An Entrepreneurial Hull City?
Regular contributor Phil Ascough recently had the pleasure of spending some time with Hull City owner Assem Allam. Allam is a former Ernst & Young UK Entrepreneur of the Year and has been a highly visible presence on the East Riding business scene for some time now. Phil’s newest book is The Armchair Olympian, published by Bloomsbury.
An old blue Mini occupies the prime parking space outside Dr Assem Allam’s office.
The registration plate bearing the letters “AA” tells you it belongs to him, and the sticker in a rear side window is evidence of a sense of humour: “My other car is a Rolls Royce.”
It is indeed, and very nice and shiny too.
His football club, Hull City, sits somewhere between the two levels. Dr Allam’s concern is that the fans demand a Rolls Royce, but the commercial structure is more in keeping with a Mini.
His answer is to harness the commercial potential of the KC Stadium and surrounding land. He is up front about his desire to buy the stadium from Hull City Council, improve and add to the sports facilities and support such development by also building a multi-storey car park, supermarket, boutiques, a hotel.
Some councillors see the ideas as evidence of a more sinister agenda and blocked his bid while also publicly doubting the value of his offer. Some fans, either through instinctive suspicion of enormous wealth or because they have memories of disastrous consequences of previous big-money regimes, are also critical of the plans.
It is a row that erupted more than a year ago in the months after Dr Allam took over the club – an investment of more than £50 million which will be topped up by another £12-million this season.
There were side issues, almost smoke-screens, about moving the club to a new site out of town, and then everything went off the boil as events turned to promotion and some high profile comings and goings.
Out went young manager and fans’ favourite Nick Barmby as well as Director of Football and one-time Hull City savour Adam Pearson. In came Steve Bruce, high profile, with a reputation for keeping clubs in the Premier League. At a price.
In chatting with Dr Allam I didn’t really expect the controversies of the last year or more to make it onto the agenda. But nor did I expect to have his attention for nearly three hours.
Dr Allam explains patiently that it takes the income from business to support a successful 21st century football team, that even Manchester United only thrive as a football team on the strength of the global commercial operation.
He doesn’t swear, and has even managed to bring bad language under control among the workers who manufacture generators in the Allam Marine factory just outside Hull. Should he ever lapse it will undoubtedly be as a result of the frustration of dealing with local councillors.
“Many things have happened that could have annoyed me but I don’t get annoyed that easily,” he said.
“But when I said the matter of trying to buy the stadium was closed I meant it. I have absolutely nothing to do with Hull City Council. I am not going to put any investment into the KC Stadium and I am not going to put any investment into the city of Hull.”
It will take a great deal to bring the two parties together, and without that it is hard to see how the club will progress in a sustainable way with a stadium which, while still impressive, will be 10 years old in December.
The capacity is stuck at around 25,000 – rather lower when segregation is imposed – and the add-on developments envisaged when the project was unveiled have yet to materialise.
The club’s former home, Boothferry Park, was famous for its railway halt which allowed trains to park up behind the biggest stand. The KC Stadium has the railway line to Scarborough running along one side and to the rest of Yorkshire along another. Yet a purpose-built station has never got off the drawing board.
Dr Allam’s vision is to increase the capacity by 10,000 seats and introduce ticket discounts accordingly. Instead, without the revenue generated by increased attendances supported by a dynamic commercial offer, he has raised ticket prices by up to 15 per cent and scrapped reductions for disabled fans.
Such moves have provoked uproar, as did the sackings of Barmby and Pearson, but Dr Allam is unmoved. He says disabled fans already pay full price at the city’s rugby clubs so shouldn’t expect special treatment from the football club, that their helpers are admitted free of charge and that other price rises – after years of only modest increases – are justified by the need for the club to become self-sufficient.
On Barmby, Dr Allam points out that if the former England international had really had his heart in Hull City he would have arrived to lead the push to the Premier League earlier in his career. And of his critics in general Dr Allam says they are probably on the side of the council.
“Criticism doesn’t bother me,” he said,
“I don’t listen to people who criticise without coming up with an alternative. Can you name a stadium that has been built since 2000 that doesn’t have commercial businesses?”
He reveals that he sacked six senior people from Hull City between December and June having only previously dismissed one during 20 years of owning his own business and taking it into the Sunday Times top three engineering companies for exports.
In addition to Barmby and Pearson the casualties included backroom staff and £5-million record signing Jimmy Bullard, who became a financial millstone for the club.
“That is not a man who is mad about sacking,” he said.
“But it is very difficult when what you are trying to do goes against the grain. You need to be strong in your views, determined, I would not do it any other way.
“We are paying Premier League but we are not Premier League income. It is all from my pocket and that cannot continue, especially when there is a logical alternative.”
Dr Allam points to the recruitment of Steve Bruce and the new backroom team as evidence that he is serious about bringing success to Hull City. He says he is disappointed by corruption in the game and by a lack of loyalty, and he is conscious that in trying to run a football club along business lines he is trying to succeed where even Sir Alan Sugar decided enough was enough.
But Dr Allam still feels the excitement when he sees a big crowd turn up to watch his team, even if the KC is someone else’s stadium.
So his understanding of the game has improved somewhat since he first walked into a Hull City press conference as owner and confessed to knowing nothing about football. Except on one front.
“I still don’t really understand offside,” he said.