Ann Budge reveals Hearts departure timetable, benefits of a hybrid ownership model and ambition of James Anderson

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Ann Budge has revealed the timescale for her probable departure as Hearts chairwoman, but anticipates staying involved in the running of the club in some capacity.

The 74-year-old intends to review her role and will consider stepping down in two years’ time at the AGM in 2024, but does not envisage walking away altogether. Budge brought the club out of administration in 2014 by investing £2.5m of her own money before she signed over her shares to the Foundation of Hearts group in August 2021.

It means the club is 75 per cent owned by their fans, but Budge has continued to play a significant role as chairwoman. She is leading the way on two important projects in particular. The first is building a hotel into the stadium to help regenerate the Gorgie area. The second is preparing to celebrate the club’s 150th anniversary. But she has more support now than when she was majority shareholder and has managed to take a small step back.

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“I’m delighted it’s no longer 24/7 because believe me it was for a long time,” she said. “I could have never just stopped and walked away and thought, ‘thank goodness that’s over’, that would never have worked.

Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge anticipates staying in her current role until the club's AGM in 2024. Picture: Mark Scates / SNSHearts chairwoman Ann Budge anticipates staying in her current role until the club's AGM in 2024. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS
Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge anticipates staying in her current role until the club's AGM in 2024. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS

“It’s not a bad halfway house because I’m still involved with the board and I’ve taken a couple of projects. The hotel for example, I’m leading on that project and I’m involved with the 150th working party, trying to ensure that we pull all of that together, so I’ve still got an involvement. That’s good. The not-so-good is I don’t know everything that’s going on anymore and that sometimes annoys me.

“I’m committed to staying on till, I think, October 2024, around AGM time. Partly, it’s to do with health, I’m not getting any younger as we all know and I couldn’t do the 24/7 I did before because once you’ve stopped it’s quite hard to get back up to that level again. I couldn’t do it and wouldn’t want to, but will I ever not have some involvement? I can’t imagine [that].”

Budge is confident the fan ownership model will prove to be robust enough for Hearts to withstand the economic chill winds which will affect football just as much as other industries over the next couple of years. Rather than depending on any one individual, she believes the broad financial support the club now enjoys is a huge advantage.

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It’s essentially a hybrid model, the club 75 per cent fan-owned but with benefactors also making a contribution too. Over 8,000 are signed up to the Foundation of Hearts scheme. Their contributions amount annually to £1.5 million towards the club’s budget, with Budge and other Edinburgh philanthropists, including James Anderson, also adding business acumen and personal wealth to the boardroom mix. It seems to be working.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Times, Budge explained: “This ownership model is not down to one person, it’s not down to one body, it’s down to a whole host of things. If we all play our part, we have benefactors who are incredible, we have supporters who are incredible, we have a really strong management team, we have a pretty clear strategy. If we can all play our part, then we support each other.

“I imagine there will be a lot of football clubs at the moment who are thinking, ‘how on earth are we going to cope for the next couple of years?’ It’s a dreadful situation to deal with, but because of our model I don’t have the same fear. Our supporters know we will do our best to help them, in the same way that they have done their best to help us. I don’t think I’m being naive. The model will support us, not so-and-so putting more money in. It will stand us in good stead moving forward.”

Moving forward, the ambition for Hearts on the pitch is to close the gap on the Old Firm and to do that European group stage football again next year is the primary target. The club made £3 million profit from this season’s Europa Conference League campaign, £5 million revenue minus £2 million costs.

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“You only really make money if you get into the group stages,” Budge explains. “If you don’t, the likelihood is you’re going to lose money. I remember Craig Levein [the former Hearts manager and director of football] telling me that in 2015. If we do that next year and the year after and we won’t have quite so much cost. Gradually it builds up.

“Another thing ourselves and other clubs must do better, and it’s hard, is player trading. That’s where you can make so much money. If you’re Celtic and Rangers your player will be worth X, if you’re any other club it will be worth a fraction of that.”

Anderson is a key ally Budge has come to rely on and she has been impressed by the scale his ambition. He has put a lot of his own money. Underwriting shirt sponsorship by the charity Save The Children instead of a commercial brand is just one example.

Budge explained: “He’s very ambitious and he pushes. ‘Do you want to do that? Why not twice that? Go for something a bit bigger’. He’s constantly saying, ‘you can do this, but you have to think bigger’. That’s good, it’s good for the board.

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“Initially, it was all about survival. Then we were beginning to get on the right track. Then of course the wheels fell off with what was going on [with the pandemic], but I think we were ready to go again. Having that ambition, where we are not worrying every day if we’re going to be able to pay the bills this month is great. He encourages that kind of thinking.”