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Australian IT millionaire buying struggling English football club says it makes ‘perfect sense’

An Australian businessman who made his fortune in corporate IT decided to invest in struggling English football club Southend United while holidaying in Europe on a gap year.

Lifelong football fan Justin Rees, who is part of a six-person consortium that has struck a deal to take over the fifth-tier club, told Guardian Australia in his first interview since the deal was announced that he wanted to take on a new challenge after a career as an IT project manager and company founder.

“I was watching the story unfold on the BBC thinking, is someone going to take this over?” he said from Spain where he is walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

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“When it becomes apparent that they’re not, it just feels like the right project to do next. Three days after my first discussion with the current owner, I flew to Southend, met some of the management team at Roots Hall and knew I wanted to be involved.”

Southend were founded in 1906 and as recently as 2007 the team were in the second tier of English football. The Shrimpers suffered financial difficulties in recent years, and tumbled out of the Football League in 2021.

The club faced a winding up order on Wednesday before an 11th-hour deal was agreed between the new investors and local property developer Ron Martin, who has owned the club for 25 years.

“Why a football club, and why a football club in distress? It may seem strange to others but those that know me say, ‘you love football, you love businesses, you like challenges, you like driving things, it kind of makes perfect sense’,” Rees said.

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The bid only came together in the past three months. The other five in the consortium are Southend fans who Rees met through the club after he initially expressed an interest. The Australian watched the Shrimpers for the first time in August.

Rees has been reported as the leader of the consortium, but there is no majority shareholder in the planned ownership structure.

Slogans are seen on buildings next to Roots Hall in Southend.Slogans are seen on buildings next to Roots Hall in Southend. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

The members of the consortium are reluctant to speak in too much detail about the deal and the club until November, but the Australian – who has maintained a low public profile during his career – said it was important to explain his background to fans.

The 41-year-old studied in Sydney before a stint working in finance in London in his 20s. He returned to Australia and worked for major bank Westpac and the New South Wales government in corporate IT project management.

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In 2018, he co-founded Eighty20 Solutions, which was named the fourth-fastest growing Australian IT channel company by CRN in 2020. That year the company recorded reported revenue of $16.8m and growth of 198%, partly fuelled by the need during the pandemic for companies to increase their capacity to support remote working.

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Rees and his co-founder, John Kelly, sold a majority stake in the company in 2021 to NCS, a subsidiary of Singtel, and exited the company last year. Rees has been on a gap year since September last year, giving himself time to identify a new project.

Southend are fourth from bottom in the National League after a points deduction was applied for the club’s failure to clear its tax debts. “If the club was completely stable, it wouldn’t be for me,” Rees said. “It’s that challenge of the turnaround that excites me.”

Rees describes himself a lifelong football fan, drawn to the romance of English football and what clubs mean to their communities.

“There’s a 117-year old football club that was big, and is about to be extinct. If I can look back when I’m 70 and think, wow, I helped prevent that, I’ll be very happy.”

Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds bought Wrexham in 2021 alongside friend and fellow actor Rob McElhenney, prompting a wave of interest in football in the fifth tier. The Welsh club were promoted back to the Football League last season.