INTERVIEW WITH HEARTS CHAIR ANN BUDGE
The following article first appeared as a matchday programme article on 14 August 2022
IT STARTED WITH A LETTER…
When a handwritten letter dropped through the letterbox of Ann Budge a decade or so ago, it set off a series of extraordinary and historic events which neither she nor anyone else could have anticipated. The letter was from Alex Mackie, one of the founding members of the Foundation of Hearts, who asked if he could meet with her to tell her what the group was thinking.
“You don’t often receive handwritten letters these days,” she says, “and I think that helped me to agree to meet first with Alex and then the rest of the group.
“What they were looking for was input and advice from me with my business background to strengthen where they were with their plans. It was absolutely clear to me that their hearts were in the right place. What was required was more of a business perspective.”
Over the next months, Ann Budge brought her very real expertise to the group. She also brought a number of her contacts into the team, notably the late Robert Wilson, who was to become so influential in challenging the group’s thinking and along with Ann Budge driving the detail and professionalism of its strategies.
A huge leap
It’s a huge leap, though, to go from bringing advice and support to putting up substantial amounts of one’s own personal cash, a leap that was not part of Ann’s agenda at the outset. Why this cosmic change?
“As time went on, I definitely bought into the whole concept and became more involved,” she says. “I also got to know the various individuals in the Foundation group better and understood that they wanted nothing for themselves – they really wanted nothing more than to save the club.
“They all had a passion for Hearts, had long family histories with the club, could talk long (sometimes very long!) and knowledgeably about times past. I got to know them and I got to like them. So when it came to the crunch and there was the potential for rescuing the club by my paying for the shares of the Lithuanians, my view was that I was in a position to help and why not? I should also mention the encouragement I was getting to do this from my daughter Carol, a huge Hearts fan who first introduced me to the joys of being a supporter. And I did believe – correctly as it turned out – that the Hearts fans would back the rescue plan.”
Only the start
It’s an incredible story, and that was only the start. Administration, relegation, Championship title wins, Covid, missing emails, unfair demotion, legal battles, Cup finals, now Europe – and the small challenge of rebuilding the club from its ruined state and establishing not only the playing side but the financial and professional departments of Heart of Midlothian.
What an unbelievable achievement for her – and for the fans who have backed the club – to have arrived at the position in which we find ourselves now.
It’s fair to say that the journey has been intense and for Ann there have at times been ups and downs in her relationship with the supporters. “Yes, there have been lows,” she says, “but these have been hugely outnumbered by the highs. The criticisms when they came were always football-related, not personal. At times, things were a bit hairy but they were short lived and no Hearts fan has ever approached me in a negative manner. What has been notable is the number of fans who will quietly come up and say thank you. That still goes on and I am really appreciative of that.”
Handing over the CEO role
Now, having stepped down as CEO, she reflects that that move had to come. “It’s not great to be both CEO and chair of an organisation, but as owner that situation was fine. The minute that changed with the Foundation becoming majority shareholders, it was time to hand over the CEO role.
“To be honest, being CEO and having that level of involvement in everything going on in the club – being in the thick of things – was what I loved, but the moment was right to step back from that.
“As chair of the Hearts board, I am answerable to the shareholders of the club – a majority percentage of whom are the Foundation members, so I continue to have a positive and strong relationship with FoH. It has changed a bit, of course, but it’s one of my jobs now to honour everything we want to achieve and to ensure that the fans are being looked after.”
So what exactly is this ‘everything we want to achieve’ for her?
“A number of things,” she says. “First, we want to make the club as successful as possible in Europe. That’s a game changer for Hearts and if we consolidate our position in the top three or four clubs in Scotland, that has to be our target. The more successful we are in Europe, the more opportunities will come our way.
Looking ahead – and remembering what we stand for
“It’s not just about revenue growth for us, it’s about sustainability. If we have that we can take a few risks, we can look ahead, and we can tackle issues such as our training ground arrangements at Oriam and building a strong women’s team. On that last point, this is going to be an exciting time for women’s football – we want to lead the way here in Scotland and create more opportunities.
“All round, it’s constantly striving to be better. That’s the plan.”
She finishes with this: “In all of our planning and creating strategies and establishing good governance, we must never forget the underlying values of Heart of Midlothian – the sense of community, the history, the ethos. We must remember what we stand for.”
Ann Budge has brought security, brilliant management, positivity, and vision to the club and for that every fan, now and in the future, is in her debt. Perhaps an additional, enduring legacy will be that she did this while also reinforcing the club’s long-held values. Not too bad a result sparked by a handwritten letter.