The appointment of Leeann Dempster as Hibs’ new chief executive may have come as a bolt from the blue, but it’s a move which the Easter Road club have been contemplating for months.
There’s been a recognition among the current board of directors, led by chairman Rod Petrie, for a need to drive Hibs forward. Not just by enjoying success on the pitch, but by a desire to create a club deeply rooted in the community, one based on a wider engagement with its supporters.
To bring about such change, though, there was also an acceptance that fresh ideas were needed and now, in Dempster, the Capital club believe they have the right person with the proven track record to oversee the changes they believe need put in place. Her six years in charge at Motherwell made her the outstanding candidate, with her work at Fir Park giving her the status as one of Scotland’s most highly-regarded football administrators.
She was naturally reluctant to leave the Lanarkshire club but the lure of performing the same role at a big city club, which has underachieved in the past four seasons with bottom-six finishes and lower-than-expected attendances, proved too great to resist.
When Dempster begins her new job on June 1, she will be given total control of the day-to-day running of Hibs. She will have the power to liaise with Terry Butcher, she will deal with player recruitment and negotiating contracts as the manager seeks to build a winning squad – just as she’s done over the years at Motherwell.
During her time at the helm in Lanarkshire, Motherwell enjoyed a period of almost unmatched consistency, with four successive top-six finishes and qualification for Europe in four of five seasons. They appeared in three national cup semi-finals and one Scottish Cup final and finished second behind Celtic last season.
However, while footballing success will be a priority, Dempster will also be expected to conduct a “root-and-branch” review of every aspect of the club’s activities, both on and off the field, to identify what needs to be done in every area to improve performance, from hospitality and catering through to commercial activities and how revenues can be generated and so on.
No doubt some of her ideas will be implemented sooner than others, but her very appointment is being seen as the first major step on the road to delivering a vision developed in collaboration between club management and supporters through the Let’s Work Together project.
The “vision” seeks to create a virtuous cycle through three main factors – developing the club, developing players and success on the pitch – with the ultimate aim being to create a club which will be competitive in every match and where winning becomes a habit, but which is also done by operating in a sustainable way.
Awakening a slumbering giant is a formidable challenge for Dempster, but she won’t be daunted by what lies ahead, instead recognising that for Hibs at the moment the “only way is up”, with everything in place for success through a modern Easter Road stadium and the East Mains training facility
The 20,400 capacity of the ground, though, has rarely come close to being tested, underlining the enormity of the task facing Dempster, but she’s seen as someone who is very much “hands on” and willing to get them dirty. A background in sales and marketing, she says, left her schooled in negotiation and able to cope in a highly-pressurised environment and it was from there she made the rather unlikely step into the male-dominated world of football, having been brought into contact with then Motherwell chairman John Boyle through his now-defunct Zoom Airlines.
She said: “I’d been at the Feather Brooksbank advertising agency and handled clients who had a total budget of £40m a year to spend. We pitched for Zoom’s business account and got it. When Zoom went bust, John asked me to work for the football club he owned and that was the first time I ever walked into Fir Park.
“What was supposed to be a two-month engagement turned into a labour of love.”
Dempster has known the toughest of times with Motherwell due to the club crashing into administration, but she’s been instrumental in rebuilding the Fir Park outfit into a model community club, rising from the role of general manager to chief executive, winning widespread respect, her talent for promoting the game recognised by the SPFL, who now have her on their communications committee. She’s also a member of the European Club Association’s marketing and communications board. Now she’s determined to use the experience gained over the past six years and to meet her new remit head-on.
“I believe that to succeed in a sustainable way in the long term we need to grow club resources, re-engage lapsed supporters and strengthen the club collectively,” she said.
“As a big city club, Hibernian has a fantastic opportunity to build on the great physical assets and grow attendance through increased engagement and success on the pitch. I am looking forward to the challenge.
“There are a number of initiatives that we will be able to announce to supporters in due course and that will show we want to meet the shared ambitions of supporters. We want a vision that everyone can buy into.”
Dempster’s arrival will no doubt leave some thinking Petrie, who has filled the chief executive role on an interimbasis following the departure of Scott Lindsay, will still be in the background still “pulling the strings.”
But while Petrie, pictured left, remains as non-executive chairman – which means he doesn’t draw a salary – he will be very much in the background, representing Hibs at the SFA, leaving the new chief executive in command, running Hibs on a day-to-day basis. Petrie said: “We are delighted Leeann is joining Hibernian. She is an outstanding football leader with a proven track record. I am certain she will be a important signing and will provide the daily leadership needed next season to help achieve the board’s plans and meet the aspirations of supporters.”