Foundation of Hearts plan to keep Ann Budge in charge beyond their takeover at Tynecastle Park in 2020.
The fan-led organisation will ask Budge to continue as chief executive of Hearts despite the fact she will be 72 years old by that point.
Stuart Wallace, the Foundation chairman, spoke exclusively to the Evening News to outline the group’s intentions for the next two years and beyond. Budge stated yesterday that she would be willing to remain in situ if supporters wanted her.
She is due to pass her majority shareholding in the Edinburgh club to the Foundation in two years’ time, and Wallace confirmed she will be given the chance to stay on to maintain stability.
“We’re keen to have a period of stability after the changeover. The last thing we want the day after the majority shareholding is passed across is to have a whole raft of changes around the club,” he stressed. “The view of the Foundation board is that we want Ann to remain in place for as long as she would like to.
“There is a limit to what you can ask her to do. She has been involved for a long time now, but as long as Ann wants to maintain that role, and I think she does, then we’re very keen to have her in place. She would remain as chief executive.
“In the immediate period after the change of ownership, there should be no big changes. We want business as usual. We want Ann there given her reputation and what she’s capable of here. We are all in a good place with that discussion.”
Budge took charge of Hearts in 2014 after loaning £2.5million of her own money to help the club out of administration. She has overseen on-field successes including a record-breaking Championship title win, European qualification and a new £15m main stand at Tynecastle.
This week, Wallace handed over the final installment of the Foundation’s £3m contribution to the stand project. Cash from the group’s pledgers amounts to £125,000 a month, which will now go towards repaying Budge’s £2.5m loan through her BidCo company.
In two years’ time, all monies should be repaid and the Foundation – currently with just under 8000 pledgers – will take control of Hearts.
“We’re still on track for that. We’re saying within two years,” said Wallace. “Once the final payment is made to BidCo, then there’s the share transfer. We’re expecting it around spring or early summer in 2020. It’s getting exciting.
“Ann has been great supporting us. She said that when we hit the point where the full contribution to the stand is paid, it’s right that we shout about it. As much as it’s a tumultuous time for the Foundation this week, and as much as the ownership changing in two years time will be tumultuous, we’re hoping it just means business as usual.
“There’s an executive team in place and a chief exec and you hope the plan is that just carries on as it is now. The change of ownership is big for the fans, but day-to-day we want things to carry on as they are.”
Wallace’s own pragmatic approach is part of the reason he was elected chairman to represent supporters. He is adamant Hearts will be fan-owned but not fan-run. His business background tells him pulling punters out of section N and putting them on the Tynecastle board simply would not work.
“The club won’t be run by the fans but it will be owned by the fans. They will have that representation at board level. The switch in ownership to the fans is about protecting long-term interests – to ensure we never again end up in the place we ended up in 2013. I think that’s the most exciting phase of the whole thing.
“We are generating revenue at a level we’ve never seen before. For that last two years, Foundation money hasn’t been used by the club because it’s gone into the stand. That final payment towards the stand is a big moment, a poignant moment for the supporters.”
The really intriguing part comes after the 2020 handover. In theory, Hearts should then be debt-free, with a new stand all paid for and fully operational. The fans will have donated a staggering £10m in total by that point. So what happens to the Foundation?
“When the ownership changes and the stand project is finished, the BidCo loan should be repaid and there should be no other debt in the club. Clearly the money is then going to be channelled in a way which means the football club can be more successful,” said Wallace.
“I think there’s a debate, and we hear this at the AGM, about what the Foundation stands for after that point. Is it just a governance mechanism, sitting as the ultimate owner above the club? Or is there more to be done? “My personal view – and we hear fans saying this to us – is that if there are still good flows of money coming in then they should go into specific projects.
“I mean projects which are about the fabric and foundation of the club, to make it stronger and stronger. Grow out the asset base.
“I don’t think you can ringfence the money as such because, if the club needs the cash, it needs to have that facility.
“You would hope there is a desire there for people to keep pledging so that in the long term it really starts to change the game. Ultimately, some money can flow to the playing pool which just can’t be done right now.
“I saw the Evening News article this week with Craig Levein talking about money being used for the stand at the moment. He’s very aware of it. As a supporter, you think: ‘Blimey, we’re at a real moment here.’ If the momentum can stay with us after the change in shareholding and all repayments are made, you think: ‘Wow’.”