Susan Whelan brings that winning feeling to Leicester City
Dubliner knew very little about football before becoming club’s chief executive
Leicester City chief executive Susan Whelan. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images
It is that sort of business, but just as Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester City side of previous unknowns are taking the Premier League by storm this season, so Susan Whelan, the club’s Dublin-born chief executive, is looking like quite a signing.
Five years ago, when she was appointed to run the club, she had no football experience. Now, she is something of a seasoned pro, so to speak, and if a New Yorker cartoonist was to portray her at her desk, the turnover chart in the background would have one of those lines that has broken free of the graph and taken off up the wall towards the ceiling.
Whelan started her rather circuitous journey to the top of the Premier League by working for her family’s city centre jewellery business. She then joined Aer Rianta International (ARI) in 1990 as a buyer, a job that involved a lot of travel. This led to prolonged stints abroad in Russia, and then Thailand.
She relocated to Bangkok for the opening of a major retail operation at the city’s World Trade Centre but when ARI pulled out of the project and local firm King Power took it over, its owner Vichai Raksriaksorn asked her to work for him.
“In the 2010 the Raksriaksorn family bought the club,” she explained on RTE’s Saturday Night with Miriam in late 2014. “They had been looking for a number of years to buy a club in the UK and really nothing had quite fit until it became known that Leicester was available.
“There was just something that was absolutely right about Leicester: there was the heritage of the club – it’s 130 years old; there’s an amazing fan base, which was obviously very important as well; a very rich history; a very rich cultural city in Leicester itself; a great sporting city.”
Foreign ownersIn truth, the deal didn’t do an awful lot at the time for the morale of City fans, who were wary of new, foreign owners having seen events unfold at Cardiff City and Birmingham.
Whelan’s appointment a year later probably didn’t do much to win them over either; it was clear that football wasn’t in her blood. However, good business was and these days nobody questions either the commitment of the owners (who pumped money in, then turned around €130 million of debt into equity) or the quality of the management they put in place.
“She comes across as a very astute business woman,” says Rob Tanner, football correspondent with the Leicester Mercury. “Her background is in retail and you can certainly see that the merchandising side of the club has been transformed, and not just the merchandising but the branding of the club in general.
“I think the biggest challenge she’s faced has been with the football business side of things but she has good people around her – Andrew Neville, who has been there a long time, and John Rudkin, who was promoted from academy director to director of football.”
She leaves them to do their jobs, Tanner says, while closely associating herself with many of the improvements in the matchday experience. The new regime has done far more than simply talking about the club’s heritage; it has sought to honour it at every turn around the stadium and has set an example to others in the way it has treated travelling fans.
Perhaps most impressive, though, has been the handling of the team managers, something she has ultimately had to make some big calls on.
Most notably, Nigel Pearson was brought back for his second stint at the club and given time – quite a lot of it by current standards – to win promotion from the Championship, which he did by guiding the side to the title in the 2013/14.
Despite that, it seems safe to assume that almost any other club would have sacked him well before the end of last season. City were well adrift at the bottom of the table and were still languishing in last place with seven games to go. Yet they finished 14th.
IncidentPearson was eventually dismissed after, it seems, failing to accept that his son, a player at the club, had to leave the club following an incident with two team-mates and three prostitutes on a pre-season tour in Thailand.
Whelan was the one out there telling fans to trust her and the owners as she unveiled Ranieri as Pearson’s replacement and told a sceptical public that he would bring the club to the next stage. That was last summer and nobody could have imagined what was about to happen.
Along the way a club that cost its owners some €40 million to buy – it turned over €23 million and lost almost as much again – has been transformed into one that last season raked in €95 million in TV and Premier League prize money alone.
That figure is on course to be €120 million this year and with a new TV deal, plus the possibility of Champions League football next season, income is likely to soar again.
“To do well, to stay up there; we’ve been working towards this for a few years at this stage, building, putting in the infrastructure,” Whelan told Miriam O’Callaghan in that rare interview 18 months ago.
“It’s been incredible from that point of view; investing in the recruitment side, the sports science side, as well as getting very embedded in the city of Leicester, playing our part in the community. And for me, that’s been the really interesting part as well; the positive power of sport and of football in particular.”
Along the way, it seems, she has become a fan too.
“She’s always saying that that’s something that’s developing and I suppose it’s bound to as you’re involved in the day-to-day running of a football club,” observes Tanner, who generally gets to chat with her at some length just once a year, around now, when the year’s financial results are announced.
“At the celebration for the Championship title win in the city centre, you could see that she was really wrapped up in it.
“If she wasn’t a football fan when she arrived, I think you can safely say that she is now alright.”