Rod Petrie today insisted the radical, groundbreaking changes revealed by Hibs were not a knee-jerk reaction to the vociferous protests which greeted the Easter Road club’s relegation to the Championship.
They were, he said, almost a year in the planning.
Chairman Petrie found himself at the centre of supporters’ anger, an initial rally under the “Petrie out” banner evolving into Forever Hibernian and, laterally, BuyHibs, a campaign aimed at gaining greater fans’ control of the Capital outfit.
Now that’s exactly what Hibs themselves are proposing by creating the opportunity for fans to dilute the holding company’s ownership to less than 50 per cent via a new share issue with all money raised going directly to the football club.
And as he unveiled that plan, Petrie also revealed Hibs have agreed a settlement with the Bank of Scotland which leaves the club free of bank debt while the holding company has also agreed to halve the club’s total debt by converting £4.5 million of debt into new shares while the remaining loans will be refinanced as a single £5m mortgage provided by the holding company on terms acceptable to the club.
In addition, Petrie took the opportunity to end speculation about the ownership of Easter Road Stadium, stressing it was a fundamental part of the board’s strategy that the ground and training centre at East Mains, valued at more than £25m, continue to be owned by the club.
Disclosing initial talks with the Bank of Scotland began last February, Petrie said: “It’s something we’ve been working on for most of this calendar year, many months. It’s great to get to the announcement which sets out the principles of what we are doing. We think it’s the way forward, that’s why we have decided upon it.”
A clear timetable to implement the changes is, as yet, unclear with Petrie stressing the matters still had to be agreed by shareholders but, given the holding company currently has 98 per cent of shares, that would appear a formality.
He said: “This is the transition of a solvent, solid, stable football club to widen the ownership base but we have to comply with complex financial regulations and have to be careful with the words that we use.” And Petrie believes fans will give the proposal their full support, having made it clear during an extensive consultation process which saw almost 4000 take part in an online survey and new chief executive Leeann Dempster meet around 500 face-to-face, that they had a “healthy appetite” for greater supporter engagement.
He said: “We would hope it would be welcomed, an exciting proposal for the football club. The survey indicated there was a healthy appetite for further engagement, involvement and part ownership of the club. There wasn’t any appetite for 100 per cent ownership by supporters but there was a keen interest that there be greater involvement, greater supporter engagement and I think this is quite ground breaking for a club in our position. What we want to do is seek the shareholders’ approval to allow others to become shareholders. We have 1700 at the moment so we can expand that. They own the football club at the moment so we need their permission to widen shareholder base.
“The holding company is supportive of the plans so we go forward to the rest of the shareholders confident we have a plan the board can deliver.”
Petrie revealed the far-reaching proposals were worked on “long and hard”, running in parallel in recent months to the huge changes made behind the scenes by Dempster following her recruitment from Motherwell at a time when few would have thought of Hibs being relegated in the manner they were.
However, Dempster revealed knowing what was being discussed helped entice her from Fir Park to Easter Road. She said: “I knew this was going to be part of the structure of the club moving forward when I was recruited. I was excited when I heard about it.
“The football environment has changed, supporters want a much deeper engagement. We have spoken to them, we know their football club means everything to them, they tell us that, so this is a chance for them to take greater control of their football club. We are trying to empower them and we want to move forward together.
“We’ll speak to our shareholders first and the mechanisms will be made clear at that point. But this is the start of a bigger journey for Hibs fans. They will have the opportunity to take a controlling shareholding in the club, the opportunity to protect the things that mean most to them.”
In fronting the various consultation groups, Dempster quickly discovered at first hand the depth of feeling of supporters and admitted the going got tough at times. She said: “I think it is fair to say that in my time here there has been enormous change behind the scenes obviously, unveiling a lot of the work that’s been going on alongside what has been happening on the football side.
“We came in with a football plan and an operational plan. We have had, certainly in my time her, the full backing of the board and the chairman. I think it is important folk understand that. It’s been, at times, quite difficult and trying but this is a really positive announcement for us and hopefully puts us in a good position and gives us an opportunity for supporters to get much more closely involved.
“They told us they’d like an element of control, they care deeply about the club and it was important we listened.”
For his part Petrie, a Hibs director since 1997 and chairman for the past ten years, refused to be drawn into what the future might hold for him personally although he has left the day-to-day running of the club to Dempster in recent months.
He said: “Every supporter of Hibs is passionate about their football club, they want to see the best and I understand that passion. This is about an important announcement for the football club, it’s not about dissecting what has happened over the last few months. It’s a great announcement, an opportunity for giving Hibs supporters what they have been saying they wanted.”