BOING's Interview with Barry Hurst

The resigned Director answers questions from BOING readers about what's happening in the Boardroom

Following Barry Hurst's offer of an interview about his resignation and the forthcoming EGM, Chris Saunders spoke to him on Monday 7th June - just prior to the first informal meeting between him, Paul Thompson, Clive Stapleton and some of the shareholders at the Moat House in West Bromwich. The following is, pretty well, an exact transcript of the conversation:

How long have you been a Director and how did you first become one?

I?ve been a Director since 1992, when the Board was in much the same sort of state as it is now, in other words pretty well split. John Silk was Chairman, Bobby Gould was the manager and there was rioting on the terraces. John Silk retired, there was a vacancy and I felt I could help to bring a bit of stability to the club, so I stood and was elected.

What were your duties as a Director...?

One of the main things I did when I first joined the Board, which was at the same time as Terry Guy [the previous Financial Director] joined, was to set about modifying the Constitution of the Club. The old Constitution had prevented people from investing money in the club, because however many shares they held, each shareholder was only entitled to one vote. So this discouraged wealthy people from investing large sums of money in the club, because they would have no control ? or at least, no more say in the running of the club than people with only one share. So we set about modernising the Constitution, and finally, after three EGMs, we got it changed so that it became one share ? one vote. That took most of my time for the first 18 months or so; the other responsibility I had, and this was in the days before we had a Chief Executive, was the merchandising - basically, the Club Shop.

...and how much of your time did you spend carrying them out?

Whatever was necessary, really. It probably averaged out to a couple of half days a week.

Why was the share price set so high on the initial offer?

The price was high because we felt it would become unmanageable for people to want to buy only, say, five pounds worth of shares, and that the register of shareholders would become unwieldy ? the cost of administering a massive register of shareholders with tiny investments would make it uneconomic. The old shares were trading at around 3,000 pounds each ? so we subdivided those shares and offered them to investors at 500 pounds each, which obviously meant that there was a minimum investment of 500 pounds, which we felt was a reasonable figure, though perhaps some people would disagree. But we felt it was a reasonable figure and a sensible sort of level of investment ? as it is, we now have over 2,000 shareholders, and each one has to have an Annual Report and receive circulars and so on.

Thompson has criticised the flotation, so how could it have been done better?

I?m not sure that Paul has criticised the flotation as such. What he did was to produce a plan which said we needed to raise 10 million pounds to complete the stadium development, acquire a training ground and strengthen the team. He didn?t actually say that this should have been done at the time we were introduced to the Stock Market, but the two have been linked since then. When he first invested in the club, obviously we needed to launch a share issue so that he could get shares in return for his money, and this was done on the basis of a rights issue to existing shareholders. When we had done that, and Paul?s investment was in along with Tony Hale?s and Graham Waldron?s, we decided that it would be very useful to obtain a Stock Exchange listing as a platform for further fundraising. You could argue, perhaps, that we should have linked the two, but at the time we didn?t feel it was right and so we obtained the listing afterwards. So the Share issue and the 10 million pounds that Paul felt were separate issues, and if we felt we could have raised that sort of money we would have tried to do so. But the advice that we were getting from the stockbrokers at the time was that it was very unlikely.

So has the AIM listing helped or hindered the Club?

I don?t think it?s done either at the moment, but that it will help to raise futher money in the future. The bubble has burst, though, with football shares at the moment ? not just Albion shares - there?s only one really, United, and they?ve had such tremendous success that their value has been well supported, but the rest of the market is struggling a bit. But it?s a question now of waiting for the next window of opportunity; at least now that the platform is in place, if a big benefactor does want to invest in West Brom at least he?s got a publicly listed company to allow him do do it. Obviously, if someone just buys shares on the open market the club won?t benefit, so a new issue would have to be made to get fresh capital in.

Regarding the merits of having an ex-footballer as a Chief Executive - given the vast differences between the salaries paid in his day and those paid now, do you think it would make it hard for him to negotiate? Could an element of jealousy cause difficulties here?

I don?t think so. The benefit of having an ex-player involved is that he will have more respect from the manager, the management team and the players because they know that he?s a former professional and that he understands the playing side of the business as well as the management side (he was also briefly in management at Peterborough). The rest of the Board, and I know this from experience with various managers, are supporters, and we ask the same sort of questions as most supporters so ? why are we playing people out of position, why don?t we play with three centre halves instead of two when clearly we?re leaking goals, and so on - and the managers reaction is along the lines of "you?ve never played the game, you don?t really know what you?re talking about".

A particular ex-manager springs to mind!

Yes! But believe me, they?re all the same, and it helps to have someone who has played the game, who can?t be approached in that sort of way. But that wasn?t the only consideration ? John had left the game and gone into commerce, he?d started as a sales rep and worked his way up to regional manager with quite a few people under him, and we felt he was intelligent and articulate, and with his football background on top of that, he?d do a good job.

Why do we always seem to have trouble attracting players to the club, either permanently or on loan? Why do negotiations always seem to take so long, sometimes causing us to almost lose players?

It?s a lack of decisiveness, and I think it?s down to indecision at the top ? and this is one of the criticisms I have of Tony Hale. We?re not positive; the manager will identify a player, but we don?t "go for it". Calderwood was a classic example. Even now we?re talking about Keith Curle ? so if he wants Keith Curle, why don?t we go and get Keith Curle? They were talking about Melville as well, but now he?s got fixed up ? okay, he probably wanted more than we were prepared to offer, but then they all do. The point is, that we should make our best offer, and if it?s not accepted then cross him out and go to the next man, but we just faff about.

But the process at the moment is that the manager identifies a player, he asks the Board about signing him, the Board decide what terms would be acceptable and then the negotiations begin. You?re saying that the whole process is too long winded and frustrates people?

Yes, but in many cases Tony wasn?t encouraging the manager to do anything. We had a Board meeting on the Thursday before we played Grimsby at the end of January ? if we?d beaten them, we would have gone 5th in the table. I urged Denis then to get players in on loan and push for the playoffs, because we were in a reasonably good position at that stage ? but Tony didn?t encourage him and nothing was done. Calderwood then became available; we spoke to Tottenham - we spoke to David Pleat and George Graham ? they gave him a good reference and were prepared to release him. The fee was reasonable ? it was possibly less than Aston Villa paid for him, certainly no more, and we knew then that Bortolazzi?s contract wasn?t going to be renewed and that his wages would cover Calderwood?s wages. And he was just the player we needed, an experienced centre back, in just the position we needed, but all Tony said was that we had to cut costs ? so we didn?t get him. Clearly we *have* to control costs, but we have to have success on the pitch as well.

A lot of the criticism is that we should be spending money, but obviously if the money isn?t there we can?t spend it. Is it the case that the money WAS available?

I feel sure we could have found the 225,000 pounds - or at most 250,000 pounds - from somewhere if the desire had been there to get Calderwood in, knowing that there would be players going out in the summer. He wouldn?t necessarily have been an extra on the wage bill, just a replacement for other people. But he could have made the difference ? we could still possibly have made the playoffs. This was weeks and weeks before Aston Villa ever came on the scene - it wasn?t a question of us or Villa, because if it had been a straight choice he would probably have gone there anyway. But the problem is that the manager isn?t getting the right encouragement from Tony, he?s just being told to cut the costs all the time ? to work with what he?s got, or even less than he?s got.

But on the other hand, do you really feel that the club has made no progress at all under Tony Hale? Surely it?s much stronger off the pitch even if recent performances on it have been disappointing?

I think there is definitely better internal management, there is much better financial control now with Bob McGing, and the day to day management, through John Wile, is much stronger. I just don?t feel that he?s encouraged his managers to push for better results on the pitch ? it wasn?t until the 5-1 defeat by Crewe that he had a real heart to heart talk with the manager. He didn?t have sufficient contact with the manager; it needed a much closer working relationship with both the manager and the Chief Executive.

So it?s just down to the Chairman to get the manager to do things?

Well, Denis was the sort of manager who would only act on the Chairman?s authority ? if the Chairman told him to do something, he?d do it, but if John Wile or any of the other Board members suggested that we should get some loan players in or something, he wouldn?t do it unless the Chairman told him to do it.

But isn?t it the Chairman that has the final say in everything, though?

Yes, but if the Chairman didn?t tell him to do something, he just wouldn?t do it.

OK, so why exactly did you resign? Was it purely to get rid of Tony Hale as Chairman?

We had a Board meeting on the 17th May to discuss the new contract for Lee Hughes, prior to a meeting with his agents. At the end of those discussions, Tony revealed that he had received a letter from Paul Thompson saying that he had tried to persuade him to step down, and failed, and that now that the season was over, as the largest shareholder he was going to be taking steps to bring about the change of leadership he felt was necessary.

So this was long before his call for an EGM became public?

Yes, and Tony basically said "I?m not going to step down, and I want the full support of all of my Directors, and if they can?t give me their full support I want their resignation". And I just felt that I couldn?t offer Tony my support, in an unqualified way ? I?m not a clone, and my duty as a Director of a Football Club is to the shareholders, as it is for the Director of any company, not to the Chairman. I said that I wasn?t prepared just to sit there and be a "yes man", so I couldn?t give him my full support therefore he?d have to have my resignation. I didn?t go into the meeting intending to resign ? it came as a surprise - I didn?t know Paul had sent this letter. As Paul said in that letter, that if the majority of the Directors question his decisions, perhaps he should question the quality of his decisions rather than accuse them of being disloyal. Tony has always talked about having a democratic Board, a united Board, but there?s no point it being democratic and united just to agree with Tony Hale and be regarded as disloyal if we don?t agree with him; I think we?ve got to be more objective and more constructive than that.

The three of you have made up a significant number of the Board over recent years, so surely you could have simply outvoted him where you feel he was making the wrong decisions?

Yes, and this did happen on several occasions. But with a plc Board of six ? one executive and five non-executives, and three of his five non-execs disagreeing with him on more than one occasion, he should consider whether it is right for him to continue as Chairman if he hasn?t got the support of his Board. But I feel that he puts his own interests above those of the football club.

His own interests...?

Protecting his position. Staying as Chairman rather than finding the best Chairman for the football club.

Why was Denis Smith appointed? Does he have the support of all the current directors? What are your personal views on him ? would you sack him, extend his contract, give him until the end of next season, etc?

I wouldn?t extend his contract at this stage, I?d say give him one more season. I think he?s made mistakes, he?s admitted that he?s made mistakes, and he should be given the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and that he should be given one more season. He was an experienced manager, I interviewed him at the time along with Clive Stapleton, Tony and John Wile and he seemed to be the sort of manager we could work with, he?d had reasonably good success with his previous teams where he?d won promotion, so he was the one we ran with. But it?s been a bit disappointing, and I think everyone feels that way ? there were certainly some things he could have done better ? if we?d made the right decisions at the time our season could have been better.

Do you think we could have found anyone better than Denis?

No. I think that if we could have found someone better at the time, we would have done. Bear in mind, of course, that it was a bad time ? Harford left us half way through the season and it?s a difficult time to get people.

Can you shed any more light on the real reasons behind Harford leaving? Was there any more to it that has been made public?

Not that I know of. I?m sure that it was simply the fact that it was a job in London ? which is disappointing, because he knew where West Bromwich was when he came to us, didn?t he? We didn?t suddenly arrive halfway up the M6! But it was disappointing, we gave him the opportunity to re-establish himself as a manager, and I know of no other reason ? and I gather from comments in the press that he?d like the opportunity to come and talk to us again.

So has there been any serious talk of getting him back?

No there hasn?t. We?d also have to consider his record at QPR...

Why did you leave it so long before taking action? If it was all started as soon as it was obvious that we wouldn't have made the play-offs, this matter would have been sorted out in time to get plans under way for next season. As it is, with the EGM not until July 8th, the close-season planning and transfer activity is going to be inevitably disrupted. Do you really feel this action is in the best interests of the club?

Well, I don?t think that it should be disrupted. Denis will still be there as manager, whoever is Chairman, and he should be getting on with the job. The Board that are there now should be give him whatever support they can give him, and he should get on with running the club.

Do you think that maybe he?s not getting the direction he needs, given the current circumstances?

Well, I think Tony is probably trying to make it bad for us, by saying that we?re giving the club a problem. I think that?s part of the game, but I see no reason why the manager can?t negotiate with players like Keith Curle, and I see from the papers that he?s interested in Smith from Sunderland. If those are the players that he feels can do a job for us and improve the team, I see no reason at all why he shouldn?t go ahead and do it - unless the Chairman?s holding him back.

Tony Hale has probably got his mind more on the EGM?

Well, we all have, but at the same time we have got to be preparing as best as we can for next season.

So there?s nothing stopping us from signing players?

Nothing at all. Most players are still on contract till the end of June, and they don?t usually leave until the first week of July, but I don?t think there?s anything to stop them talking now and getting new contracts lined up... I?m sure they?d do it on the quiet even if they couldn?t, perhaps through their agents or whatever.

But isn?t there a question mark over the finances, given that Tony Hale?s talking about putting more money into the club if he stays on?

Well, at the end of last season, Tony was talking about us having to cut costs by 800,000 pounds a year as that was the sort of size of the loss we were going to have to declare. I don?t really see how he can reconcile cutting costs and strengthening the team. If he?s talking about putting money into the club, I don?t see why he can?t make it a loan like Paul Thompson did when he joined, pending a share issue, it could be a loan that becomes repayable on him ceasing to become a member of the Board.

Can you name one specific decision that you would have made differently to Tony Hale, and outline how your different decision would provided greater benefit for WBA?

Well, I would certainly have made different decisions on the playing side... there were several opportunities to get loan players in, like Carl Serrant from Newcastle, but we went the whole season without getting a single player in on loan. And I think Calderwood was a golden opportunity. We loaned out plenty of players, the only one that we didn?t let go was Alan Miller ? Coventry wanted him, but we took the decision that we would have been a bit vulnerable if Whitehead had become injured.

What is the single most important thing that needs to be changed about the way WBA is currently run?

I think the Chairman needs to provide better leadership. He needs to talk to the Supporters Clubs, the Shareholders Association, he needs to coordinate the various elements within the club and to encourage people to perform better at all levels. He needs to encourage the manager to do better, he needs to encourage the players to do better, and I just don?t see the right level of involvement or encouragement with Tony.

If the rebels lose the EGM vote, will they accept defeat gracefully or will the disagreements continue?

Well, I can?t speak for the other two, because I honestly haven?t discussed it with them, but if the shareholders think that Tony?s record is good enough, then ? fine, if they?re happy with that then let them get on with it. I shall retire gracefully. I?ll keep my shareholding for now... it?s not a personal campaign or a vendetta against any individual, I just feel that the club could and should do better. And a change is needed to bring that about.

On the other hand, if you win, how do you see an Albion future under Paul Thompson and why did you choose to back him?

I think Paul has a very good record as an achiever, running companies, motivating people and getting the best from them. He?s well qualified academically, he?s got a very good brain, he?s hard working, and I think he?ll create the right environment to get the best out of people.

How do you see the "new look" Board shaping up? Will Tony Hale still be on it? Would you consider rejoining it?

I can?t see Tony Hale being on it, because the proposal that?s going to be put to the EGM is going to be to remove him as Chairman and a Director, although I haven?t seen the exact details yet ? the documents won?t be issued till the end of this week. And yes, I would be prepared to serve on the Board with Paul Thompson as Chairman.

How soon do you expect to see results if Thompson does take over?

I think he will consult with several people first. Maybe we?ll learn more tonight when he talks with shareholders. I think certainly that between now and the EGM his intentions will become clearer.

Is Paul Thompson considering putting any more of his own money into the club, and does he have access to other sources of funding?

I think he will be encouraging people to come in and invest in the club. We, as Directors, don?t tend to know what interest has been shown in the club by people wanting to invest, because they tend to contact the Chairman and he conducts those negotiations. We don?t know whether Tony?s discouraged them or not, but we know that Paul is keen to attract one or two big investors and to work with them. What, basically, we will try to achieve is "top six" status in every area ? obviously the goal is to become the best club in Division One... but if we achieve top six stadium, squad, manager, Chairman and supporters, we?ve got a chance of finishing in the top six in the League, and hopefully go from there.

How realistic do you think this is? Can we get into the Premiership and stay there?

Well, we must have a plan, and the plan must be to be at least top six in the first division, which gets us into the playoffs, and from there anything can happen as Watford have proved. But at the moment, we?re slipping further away every year, I doubt if we?re even in the top ten as far as stadiums are concerned, especially when you look at the teams that will be in our division next season ? the likes of Man City, Blackburn, Bolton, Forest, Wolves, Blues and so on all have bigger grounds and bigger capacities than we have. We?ve probably gone from being in the top 20 in the country to being in the top 30, and we seem to slip further and further behind every year, and we have to have a plan that puts the club in the top six in our division. This was another problem we had with Tony ? getting him to show enthusiasm to complete the stadium.

There have been two proposals... rebuilding the Rainbow, and a complete new stadium. What are the plans?

Yes, there has been some talk of a new stadium, but I don?t think it has much credibility. As far as the Board is concerned, the proposal is to rebuild the Rainbow stand, and this was part of the ten million pounds that Paul originally talked about raising. We need to raise additional money to build the stadium, but we have to move forward on all fronts - we have to have good performances on the pitch as well. You asked earlier about the problems attracting players to the club ? I think that to do that, you have to show ambition, and if you develop the stadium and show that you?re moving forwards instead of retreating each season, you will attract those kind of players. At the moment, I don?t think we do attract top players - we just pick up average ones from wherever.

If Hughes was to be sold for, say, ?5 million, how much of this money do you think the Board would make available for new players?

I think that some of it, probably a million, should be used to finance the purchase of the training ground, not necessarily the development of it, in order to save having to raise too much finance from outside as this costs money. But the rest, and don?t forget that we?d also have to give 15% to Kidderminster, should go back to funding the team.

Do you think we should sell him?

Well, if we can get him to play like he did in the first half of the season, no. But if he plays like he did in the second half of the season, 5 million would be a good price.

Do you have any idea why his performance dropped off so drastically after Christmas?

Perhaps defenders got wise to him. But then again, I don?t think the service from the rest of the team was as good, he was receiving the ball in difficult situations, at difficult heights and angles. Or maybe the success just went to his head? Maybe it?s something the manager can shed a little light on?

Many people have said that the club?s PR is not at all good. Do you have a strategy to improve the clubs image, both nationally and on a global basis, given the potential in areas such as China and Asia?

We could certainly improve the clubs image, and we do need to. We could promote the brand more than we do ? for instance, we don?t see the football shirts in as many shops as we should do. The PR department is something that Tom Cardall has always wanted to spend more time on. We have introduced Press conferences on a weekly basis, John Wile and John Evans attend these every Friday so the supporters should be kept well informed. Since John Wile has been there, it has certainly improved, but it could certainly be better and this is where we?d like to have more input from supporters clubs and shareholders associations to tell us what they would like to see and try to coordinate their views. We have 15,000 supporters out there who could, almost, work for the club for nothing in terms of producing ideas.

But I seem to hear of plenty of occasions where supporters have offered to do things for the club, but been turned down?

I don?t really know what help?s been offered and what?s been turned down, but we definitely need to have someone who can liase with people... I don?t know if John Wile would have the time, but perhaps Tom Cardall or someone like Mark Ashton could get involved and coordinate all these views and ideas.

On a specific issue, there was talk about supporters being consulted about the new away strip. Although the club say they were, I?ve yet to find anyone who actually WAS.

Joe Brandrick was in charge of that... I think he spoke to some of the teenage supporters that he knew, but I don?t know if he necessarily went out to the supporters clubs or people like Grorty Dick. What is the general feeling about it, then? I think it?s quite good.

Well, the views we?ve heard seem to say that people wanted the yellow and green one back, but having seen the new one a lot of people seem to like it... even if it is a bit similar to Arsenal?s...

Well, if it makes them play like the Arsenal I won?t be disappointed... didn?t at Tranmere....


On another subject, why doesn?t Paul Thompson?s company, Sanderson, do any sponsorship deals with Albion?

Well, the shirt sponsorship wasn?t up for grabs anyway, we have an excellent relationship with the WBBS and we didn?t want to spoil that. We already had the Premier Saver account with them, and Paul came into the club when we were negotiating the shirt sponsorship, and he did say at the time that if the talks broke down that he?d sponsor the club ? not through Sanderson, but through one of his other companies, an electronics company. As it turned out, we negotiated a very good deal with the WBBS so we didn?t have a problem. It may be that he sponsors one of the advertising boards or something around the ground if something suitable becomes free, but the Sanderson Board had taken a decision before his involvement with Albion to sponsor something in the North (hence Sheffield) and something in the South (Southampton). It was a purely geographical decision, apparently.

So, finally, are you optimistic about the EGM? Do you have a feeling about which way it?s going to go?

I think it?s going to be close. I think perhaps a small minority will favour a change, I think we?re all a bit disappointed that we haven?t done better. But it?ll be close.

Presumably the motion will be along the lines "we want Tony Hale to stand down as Chairman", and so what percentage of voters does it need to be accepted? Do you think Graham Waldron?s vote will be critical?

It needs 51%. It?s an ordinary resolution, not a special resolution [these are changes to things like the constitution, the articles of association and so on], so it only needs 51% for it to be carried. So yes, Mr Waldron?s vote is going to be significant.

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