However, even this couldn't stop the flow of red ink as Williams' net loss hit £21.4m, an improvement of just £6.3m on the record deficit the previous year. The problem is that it simply didn't make enough money.

Revenues increased 14.6% to £66.9m but the team's costs spiralled beyond this and hit £88m. Williams plugged the gap with a lifeline from an unexpected source. Despite troubled bank Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) being one of its sponsors, Williams took out a loan from its rival Barclays during 2007 which trebled the team's net debt to £24.7m.

Over these two years Williams burnt up losses of £50m and in October 2007 the team's communications manager Liam Clogger joked that he was happy to keep one journalist "on the Christmas card list if Williams can muster sufficient reserves in December to buy some of Oxfam's finest."

To cut costs, Williams and Head took an £800,000 pay cut for the second year running and the team also saved £1.4m by scrapping 14 jobs with the bulk coming from R&D and production. The team's cash in the bank decreased by 60% during the year with just £13,000 left at the end of 2007.

The accounts showed that the persistent losses had more than halved shareholder funds since 2006 to only £15m by the end of the following year. In an article printed on 13 October 2008 Sylt wrote that "theoretically this should make the team a ripe target for takeover." Although a majority stake did not change hands in the recent deal it was a sale which was a long time coming.

In 2008 Icelandic investment firm Baugur was tipped to buy into the team but instead increased sponsorship from its brands such as Hamleys. The economic crisis unravelled Baugur itself putting paid to both its alleged bid for Williams and its sponsorship of the team. Williams would have had every right to be disgruntled by this and so it was little surprise to read on 20 December last year that the team is demanding £10m in unpaid sponsorship from the collapsed Icelandic bank Glitnir following a guarantee made by the bank in 2008 to fulfil Hamleys' obligation after Baugur failed to pay up.

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