US tycoon quits petrol stations for glory at Italian football club Parma

Kyle Krause is swapping a life serving motorists in the US Midwest to one tending to the delicate egos of footballers in Italy.

The billionaire owner of petrol and convenience store chain Kum & Go told the Financial Times he was stepping back from the family business to help run Parma, the storied club he acquired in September.

Mr Krause is the latest in a line of US investors rushing into Italian football in what he says is the belief the country’s top division could return — as in Parma’s 1990s heyday — to the top of the global sport.

“Serie A used to be the number one league in the world,” he said. “Now it’s — pick a number — third, maybe fourth. I think we could get to second. I think it will be tough to overtake the English Premier League, maybe because of the English language, but time will tell.”

Mr Krause’s takeover of Parma follows in the footsteps of fellow Americans Dan Friedkin, who bought AS Roma in August, and Rocco Commisso, who acquired ACF Fiorentina last year. But the history of wealthy Americans buying into European football has not always been one of glory.

In England, Ellis Short at Sunderland, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa and Steve Kaplan at Swansea City led their teams to relegation, resulting in substantial hits to their multimillion pound investments.

Parma is a case study on the ups and downs of football ownership. In the 1990s the club won domestic and European trophies with superstars such as Gianfranco Zola, Hernán Crespo and Dino Baggio. But it went bankrupt in 2004 after the ignominious collapse of then majority owner Parmalat, and again in 2015. Following rebirth in fourth-tier Serie D, Parma won three consecutive promotions and returned to Serie A two years ago.

Mr Krause will remain the sole owner of Iowa-based Krause Group but will pass the management reins of Kum & Go to his son Tanner on January 1.

He said he had been considering the move for years but “a collection of positive forces” allowed him to step down from Kum & Go now, including the “very positive” bottom line he expects for the chain this year despite the pandemic.

Parma’s Gervinho, centre, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Genoa on Monday © Luca Zennaro/EPA/Shutterstock

Founded in 1959 by Mr Krause’s grandfather, Kum & Go boasts 400 stores across 11 US states and remains the largest part of Krause Group, which reported $2.8bn in revenues in 2019.

“I’ve worked there since I was nine”, said Mr Krause, now 57, speaking by video link from the study of his suburban Des Moines home decorated with Parma merchandise and an Andy Warhol print of football hero Pelé.

He added that he could now give more attention to his portfolio of other businesses, which include two Italian wineries, a petrol transport service and a lower-tier US football team, the Des Moines Menace.

Chart of net financial positions of teams in Serie A (2018-19), showing the fragile state of Italian club balance sheets

Mr Krause bought a majority stake in Parma in September at a valuation above €100m, encouraged by interest among private equity firms to relaunching the Italian first division, including new efforts to commercialise its global media rights.

But the move comes as many big European teams consider launching a super league in which the richest and most popular clubs would break away into an elite competitive cluster.

Mr Krause said such an idea might result in “a short-term win” for football clubs but ultimately if domestic leagues “become non-competitive, I think that’s less interesting to the fans ultimately”.

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Asked what insight he could bring to Serie A on navigating the future of football, Mr Krause said fellow owners “are probably not looking for my input on what decisions the top clubs in Serie A can make. I can talk about making Serie A stronger, and hopefully I’m bringing a business perspective and an outside perspective that can add to the conversation people are having.”

In the near term, he is looking for a chief executive to manage the club. Mr Krause, who is of Italian descent and owns wineries in the Piedmont region, admits his language skills are rusty.

“I’m still brushing up on my Italian. For as much time as I spend there, it is bad”, he says. But he relishes his new role as owner of Parma, which has brought him a level of visibility he had not yet experienced despite years of doing business in Italy.

“As you walk down the street, you have these fun interactions with fans as ‘Il Presidente’ — someone will ride by on a bike, hop off, get a photo”, he said. “Owning a winery in Italy, there’s very few selfies involved.”

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