Does new Edinburgh Zoo man have enough animal magic?

THERE are few people at Edinburgh Zoo, it's probably fair to say, who would know how to organise drinks in a brewery. However, that is all about to change.

After six months without a chief executive, in which time the zoo has been battered by internal strife and external allegations about its management, a former brewery boss has been appointed to take charge of the second most popular tourist attraction in the Capital.

Hugh Roberts, who spent 12 years working for Adnams, an independent brewers and distillers in Southwold, Suffolk, before trying his hand at running football clubs and going on to become a somewhat nomadic board member of a variety of organisations, took up the reins of the troubled zoo yesterday.

Hide Ad

Despite his appointment bringing an end to months of concern about a lack of leadership at a time when a major deal to bring pandas from China is in the offing, Edinburgh Zoo has put Mr Roberts under wraps until June, when it's been decided he might be able to field questions about the zoo's future.

So just who is the "interim" chief Hugh Roberts? And is he the right man to ring the changes at an institution which has recently seen the suspension of two directors, the sacking of another, the resignation of the honorary treasurer, the leaking of plans to lease the zoo to a Spanish company and a vote of no confidence in chair Donald Emslie?

Certainly, the 61-year-old appears to have no connection to Edinburgh and has spent most of his life in Suffolk.

In fact, so rooted to the area is he, that even an 18-month sojourn to Sunderland was hard going for his family whom he said in the past "never settled". That at least was his reason in 2003 for quitting as chief executive of Sunderland football club - nothing to do with relegation from the Premiership, debts of 23 million and a share price crash of around 85 per cent.

His business life though started in the "quaint" Suffolk brewery of Adnams, where in a 12-year-period he rose to become joint managing director with responsibility for the company's strategic direction.

In February 2001 he was headhunted by Sunderland FC and became its chief executive at a time when the club was riding high in the Premiership and was on a solid financial footing.

Hide Ad

The results for the year to July 31, 2001, showed turnover up 27 per cent, at 46m and a pre-tax profit of 3m. At the time Mr Roberts said: "We have a strong financial base and strong revenue streams in all business areas. Costs are well under control and we are well placed to do what we need to do, on and off the pitch."

But it was all to go horribly wrong. By the time he resigned in April 2003, the club was about to be relegated, it had debts of 26.6m - in the main due to splashing more than 20m on signings such as Tore Andre Flo, Claudio Reyna and Marcus Stewart, while spending on the plush Academy of Light - and a wage bill of around 18.5m.

Hide Ad

While club chairman Bob Murray said at the time that Roberts had "made a significant and lasting contribution to the club", few supporters would have recognised the chief executive if he walked past them in the street. As Martyn McFadden, editor of Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme recalls: "Hugh Roberts is the John Major of football management . . . you don't notice him when he's there and once he's gone you forget he ever existed.

"He was probably just getting on with the job, but he rarely spoke to the press. He was so low profile, he was a nonentity. And that took some doing at that time when the club was going through a rough time. Most of the supporters directed their anger at the chairman instead."

Another local sports writer agrees: "He was really low profile, but I remember him being a nice, self-effacing sort of a man."

However, some people had been watching. A City diarist wrote: "Shareholding Sunderland fans must be wondering why chief executive Hugh Roberts, who has just resigned, ever joined at all. Since he took over two years ago, one of the most consistently profitable clubs has been turned into one losing 1m a month. The share price, again one of the former best performers in the sector, crashed 85 per cent."

Despite his problems at Sunderland, Roberts then popped up two years later at another football club - Northampton's Rushden and Diamonds.

According to the club's board meeting minutes from March 2005, it was decided to "bring in an interim MD" to drive the commercial side of the club, "Hugh Roberts was suggested and a discussion followed . . . with four years (sic] previous experience as CEO at Sunderland . . . with knowledge of football and business it was agreed to make the appointment."

Hide Ad

At the time Roberts said his role was to "make the club run smoothly and be safe financially". He added: "It seems as if I have been here for four years already because it is a very easy place to settle into. Everyone wants to get involved. The club has recently been taken over by the supporter's club and our new saying is 'New season, new beginning and new opportunities'."

Yet, according to sports editor of the Northamptonshire Evening Post Jim Lyon Roberts again was incredibly low profile - and short-lived. "He was interim managing director during May 2005," says Jim. "He was basically just helping out for a few weeks while the supporters trust sorted itself to take control. He was little more than a fleeting visitor to Diamonds . . . appointed in May and the trust took over in the first week of June when a new board and managing director were put in place."

Hide Ad

From there Roberts' CV becomes much more varied. According to the information from Edinburgh Zoo he was MD of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Chadwick House Group Limited, financial director with the WRVS, and more recently with the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health and James Paget University Hospitals.

Roberts' own profile on networking site LinkedIn appears to suggest he was MD at both Chadwick House Group Ltd and at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health between 2005 and 2007.

A spokeswoman for London-based Chadwick House Group Ltd confirmed that while Roberts had worked there as MD "five or six years ago", he was not also the MD of the CIEH. "We were two separate organisation in those days but shared the same building. He worked for CIEH in as much as he managed the commercial side and was director of its trading company." Asked if she knew him well and what impression he had left, she said: "It's hard to say, he wasn't here for very long."

A spokeswoman for the CIEH refused to comment on whether he had worked with the organisation. His six-month role in the last year as interim director of finance with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the organisation. Perhaps more pertinently his online profile also lists Odgers Interim management, a nationwide firm which specialises in putting businesses in touch with temporary managers - which is exactly how Roberts seems to have carved out his career.

On its website it highlights that an "interim manager can be used at a time of crisis to turn round a failing service or business".

It adds that an interim manager or director can "give a company or organisation some breathing space".

Hide Ad

It's probably no surprise then that six years ago he set up a business and management consultancy with Susan Roberts - thought to be his wife - in Beccles, Suffolk, under the name The Interim Experience. He is listed as director and secretary of the company and her role is given as 'counsellor'.

The couple live at Birketts Farm, Westhall, Halesworth, in Suffolk, a market town which boasts the Oasis Camel Centre, home to camels, llamas and alpacas, crazy golf and a shop selling alpaca wool knitwear.

Hide Ad

Perhaps he's got the right stuff for Edinburgh Zoo after all.