The rise of Venkatesham: how an oil trader became a key figure at Arsenal
Managing director at the Emirates admits he is not a football expert, but that has not halted his rapid climb to the top
Of all the places for Vinai Venkatesham to be found on a frosty December morning, the back page of a tabloid newspaper was hardly the most expected. Arsenal’s managing director is far from being one of football’s most high-profile executives but, for one day at least, it was his image that was plastered all over the press.
Unbeknown to them at the time, Venkatesham and Arsenal’s contracts expert Huss Fahmy had been spotted outside the Manchester home of Mikel Arteta in the small hours of a Monday morning. A few clicks of a photographer’s finger and, just like that, Arsenal’s private pursuit of Arteta had become a public endeavour, with Venkatesham emerging as the unexpected face of the story.
Within a few days, after Arteta’s appointment as head coach had been finalised, Arsenal’s executive team were able to see the lighter side. The images were certainly not ideal from a PR perspective, yet some of the club’s senior figures could not help but chuckle when they learnt of the negligible fee being charged for the pictures by the agency in question.
The episode brought a rare focus to Venkatesham, who had largely flown under the radar, in terms of media coverage at least, since his appointment as managing director in September 2018. Working alongside Raul Sanllehi to lead the club after the departure of chief executive Ivan Gazidis, Venkatesham was the business brain to go with Sanllehi’s football expertise.
While Sanllehi briefly became a minor deity in the eyes of Arsenal’s fans – “Don Raul” was mobbed outside Anfield ahead of a game against Liverpool last August – Venkatesham has mostly operated away from the public gaze, which is just how he likes it.
Following Sanllehi’s sudden exit last weekend, Venkatesham is now the primary leader of one of the biggest clubs in the sport at the age of just 39. The restructure continues a hugely impressive rise for a man who was appointed Arsenal’s head of global partnerships in 2010 (he was interviewed by Gazidis on transfer-window deadline day) without any professional experience in football. He started his career as an oil trader in the City before becoming a strategy consultant at Deloitte and then joining the commercial team of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Venkatesham’s position at Arsenal makes him one of the most prominent British Asians. In the 2020 GG2 Power List of the 101 most influential Asians in Britain, Venkatesham came in at No34, the highest ranking of anyone in sport. It is understood that, within the club, he has long been pushing for greater equality and diversity, knowing full well the importance of varied viewpoints and experiences to Arsenal’s success.
“I know this role comes with a huge responsibility,” Venkatesham said in an interview with the club’s website at the weekend. There is also plenty of pressure to provide financial stability for a club who chose the year of a global pandemic to produce their worst league performance since 1995.
Venkatesham readily admits he is not a football expert. For that he has Edu, the club’s technical director, and Arteta. Without Sanllehi, Fahmy will also become more involved in transfer planning and execution. In the club’s new hierarchy, they all now report to Venkatesham.
Those who have worked with Venkatesham describe him, first and foremost, as supremely intelligent. One does not climb the ranks of an institution like Arsenal without considerable agility of mind. Indeed, he is one of the more long-serving senior figures at the club.
“Very bright, very personable, very accountable,” says one source who has worked intermittently with Venkatesham for years. “He has good instincts for how a club should be run.”
Venkatesham is seen as a clean-cut operator, a man who will say the right things at the right time. Sanllehi, the charismatic dealmaker, was more of a maverick. As a duo there was an interesting balance there, even though it always felt strange for the club to have two leaders rather than one. Now that Venkatesham sits alone at the wheel, it can only be hoped for his sake that the next 12 months are more straightforward than the previous year.
Rarely have clubs endured a campaign as eventful as Arsenal’s, which started with their captain going on strike instead of the pre-season tour and a knife attack on two first-team players.
An on-pitch collapse, the stripping of the captaincy from Granit Xhaka, the sacking of Unai Emery, the coronavirus crisis, the failure in the league and then a glorious FA Cup victory: it never stopped for Arsenal or for Venkatesham, who has no doubt earned a family holiday – whenever he can take one.
Leading the way: Vinai Venkatesham celebrates Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph