When Manchester United players return on 12 July from the World Cup or their summer holidays they will begin pre-season training in Chicago. The Windy City is host not only to Cubs Baseball, Bears American football and Bulls Basketball but Aon, United’s new £80 million principal shirt sponsors whom begin their deal today.
The $7.5 billion-a-year US corporation has 36,000 employees in 500 offices in more than 120 countries, providing insurance brokerage, risk management and human capital management services to a range of blue-chip clients.
In the financial turmoil surrounding the US market over the past 18 months, Aon remains a considerable success story. Indeed the corporation is a change apart from AIG, United’s previous sponsors who so dramatically collapsed, requiring a $90 billion US government bail-out.
Aon’s sponsorship is a strategic push towards globalising the group’s brand through United’s huge worldwide supporter base. United’s previous sponsors AIG followed a similar strategy, with the club’s research pointing to a large rise in the brand’s profile among the reds’ estimated 330 million fans. An end goal not helped by AIG’s near total collapse of course.
Aon and United shared a somewhat predictable platform for mutual self-congratulations today, on commencement of the four-year deal.
“Based on our shared values of leadership, teamwork and a passion for excellence, it is difficult to imagine a stronger fit for Aon than Manchester United,” Aon Corporation president and chief executive Greg Case told club mouthpiece ManUtd.com today.
“Through the global charitable initiatives of Aon’s 36,000 colleagues, we will work with our partners at Manchester United and the Manchester United Foundation to promote these values and create positive opportunities for young people, to enable them to thrive and to help improve their communities.”
It’s a nice sentiment but one that does not always tally closely with Aon’s recent history, littered as it is with significant controversy, including charges of corruption, financial rule-breaking and – most seriously – supporting human rights violations in Burma.
Indeed, in early 2009 the company paid a £5.25 million fine to the Financial Services Authority (FSA) – the UK’s financial regulator – for anti-corruption failings, with the group’s UK subsidiary found guilty of failing to crack down on possible bribery. The FSA found the company had made payments of €1.4 million (£1.26 million) and $3.25 million (£2.13 million) to unnamed third parties as part of Aon’s overseas new business development process.
The payments, made to intermediaries at a Bulgarian insurance company and one owned by the Burmese Government, were among 66 suspicious arrangements with firms in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam, claimed the Times newspaper. Each was reported to the Serious Organised Crime Agency before the FSA’s crackdown.
Perhaps more damaging still was the $190 million settlement that Aon paid to end New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s 2005 investigation into conflicts of interest and alleged fraud at the company. Including settling probes in Connecticut and Illinois Aon paid, without admission of liability, the $190 million over 30 months to policyholders damaged by the company’s actions.
Spitzer’s probe came in response to charges that Aon’s staff promised to place business with insurers if those firms agreed to use the company’s reinsurance brokerage services. These so-called ‘contingent commissions’ were an endemic practice at the company, according to the Attorney General. That Aon publicly denied the practice a year earlier only reflected poorly on the world’s second largest reinsurance corporation.
Aon is closer to AIG in other ways but certainly nothing the Chicago-based giant should be proud of. Indeed the both companies’ place, until 2005, on the Burma insurance ‘dirty list’ – those firms found propping up the country’s secretive military junta – is a source of historical, if not current, shame.
Burma’s democracy movement has long named and shamed companies that invest in Burma, with foreign trade enriching a regime that rules through torture, violence and child labour. It puts the match-day harassment at Old Trafford into perspective.
They say they you are judged by the company you keep.
In April, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) invoked the analogy to place pressure on United’s commercial partners. In this case the message works both ways, with the Glazers new partners seemingly perfect bedfellows with the American family.