There are several distinct chapters in Sir Tom Farmer’s life: early success with the firm he set up in the southside of Edinburgh followed by (very) early retirement in San Francisco and then, having quickly bored of this, the Kwik Fit years.
Even after the company that made his name and another fortune, there was an encore: after the sale of Kwit Fit to Ford, he set up Farmer Autocare.
It is at the HQ of this firm where we meet this week on the day of his 79th birthday.
He’s seven days into his new, post-Hibernian life. Another chapter has drawn to a close, one which proved longer than he had ever imagined possible. Remarkably, his length of service at Hibs has even exceeded his Kwik Fit association: in other words, the time it took to start up from scratch, and then sell, a company worth £1 billion.
“I never expected that,” he says. “But it has gone very quickly. It has had ups and downs. But it has been an enjoyable 28 years. To look back and see what’s been achieved and know you were a part of the organisation that achieved that and took a great club from the ashes – because it was in the ashes. It rose from the ashes. And to be what it is now, it gives me enormous satisfaction.
“And I am sure Ron Gordon will make it better.”
Farmer first met Gordon at his aforementioned office just off Queensferry Road in Edinburgh. They later enjoyed a more relaxed dinner in the convivial surroundings of Prestonfield House, the five star hotel on the other side of Arthur’s Seat from Easter Road. Someone in the party, he won’t say whom, turned to Farmer and said: ‘I see a lot of you in him’.
Now they mentioned it, so could Farmer. “I could see it. He had energy – passion is a good word.”
There is one crucial difference: Leith runs through Farmer’s veins to the extent that, when he celebrated his birthday earlier this week, there was only one place to go: The Shore. New Hibs owner Gordon, who made his fortune in telecommunications in the States, could not have grown up much farther away: Lima, on the rim of the Pacific.
“All you can do is meet up and talk and over a period of time, you get a feeling,” says Farmer. “Without doubt we would have preferred someone from the home base. But there was nobody who merited it.” Farmer stresses that Gordon was by far the most impressive of around a dozen suitors he met over the years. He has put far too much in to be reckless when divesting himself of the club. It’s not only a considerable chunk of Farmer’s life, it’s also a sizeable period in the constantly revolving news cycle that is Scottish football. Nearly every other club in the country has passed into new hands at least once in the interim, some several times. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same at Hibs. That is why last week’s news of a change in ownership seemed so significant.
Critics will claim that, while Kwit Fit, for example, was Farmer’s baby, Hibs represented a distant relative. He was rarely there and now that he’s severed ties, it probably feels like a relief.
“I did not have a feeling of freedom or release,” counters Farmer. “It was nothing like that. There was a bit of sadness. But life carries on.”
As far as Farmer is concerned, football was always a long way down a list of passions headed by… tyres. And there’s not many Scots it’s possible to say that about. He’s certainly left his tread. However, opinion is divided about the extent of his contribution – and his motives.
“When I got involved 28 years ago I would not spend any time looking at the back pages,” he says.
“As the years went by I began to appreciate and realise how fortunate I was in many instances. I travelled the world for business, I met new people, I was doing new things all the time. But, for many people, the two things they had was their family life and the football. I began to appreciate that.
“I also began to appreciate there were sometimes people said things and when you read it, you were a bit hurt. Because there were times (when I was hurt). ‘For goodness’ sake, that’s not right’. There was an obsession with the club, with football. They wanted things to be right. They got carried away. But a lot of people over the years changed (their tune) and became very good friends.”
“Yes, Hibs fans,” he answers. “They realise they made comments without knowing the facts, these so-called ‘gurus’. They always had a mate who told them this and that. And it just wasn’t right. And you would read this. You are not going to come back. You just have to accept it. In their desire for the club to be better, they thought this and that was wrong. But they did not know why this was happening. Most of the time you could not explain why.”
The Hibs financial set-up always seemed particularly labyrinthine, stretching back to before Farmer’s time. Even now, it’s unclear exactly what impact Gordon’s takeover will have on the Farmer-supported intention for supporters to own as much as 51 per cent of the club’s shareholding (the current figure is around 33 per cent, 20 per cent of which is held by the Hibernian Supporters group).
“I am not involved in that any more,” says Farmer. Another supporters’ representative is, however, set to be added to the board.”
One thing’s for sure, Farmer never wanted to establish a dynasty. He and his wife, Anne, have two children, a daughter based in London, a son in Edinburgh. He declines to give the name of either, providing a glimpse of his determination to keep his private life private. He once said he wouldn’t hesitate courting all the publicity he could for his business, including appearing in television commercials, but when it came to family life, that was a very different matter.
This wasn’t so much a problem in the world of brake parts. Football occupies a special place in society. No matter how happy a customer is with a new exhaust, it’s unlikely he will look out Farmer to praise him personally – or bad mouth him if it’s faulty. it’s principally the Hibs connection that means he’s recognised in the street, at home and abroad.
“What gives me the greatest pleasure was to walk down Leith Walk, or George Street, or Great Junction Street, and someone stops me and says: ‘thank you’. Why? ‘Because you saved my club’. I have been in America, in Memphis… and there was a wee boy with a Hibs strip and his dad and he came over. This was in Memphis of all places!”
He was once taken aback to be asked for his autograph. The closest he had come to this in the world of vehicle maintenance was scrawling his name in the dust on car bonnets while an apprentice mechanic.
“It was at Amsterdam airport. We had business in Amsterdam. We were sitting there with my colleague and there were two boys sitting across from us. One of them came across: ‘Excuse can I have your autograph?’ That made me feel good. ‘What’s your name?’ He said Kenny. So I signed it: To Kenny, best wishes, Tom Farmer.
He takes it back to his pal. Shortly, he comes back. ‘What does that say?’ It says: To Kenny, best wishes, Tom Farmer. ‘Tom Farmer? We thought you were Alex Ferguson’.”
The criticism is that Farmer’s got an eye for the main chance. He’s been cast as opportunistic and accused of presiding over an era of lowered ambition at Easter Road. Fans of other football clubs, particularly those where uncertainty is the norm, can only treat such views with bafflement. Three major trophies, one of which was the elusive Scottish Cup, seems a reasonable trade-off for two admittedly devastating relegations. And then there’s four new stands at Easter Road, the new training centre…
Nevertheless, some Hibs supporters remain far from grateful. Farmer’s involvement, they claim, was always on his terms. Trusted lieutenant Rod Petrie got rich and Farmer got richer on the back of Hibs. The question, therefore, is a simple one. Did Farmer profit at all from owning the football club?
“No,” he says. “The club is debt free. It is debt free because Ron Gordon and myself worked to ensure it was debt free.” An annual sum of £500,000 in the form of a mortgage was paid to him in recent years, payback for a £5m interest-free loan.
Does he still own land, either around the stadium or at the club’s training ground at East Mains in East Lothian?
“No. nothing.” The ticket office and 15 acres of the training ground have been transferred to the club as part of the agreement with Gordon.
“Let me just re-emphasise: there is no debt,” says Farmer. “Mr Gordon and ourselves worked together to ensure the club is debt free. There is no debt. There is money in the bank. It is in a very strong financial position going forward.”
Petrie, meanwhile, is no longer involved. How did Farmer view him? As a right-hand man? “Partner,” says Farmer. “He has never let me down and I would like to think I have not let him down.”
The critics carped that neither “got” Hibs in the way demanded by a fanbase as loyal as any in the country. Farmer, to be fair, wouldn’t argue with that, not in the initial years of his involvement at least. He didn’t get football full stop, never mind Hibs.
“Someone, a director at another club, not long after I took over said: ‘Tom, just remember, you don’t own Hibernian Football Club. You are a custodian of Hibernian Football Club. And you have to make sure it is right for generations to come’. I felt like saying to him: ‘Custodian? It’s caused me a fortune! I own this club!’ It took me a while to appreciate what he meant.
“Football is unique,” he adds. “I understand that now. I appreciate how people. I can go to football now and enjoy it while before it was not a case of not enjoying, I just didn’t really understand it. Th truth of the matter is I worked every Saturday since I was 14.
“I worked after school, I worked on a Saturday job, and when I left school I worked on Saturdays and Sundays. That was it. Over the last ten years I have gone to more matches and I know what emotion is, because when they won it, I was at Hampden…”
“It”, of course, being the Scottish Cup. Paradise found: 21 May, 2016.
“I could not believe it,” he adds.
“There were tears in my eyes.”
The story of how Farmer got involved in Hibs is well known. He stepped in during the summer of 1990 amid febrile times for football in the capital.
Hibs had unwittingly left themselves vulnerable to a hostile bid from across the city after becoming a public limited company two years earlier. Farmer bought an initial tranche of shares to help stave off this buyout bid by Hearts owner Wallace Mercer and then bought a controlling interest in 1991, with Hibs once again in financial peril.
Farmer seemed never to hold a grudge against Mercer. If anything, he may have secretly admired a man prepared to disregard tradition in pursuit of a model regularly employed in business, where companies take over other companies all the time.
“He believed in what he was trying to do,” says Farmer. “He genuinely believed the way forward for Scottish football and the teams in Edinburgh was to have one, strong team. That was his view. But it did not bank on the emotion involved.”
Nor did it take into account Farmer’s powerful sense of community and the family thread stretching back to the previous time Hibs lifted the Scottish Cup, in 1902.
Philip, his grandfather, was involved then. He is one of those credited with resurrecting Hibs ahead of the triumph. The cup sat on the sideboard of Phillip’s home on the night it came back to Edinburgh on that occasion. As many as 114 years later, it spent the night with the same family: Farmer’s grandson, Adam, woke up clutching the trophy the morning after the 3-2 victory over Rangers.
“After 28 years, there is a time to get off the bus,” says Farmer. “Now is the time to get off the bus. Of course, the Scottish Cup was the holy grail, having achieved that…
“I did the right thing,” he adds. “There was never a time I regretted getting involved. Sometimes I would say: ‘what am I doing?!’ But I do not regret it.
“The longer I was there there the more I appreciated how important it was and the influence the club and the players can have for the good of young people in the area is fantastic.”
It must be acknowledged that Farmer was prepared to challenge the notion that an unbreakable bond exits between Hibs and Leith.
They did come close to moving to Straiton to share a stadium with Hearts in 2003 as both clubs sought ways to cut costs and reduce debt. Farmer’s belief that this would have been a successful arrangement is surprising, given what had gone before.
“If it had happened it would have been something that would have worked out very well,” he says.
“But it didn’t happen. We would have created a great sporting centre. But that’s in the past. This was nothing to do with an aggressive approach from the other club. It was something the clubs were looking at to see if it made sense. But I am glad the home of Hibs has been preserved at Leith.”
Whatever criticisms levelled at him, he hasn’t sought glory for Hibs for his own sake. A knighthood, awarded for his achievements in business, has surely satisfied any personal vanity. Asked whether the might consider having Farmer Autocare across the club’s shirt in the future, for example, he’s adamant: “No”.
“The new person has to do it their way,” he adds. “And I am sure they will be do a great job.”
He really has severed ties though expects to be back to watch the odd match. “I am sure I will be invited. Yes … I will miss it.” How many matches did he attend per season? “I don’t keep a record,” he says. “In the last ten years I went to more games each year than the previous year.”
He is genuinely at a loss for words when asked to describe his feelings were a stand to be named after him, as has been mooted.
“It is a… nice thought,” he says. And, with the sun having set on the family’s involvement with Hibs, for the time being at least, what might Philip Farmer say to the latest member of the clan to save the club. “’Good job’,” says the grandson. “I think he’d say: ‘You did a good job’.”