Whitecaps a cut above with Barber - The Province

New CEO brings Premiership experience and attitude

By Marc Weber

Paul Barber discovered his entrepreneurial spirit as a young teenager, hiring his little brother and a couple of pals to wash cars for cash in his North London neighbourhood.

His latest venture -- steering the Vancouver Whitecaps safely and spectacularly into Major League Soccer one year from now, and then nurturing the brand and the experience into something world-class -- is monumental by comparison.

But it's the exact type of scenario that drives the 42-year-old.

Barber, coaxed away from his executive director role at Tottenham Hotspur, was introduced Wednesday morning as the Whitecaps' chief executive officer, a hiring that was announced in November.

"When we first started to talk about me coming here," Barber said of his initial meetings with Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett, "there was just something inside of me that was very, very excited. It takes a lot to leave your hometown club, and that was the biggest psychological barrier I had to overcome. But you get very few opportunities in your life to do something very special, and this is special.

"This is a different kind of challenge. There's an opportunity to grow it further and further and that's a really big deal to me."

Mallett and fellow co-owner Steve Nash initially met Barber about four years ago while looking into the possibility of purchasing a stake in Spurs.

That didn't happen, but they struck up a friendship with Barber and went into selling mode once the Whitecaps secured an MLS expansion franchise.

Barber said it didn't take too much convincing. How much money it took we won't know, but Barber said he doesn't have a piece of the ownership pie.

He called Vancouver "one of the best cities to live in the world," lauded the existing Whitecaps brand and praised the ownership, staff and fans. Perhaps most of all, though, it's about the challenge. And he went right into extensive meetings Wednesday with his executive team of president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis.

Job one, Barber said, is making progress on the training grounds, a $31-million partnership with the B.C. government initially marked for Delta but scuttled by civic politicians there in late January.

Then there's a shirt sponsor to secure. Barber was a key man behind Spurs' current 8.5-million pounds-per-year deal with Mansion and will hope to nail down something similar to the five-year, $20-million-US deal the Seattle Sounders agreed to with Microsoft.

Barber will also be consumed with the Whitecaps' move from Swangard Stadium to the Empire Bowl site to open their inaugural MLS campaign in 2011, and then to a renovated B.C. Place around July, 2011.

Lenarduzzi looked weary on Wednesday, crutching around after hip surgery, but his immobility belied his excitement over Barber's arrival.

"There isn't another soccer executive in North America right now who could get anywhere near what Paul has accomplished," said Lenarduzzi, noting that Forbes.comlisted Spurs as the 11th-most valuable club in the world with annual revenue of $245 million.

Barber, who also spent five years as marketing director for the English Football Association, remains on the Tottenham board and spoke encouragingly about a possible relationship between the two clubs. Spurs have a formal relationship with MLS side San Jose Earthquake and the California club is currently practising and playing friendlies at Tottenham's training ground.

Barber's family -- wife Helen, daughters Georgia, 12, Ellie, 10, and son Sam, 15 -- will visit in a couple of weeks and then move here after the school year in July.

Last October, when Barber explored Vancouver for the first time, he quickly learned what Canadians do best in soccer: participate.

There are 130,000 registered players in B.C., and driving through Ambleside in West Vancouver, he was taken aback.

"There was just so much soccer going on, I said to the guy that was driving me, 'I've got stop here and have a look at this,' " Barber said. "Just looking around this city, seeing how many kids are playing, is phenomenal. I would put it on a par with parts of England.

"The passion for the game was everywhere for me to see and it was one of the things that helped convinced me to make the move."

Now he's at the forefront of a mission to change the way we play, and support, the sport he loves.

mweber@theprovince.com
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