SEVEN months ago, Hibs fans were calling for his head. Rod Petrie was never likely to serve it up to them on a platter, but he has now endorsed a plan which he admits could ultimately lead to his removal from the board.
The feelgood factor surrounding Hibs in the wake of Saturday’s scintillating 4-0 defeat of Rangers was further enhanced yesterday with the announcement of a radical debt restructuring deal and £2.5 million share issue proposal which presents the possibility of 51 per cent supporter ownership of the club.
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For chairman Petrie, whose personal approval rating among Hibs fans reached a new low in the wake of May’s relegation from the Premiership, it opens the door to significant diminishment of his influence on the running of the club.
There remains a sense that Petrie is in no hurry to take his leave of a boardroom where he has effectively had a dominant voice and controlled the purse strings since leading Sir Tom Farmer’s rescue plan to take Hibs out of receivership back in 1991.
Even though he has taken a step back from the front line running of the club since appointing Leeann Dempster as chief executive in June, it was perhaps telling that the 58-year-old should take the leading role at yesterday’s press conference at Easter Road.
Media briefings from Petrie are a rarity, normally only occurring in the event of hiring and firing of managers. The personal significance to Petrie of the share issue plan and change in ownership model, moving away from the 98 per cent grip Farmer’s HFC Holdings Ltd currently have, was clear to see.
Although he was keen to deflect any questions away from his own future at the club, he did concede that supporters were now being offered a set of circumstances which will leave his own position outwith the firm control of Farmer and himself.
Petrie said: “Obviously, as the balance changes from 98 per cent ownership by the holding company and 2 per cent by supporters at the moment, closer to the 51 per cent of supporter ownership, then that will lead to greater influence of other people to have a say in who is on the board and what roles people have. That will come out of the process we are on.
“Today is about an important announcement for the club, it’s not about dissecting what’s happened over the last few months. It is a fantastic opportunity for Hibernian supporters – it’s what they have been saying they wanted.
“I spoke to Pat Stanton this morning. He is welcoming it on behalf of supporters. It is something they want to unite behind.
“Over time, subject to the various approvals, there will be an opportunity for the fans to have a greater stake in the football club.
“Sir Tom Farmer is not a guarantor, but I understand the point about the comfort he provides. Nothing changes. The holding company and every other shareholder have the shares they have at the moment. What we have done is take the opportunity for other people to have new shares.
“Together, as other people come on board and contribute, we will have a bigger group of people who are able to take the club forward.
“The board of directors are in charge of the stewardship of the football club. There is a shareholders association which has represented the interests of a group of shareholders. So we will need to talk to a number of different groups involved with the club as supporters and shareholders.
“We will be doing that in the very near future to explain the plans, how they will work and get their views on how we fine tune it going forward.”
As Hibs progress through a season when immediate promotion back to the Premiership now appears possible only through the play-offs, Petrie also stressed that the refinancing of the club will have no immediate dividend for manager Alan Stubbs in the January transfer window.
He said: “We are now bank debt free but our supporters know it is important we balance the books, live within our means and try to adhere to the budget we’ve got for the coming year.
“This is a step along the way which will make things slightly easier, but it is not an immediate injection of cash.
“It is going forward for approval at our AGM at the end of next month and then will be rolled out after that. So there will be no immediate, short-term injection in January.
“The holding company has facilitated the reduction in debt. It has been actively involved in discussions with the bank.
“The annual interest charge on the debt was running at around £125,000. There were also scheduled repayments of the three mortgages we had with the bank. The debt will be halved and a new mortgage put in place on terms which are acceptable to the football club.”
Petrie added: “What we are putting in place is a medium term and long term financial structure appropriate for our club.
“The plan is not affected by us being in the Championship. We want to be promoted as quickly as we can be and we have an opportunity to do that this season.
“Every year we set a budget which is appropriate to our circumstances. The whole ethos of the football club is about sporting ambition and trying to be in the upper echelons of Scottish football and we’re trying to make that happen as quickly as we can.”
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