HIBERNIAN chairman Rod Petrie has urged supporters to unite and rally behind what he describes as a “groundbreaking” proposal for fan ownership of the Easter Road club.
Petrie, the target for much of the discontentment among followers of Hibs in recent years, yesterday unveiled plans for a £2.5 million share issue which could ultimately wipe out the controlling interest in the club he currently wields on behalf of entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer.
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If a full uptake of the share issue is achieved, supporters will be in a position to own 51 per cent of Hibs.
Petrie also announced a dramatic restructuring of the club’s finances which has seen their bank debt of around £6.5 million removed in a settlement with Bank of Scotland. Hibs’ total debt of £9 million has been halved to £4.5 million through an agreement with their holding company, HFC Holdings Ltd, of which Farmer and Petrie are the only directors.
HFC Holdings, who currently own 98 per cent of Hibs shares, will convert £4.5 million of loans into new ordinary shares in the club. The remaining loans will be refinanced as a single £5 million mortgage on terms acceptable to the club.
Petrie stressed that Easter Road and the Hibs Training Centre at East Mains, which were valued at a combined £25 million earlier this year, will remain in the ownership of the club as part of the share issue proposal which will be put before their annual general meeting on 28 January.
Antipathy towards Petrie and the existing ownership model at Hibs reached its zenith in the wake of the club’s relegation from the Scottish Premiership at the end of last season. But the 58-year-old, who has been on the Hibs board since 1996, is optimistic the new plans will be embraced by the fanbase.
“I would hope it would be welcomed,” said Petrie. “It’s an exciting opportunity. It think it is actually quite groundbreaking for a club in our position to be able to do this.
“This is a transition of a solvent, stable football club to widen the ownership base. The online survey and face to face meetings with supporters we conducted showed a healthy appetite for further engagement in the club.
“There wasn’t any appetite for 100 per cent ownership by supporters, but there was interest in greater engagement and supporters involvement.
“It is something we have been working on for almost the whole of this calendar year and it is great to be able to announce it now. The whole environment of football has changed. The supporters put their faith in the club and we’ve put our faith in the supporters. Together we can take the club where it should be. These are things that people have worked very hard on over a period of time.
“We had to face the fact we were relegated in the summer. We made some fairly radical changes at the club. Leeann Dempster came in as chief executive and was instrumental in restructuring what you see in front of you today, both on the pitch and behind it in terms of back-up support for the first team and academy structure.
“It was important we didn’t lose focus on bringing these things to fruition. Equally, we had to deal with other things parallel to that. It was great that we had a committed group of people and a talented chief executive able to deal with all those things while shaping the future of the club.
“Every supporter of Hibernian is passionate about their club. They want to see the best for the club. We have to understand that passion, speak to them and listen to them and try to translate that into good things for the club. This is a good thing for the club today and hopefully something everyone can rally behind.”
Dempster, the former Motherwell chief executive who formally took up her role at Easter Road just days after the shattering relegation-promotion play-off defeat to Hamilton
Accies at the end of May, believes the club’s supporters should be appreciative of the willingness for change shown by Petrie and Farmer.
“In my time here there has been an enormous amount of change already,” said Dempster. “We are now unveiling a lot of the work that has been going on behind the scenes, along with the work which has gone into the football side of things.
“We came to the club with a football plan, an operational plan and in my time here we have had the full support of the board and chairman. It is important supporters understand that.
“At times it has been quite trying and difficult but I think this is a really positive announcement. It puts us in a good position and gives us an opportunity for supporters to become much more involved. They have told us they want an element of control, they care deeply about the club, and it’s important we listen.
“I knew this was going to happen when I joined the club. It’s something that appeals to me and I was excited about it when I heard it. We know that this club means everything to Hibs supporters, they tell us that. This is a chance for them to take control of the club. We are trying to empower them and move forward.”
The BuyHibs group, which is campaigning for fan ownership of the Easter Road club, issued a statement last night expressing “delight” at the development.
It went on: “BuyHibs are extremely encouraged by today’s announcement from the owners of Hibernian Football Club as it contains many of the key principle BuyHibs have proposed.
“Confirmation that Easter Road Stadium and East Mains training centre will remain assets of the football club will be welcomed by all Hibs fans as it secures the future for generations of Hibs fans to come.
“BuyHibs await the release of the club accounts to fully understand the detail behind the proposal – in particular the term and interest rate agreed for the new consolidated £5m mortgage from the owners.”
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