Ann Budge interview: Big heart, big commitment

Hearts owner Ann Budge has been resolute in ensuring that the various arms of the Edinburgh club share the same values of social responsibility. Photograph: Lisa Ferguson
Hearts owner Ann Budge has been resolute in ensuring that the various arms of the Edinburgh club share the same values of social responsibility. Photograph: Lisa Ferguson
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Ann Budge explains how Tynecastle club’s charity is helping the less fortunate in the community

LOOK at the Big Hearts website and in the section introducing the trustees there is a paragraph on Ann Budge, who, it quite rightly states, hardly needs an introduction.

The owner and chairperson of Heart of Midlothian FC, she is now a name renowned. Not just for her business success which afforded her the means to bail out the Gorgie club in its hour of need, but in the football world where she stands out.

A woman who creates headlines, she does so for the right reasons. She wants football to thrive, she wants it to be a better environment, she wants that for society as well and she wants Hearts to play a key part in that.

The blurb on the charity website adds that she is the first majority shareholder of the football club to sit on the Big Hearts board, stating that “her willingness to be part of the Big Hearts Board is just another indicator of Ann’s dedication to the broader community impact that she is looking for from the Club’s overall activities”.

From employing the sound business practices that ensured the club emerged from administration and found a winning formula on the pitch, to introducing the living wage, swapping Wonga for Save The Children as the name that adorns the strips and railing against unacceptable displays of sectarianism and anti-social behaviour, she has stuck to her principles even when some suggested that in an environment often considered devoid of such things there was little point.

It is in the little things, like introducing a Friday lunch where cleaners, secretaries and ticket clerks sit down with players, management and board members, that she is fostering a team ethic off the pitch as well as on it but the headline-grabbing moments are what is engendering a burgeoning sense of purpose and wider support.

In the not-too-distant past the club was often referred to as a three-ring circus but now when the engaging IT entrepreneur talks about the three rings she sees in her mind, there is nothing to be ridiculed.

“I see three intersecting circles. There’s the club, there’s Foundation of Hearts, who are absolutely supporting the club, and we have got Big Hearts [Hearts’ official community charity] and they are all inter-connected so we have to have the same values. Not necessarily the same objectives but the same over-riding values and our objectives have to fit together. Ok, they are three separate entities but in the minds of people out there and supporters, what happens at Big Hearts, is Hearts. And in a sense what happens with FoH, is Hearts so it has to be tightly-knit.”

Separate but similar. Like the football club, the Big Hearts charity has transformed since a period of relative neglect and the bad publicity generated by the embezzlement of funds by a former employee left it at rock bottom and on the point of extinction.

“There were a number of things we looked at and thought ‘oh no, can we handle another of these problem areas?’ So we did need to take decisions and some were more risky than others but I tried to take my time on the ones where I had the time, things like Big Hearts. I had numerous meetings over several months and tried to work out how big a problem it was and what condition Big Hearts was in and was there a better way of doing it. But even if we had closed Big Hearts down we would have started something similar. We want to do something charitable.”

Joining the board of trustees eats into her little time away from dealing with the football club. That already attracts earache from daughter Carol. Ironically it was her daughter who got the busy businesswoman into the sport and the club, the purchase of season tickets intended to guarantee them a few hours of quality time together on a Saturday, away from work and phone calls. That plan worked until Budge had to swap her seat in the Wheatfield Stand for a place in the directors’ box. On top of that, the time taken to sort out the mess left by the previous owners means the woman nicknamed the Queen of Hearts is often pulled up for apparently neglecting grandmotherly duties, she says with a wry smile.

But family is hugely important to Hearts’ owner and it fashions the way she approaches life. Which is why she not only decided to keep Big Hearts going, she has helped inject new life in it with a number of new trustees, a couple of new employees and a positive ethos that reflects the club.

“We had early meetings about some of the things that had been run by Big Hearts, which were football related, and one of the first things I decided was that surely a charity should be about charity and not about running kids’ football or whatever. The club has the expertise to do that so we took that back under the auspices of the football club and we will continue to do that on a non-profit making basis and we will continue to provide all these football-related football community services but the charity can concentrate on being a charity.”

Finding something to focus the energies on was the next task. Chairman Jim Panton, former chief executive of Erskine and PoppyScotland, suggested Kinship Care.

“When Jim came in and asked if I knew what Kinship Care is I said ‘no’ but then he explained and, of course, I knew what it was. I like the idea that it spans different generations and gives us a way to help all generations of families. One of the things you are very aware of on a match day is that we have kids to 80- and 90-year-olds, sometimes four generations of the same family and this is something that can help so many generations.”

Kinship Care is where a child lives with a relative or close family friend for either a short period of time or permanently as their parents are unable to care for them for a variety of reasons, including illness or bereavement, substance misuse or mental health issues. Sometimes they are formal placements, sometimes they are informal arrangements.

“Again it comes back to families and I know that sounds a bit sickly,” she says, cringing slightly, “but it is what communities are about. We say we want to be a family club, well this reflects that. It’s about trying to give the young ones access to experiences they are not normally in a position to enjoy but a big part is also offering support to the actual carers. It is about the whole family and like many things in life, it can be very lonely if you are confronted with this particular family problem.”

A product of what she describes as a poor but loving upbringing, she draws on her life experiences, shunning the cold heart and hard nose often associated with people who rise to the top. A student of psychology at Strathclyde University she sees the value in empathy, respect and fairness.

“More than ever, since I got involved with the club and then with Big Hearts, I have thought back to my own upbringing and try to remember what it was like to have a relatively impoverished upbringing. It was a very, very good upbringing but we had very little in terms of means and I’ve often thought about what my mum’s life must have been like and it is still going on today. I’ve been fortunate in that I had a poor start in life but I have left that behind. But I know that there are an awful lot of people who haven’t left it behind and who are still going through these sort of things. So I think if you can empathise and understand, that helps.”

Describing herself as a predominantly single-mum, she says the idea of kinship care wasn’t something she consciously considered but, with the benefit of coming from a close family, claims: “There’s an extended family of about 50 of us for Christmas lunch now!” She says she sub-consciously knew that there would always be a strong support network for her daughter if it was needed.

“People’s circumstances are frequently a matter of chance. People say you make your own luck and up to a point I would agree with that, but you have to be given the opportunity. So if someone is caught in difficult circumstances it doesn’t make them a bad person and doesn’t mean you should treat them differently. They are usually doing their best. You have to remember that and tap into that.

“Maybe you were planning your retirement and suddenly they have to care for this child. This is about creating a network so they don’t feel they are the only ones and also help provide them with practical help. We can give them support and access to the information and the help they need.”

Her mother again comes to mind as thoughts drift back to her younger days in North Edinburgh, where she was once the West Pilton Gala Queen. “Where we stayed there were blocks of two and two, and her network was purely the other mums who lived in these four stairs and she didn’t have access to external organisations. Maybe they didn’t need in the same way that kinship care families do but the thing that kept her sane often was having someone to talk to. I think that is the case when you have a fairly hard life, I think having other people you can discuss that with and who can empathise with you, is enormously important and I think that is one of the biggest things about kinship care.”

l Big Hearts Community Trust officially launches its new Kinship Care Programme with a Family Open Day for kinship care families at Tynecastle this Tuesday, October 20 and the Kinship Care After School Club will begin on October 27 (4:30pm – 6:30pm). This club will also be for the whole family – providing youth club activities for children as well as a support group for carers, and a family meal for all.

For further details or to volunteer, contact