Profile: Nick Humby, Manchester United FD

He’s got the passion of midfielder Roy Keane and the focus of striker Ruud Van Nistlerooy. Yet he is content to remain behind the scenes at Manchester United, putting in all the work and taking none of the glory.

We’re not talking about someone who knows his way around the penalty box, but someone who knows more about spreadsheets – the club’s FD Nick Humby.

The Southampton-born chartered accountant is by his own admission naturally introverted. And he is cagey, too. Paradoxically, that makes him the perfect choice to run a business in a world full of inflated egos and occasional irrational spending sprees.

Gazing out across the Old Trafford pitch, a day after his team has thrashed Panathinaikos 5-0 in the Champions League, Humby is clear that his place at the country’s top football team is ‘the rest of the business’. In fact, the FD admits that he is not even acquainted with the high-profile stars on the team.

‘I doubt that the players would know who I am. The player’s job is to perform on the pitch and that’s what they want to do. It is the chief executive, David Gill’s job to liaise with and manage the players. I don’t have any need.’

In fact, the clear separation between the job of running the finances of an entertainment business and the glamorous work of his colleagues in front of the camera is a recurring theme throughout Humby’s career.

‘When I was working at Pearson TV, I didn’t know the stars on the shows there either. You don’t need to.’

Yet Humby clearly enjoys working in what he describes as the entertainment industry. It was this preference that encouraged him to leave audit after qualifying with the then Price Waterhouse and pushed him to leave his first job in commerce at Franco-American engineering company Schlumberger.

‘I wanted to be in a business that I understood, that I was interested in, that you could touch and feel and be a part of.’

Instead, he joined WH Smith television and began working behind the scenes in the world of entertainment. After five years, he went to work for Thames Television during the period when it was bidding for a broadcast licence.

When the bid failed, he saw the dramatic fallout first hand. ‘The consequences of non-success were huge. In my eyes it was, I still think, the best producer of television in the past 25 years.’

The fact they were outbid by Carlton meant that Humby had to restructure the business as an independent producer. He stayed with Thames until 1999 and saw the business bought by Pearson, where he worked under BBC director general Greg Dyke, who he describes as an ‘inspirational leader’.

‘Greg said to me very early on, do you have fun at work? And having fun should be part of what everybody gets out of the job. It’s a great motivator and it underpins your commitment.’

Humby finally left the television sector when European television giant Bertlesmann took over Pearson, and picked up the Manchester United job a year later in a rather unusual way for top executives – by replying to an ad in a newspaper.

But the reason he applied for the job was obvious. ‘Manchester United is a really interesting business, in an interesting industry and I’d always wanted to test myself as a finance director of a publicly listed company.’

On the surface, the parallel he draws between television and sport businesses might seem surprising. But keeping in mind his practicality and business-like manner, the likeness becomes clear. ‘You’ve got your customers, they are the people who have a choice whether to buy a ticket or not, so you have to have a successful product,’ says Humby.

He concedes that it is impossible to guarantee a winning product, but adds: ‘You have to make sure that what you put out to entertainment is likely to be as successful as you can make it. And that is the key of a television programme, it’s the key of a show in the West End and it’s the key to the team who play on the pitch.’

This line of thinking would explain why Humby does not understand the complaint by other football FDs that running a club as a business is like walking a tightrope. ‘I don’t really see it as different from any business.

If you are producing a product, you have to make sure your customer base likes what it sees otherwise it stops buying.’ In fact, the brand loyalty there is in football clubs is an advantage that other businesses don’t have, according to Humby.

It is important, he says, to treat loyal fans fairly. ‘Our ticket prices are not the most expensive in the country, even though we’ve got the only stadium that sells out every match. It’s a deliberate policy.’

And brand risk is clearly on Humby’s mind. ‘The brand is something we have a duty and an obligation to honour, respect and protect, because it’s been around for longer than we have and it will be here long after we go.’

Humby is confident that the brand will not suffer from Peter Kenyon’s sudden departure to Chelsea. Although the former chief executive is known for putting the Manchester United trademark where it is today, Humby insists that ‘you don’t build brands by hiring a chief executive or waving a wand. A brand is built over a very long period of performance, delivery, communication, exposure’.

He adds that, for Kenyon to attempt to catch Manchester United up, Chelsea will have to be as successful as the reds for six or seven years.

Many will wonder how a huge brand like Manchester United manages to budget its business, especially since large parts of its income will always depend on the outcome of one game. Winning the Champions League in 2001/02, for example, earned Real Madrid EUR48.2m (£33.3m) in revenue.

The secret, according to Humby, is setting parameters. ‘We have a three-year plan that is based upon a conservative level of success,’ says the FD.

‘So that’s finishing in the top four of the Premiership and reaching the knock-out round of the Champion’s League, something we’ve achieved every year for the last eight years. That sets the parameters of income.’ From that income the club has vowed to only spend half on player wages.

Another key driver is the net expenditure on player trading. And when a player is bought, the cost of the acquisition is written off over the length of the contract. The FD then arrives at a valuation model to see how much the business is worth.

One of the big uncertainties in the income has been taken care by signing a deal with Nike. In the 2002 financial year, 70% of the club’s income – about £25m – came from the Champion’s League. But after outsourcing its sports products to Nike, £24m of income now comes from this sponsorship deal.

And because to him Manchester United is a business, he sees no incompatibility with being listed. In fact, he says, it has helped the team in its commercial success. ‘The fact we are listed means that we have a way of expressing value on a daily basis.’ Manchester United’s stock has risen more than 70% plus over the past 12 months and, according to Deloitte & Touche’s Annual Review of Football Finance, the club accounts for 36% of the profits generated by Premiership clubs over the last ten years.

‘People have started to no longer dismiss Manchester United as just part of that football sector that’s not worth investing in, but see it as something that is a brand and a leisure stock and a business worth thinking about.’

In his office, in a stadium that has perhaps seen more footballing glory than any other in England, Humby seems in his element. Despite his clear separation between the business and the game, Humby does enjoy a match.

He admits to being an avid fan of the sport since he began supporting Southampton 30 years ago. ‘You never give up your heart-felt feelings for the team you first supported in football.’ But he quickly adds: ‘But have no doubt when Southampton play Manchester United, I need Manchester United to win.’

Note that choice of verb. Humby is every bit as professional as his players.

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Nick Humby says that Peter Kenyon’s shock resignation is not a threat to Manchester United’s global brand.

Humby says that, although Kenyon had been key in building the brand in the past three years, his defection to Chelsea does not represent a clear and present danger to Manchester United.

‘You don’t build brands by hiring a chief executive or waving a wand. A brand is built over a very long period of performance, delivery, communication and exposure,’ he explains.

His view is that the origins of the brand date back to the period between the Munich aircrash in 1958 and 1968, when Manchester United became the first English team to win the European cup.

It has survived and developed through to the nineties since when the club has dominated the Premiership.

For Chelsea to challenge that, the team would need to be as successful as Manchester United for the next five to eight years.

‘Up until that point in time, all Kenyon can do is develop a strategy that sets them up to challenge us in that,’ adds Humby.

‘In the meantime, Manchester United can use its financial strength and its playing strength and knowledge of its markets to continue to grow and maintain its lead.’ But he admits that everyone at the club was shocked by Kenyon’s departure. ‘I don’t think any of us foresaw the possibility of Peter going.

‘However, upon reflection, it was a natural next step for Abramovich to take to acquire someone like Peter Kenyon. He aspires to create something that is recognised and is as prestigious as Manchester United is and Peter is one of the best people around.’

Humby also says that chief operating officer David Gill’s move to fill Peter Kenyon’s shoes had been quick and seamless, which should enable the club to remain strong.

‘David has been involved in all the key deals, sponsorship deals, the player deals, all the key strategic missions that we’ve got underway so we can carry on without losing step really.’

Despite fears that Abramovich’s shopping spree last summer will have a huge impact on the Premiership, Humby is not frightened.

‘Chelsea has always been one of the top five. So the arrival of Abramovich does not change the dynamic of the Premiership at all,’ he insists.

‘The player trading activity that Manchester United went through during July and August has strengthened the squad, and given us a much younger team with an average age of 25 this year.

‘Maintaining the player success of this team is vitally important to everything else we do so it’s a key objective.’

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