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Williams' gets help from an unlikely ally

NEWS STORY
13/10/2008

After Williams got its second-place on the podium at the Singapore GP, its first since 2005, it looked like things were on the up for the team. However, a report in Saturday's Financial Times by Pitpass' business reporter Chris Sylt shows that it is in fact on life support.

The report is based on the team's accounts for 2007 which should have been a banner year. 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 6.4m on the record deficit the previous year. The problem is that it simply didn't make enough money.

Revenues increased 14.6% to 67m 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 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 25m. In total Williams has access to 33.75m of borrowing facilities but it will be lucky if this alone will be enough to plug the gaps for even two more seasons. Over the past two years Williams has burnt up losses of 50m and its new finance agreement piles on the pressure as the team's annual interest payments have trebled to 1.5m.

To cut costs, the team's owners Frank Williams and Patrick Head took an 800,000 pay cut in 2007 for the second year running and also saved 1.3m by scrapping 14 top 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. This doesn't put it in good stead to motor through the downturn.

Despite its recent podium, Williams hasn't won a race for four years and its marketing boss Scott Garrett left at the end of August. The team's turnover is now a shadow of its former self which peaked at 88.7m in 2004 when BMW was Williams' engine partner. The 2007 accounts show that the persistent losses halved shareholder funds from 2006 to only 15m by the end of the following year. Theoretically this should make the team a ripe target for takeover and, as the only outfit on the grid to not be owned by a billionaire or a car manufacturer, a sale could be one way to keep it on the grid. However, even this might not be smooth going.

Over the past year Icelandic investment firm Baugur was tipped to buy into the team but instead increased sponsorship from its brands such as Hamleys. With the current economic crisis crushing companies in Iceland the chance of Baugur investing anytime soon seems slim.

And it could be very tough for a buyer to finance a deal with a secured loan as is often the case with such purchases. The Barclays loan is secured on the company's key assets and one of its terms is that no further debt can be secured on them. The final hurdle could be convincing Frank to let go of the wheel of his eponymous company.

The Articles of Association, the rules which govern the company, state that not only does Frank have the power to overrule any vote to remove a nominated 'FW Director', but so long as Frank is a director, he will be the chairman. However the deal breaker could be the clause which states that although the board of directors acts by majority decision, its decision must include the positive voice of the FW Director so long as Frank is that director.

The Williams team's future prospects are perhaps best summed up by the statement from its accounts that "there is a reasonable expectation that the company has adequate resources to continue operating for the foreseeable future."

It's a sad sign of the times in F1 that a team celebrating its 30th anniversary this year cannot look forward with certainty.

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