THE BIG INTERVIEW
Lifelong Preston North End supporter Colin Higginson often wonders to himself what would have become of his beloved club without the significant investment of a local boiler manufacturer in the 1990s
When Baxi Partnership Limited purchased the Lilywhites in 1994, it heralded the dawn of an exciting new era – both on and off the pitch – for one of English football’s founding members.
The stunning redevelopment of Deepdale from a run-down, dilapidated, ramshackle of a ground to a modern-day stadium – the envy of many – was perhaps only matched by events on the pitch, as North End rose from the basement division to the cusp of the Premier League.
As a fan, Higginson marvelled at the transformation of North End, but as Baxi’s chief financial officer for many years, he also had the inside track on the company’s influence over the club.
In fact, the 81-year-old now retired accountant, who lives in Longton, was one of the first people to walk through the corridors of Deepdale after Baxi’s takeover.
Although he had recently retired from the company after spending more than 30 years of his working life at the Bamber Bridge-based firm, Higginson’s services had been retained in a part-time consultancy capacity.
So when Baxi’s takeover of North End was confirmed, Higginson was asked to cast his eye over the club’s finances by the company’s chief executive – and later North End chairman – Bryan Gray.
And he succinctly remembers the first day when he walked through the main entrance of the old Deepdale stadium, in Lowthorpe Road.
He said: “When you walked into the ground through the main entrance, you could see that Deepdale was well past its sell-by date.
“It wasn’t just outside on the terraces but also, generally speaking, in the corridors, the offices and the corporate boxes.
“Everywhere you looked had seen better days.
“The club needed a lot of money spending on it in terms of the ground.
“The terraces were tatty and old.
“To be fair to the previous board, they just did not have the sort of money which the ground needed spending on it.
“One of the first things Baxi chose to do when they took over was to start improving the stadium.
“If you look now, it’s a first-class set-up.
“But I remember walking in through the main stand and there was a great big wide staircase leading up to where the boxes and offices were.
“On either side there were these big pictures of different players hanging on the wall.
“But if you looked ahead of yourself, you could see that the carpet was all worn and the ends of the stairs were all breaking away. It just looked neglected.
“When you think that was where people who visited the club came, it wasn’t a good image they were projecting.”
If Higginson’s first impressions of the state of Deepdale on that first day left a lot to be desired, a quick glance at the club’s accounts book did not improve his mood.
“The accountancy system they had in place was primitive to say the least,” Higginson said. “I think there were two boxes – one with invoices which had been paid and the other contained invoices which hadn’t been paid.
“I think the box with the invoices which hadn’t been paid was a little bit fuller than the other one.”
Higginson also received a stark insight into the lackadaisical way the club was run at the time.
“There was a club shop across the road from the main stand in Lowthorpe Road,” he said.
“It’s still there now but obviously it’s not a shop any more.
“I went to have a look at that and it stocked shirts and other items.
“While I was there, I remember the captain Ian Bryson walking in.
“He went over to one of the shelves and picked out a new pair of boots.
“He put them under his arm and walked out.
“I remember thinking, ‘Hey what you doing? What about the stock records?’ – I remember Ian saying that he needed a new pair of boots for training or whatever and that’s what the players did.
“If they required a new shirt or clothing, they just went over to the club shop and helped themselves.
“That seemed to be the pattern in those days.
“There was a casual set-up in place and it needed a little bit of formality.”
Higginson prepared a record of his observations from his time spent at North End and reported back to Baxi’s board of directors.
He said: “I reported back that some kind of computerised accounting system needed putting in place and obviously the ground needed updating – but that was obvious for everybody to see.”
Looking back, Higginson considers Baxi’s takeover at North End as a crucial period of the club’s history.
The firm had been established in the 19th century by local entrepreneur Richard Baxendale.
Despite growing into a multi-million pound enterprise, the company remained a family business.
Its control continued to be passed down through the generations until eventually Philip Baxendale and his cousin Joan Caselton became owners.
It was Phillip Baxendale’s vision which transformed Baxi from a family-owned establishment to a firm which was owned entirely by its employees.
It was this revolutionary idea in the early 1980s which changed the face of the company and would eventually lead to Baxi gaining control of North End.
“Philip Baxendale was the man who interviewed me when I got the job at Baxi in 1960,” Higginson said.
“He was a very forward-thinking man. He was also an employee man – he had the workers’ interest at heart.
“Philip and Joan owned the company 50/50 but in 1982 they both agreed to sell the company to the employees.
“I think they took the equivalent of one-year’s profit which was about £5m but the company was worth about four or five times that.
“Philip’s idea was to give the employees a real interest in their own business so that they always had a feeling of security in their future. He set it up so that the employees would want to continue with the business and that it would never pass out of their control.
“That was to be proven wrong in later years but that was his vision.
“The employees would own the business but it would be managed and controlled through a partnership trust, which would be made up of three people who would have no financial interest in the business.
“They couldn’t be shareholders or have any financial concern.
“Phil, at the beginning of it, was actually elected chairman of the trustees so he would still have an interest in the business.
“As the chairman he would be responsible for the election of the chief executive.
“The employees owned the business but they could never collectively own any more than 49% of the shares.
“The trustees would hold 51% of the shares on behalf of the employees.
“That was done to stop any rogue employees who might have got together and influenced the other employees to get hold of the business and sell it off.
“Obviously that was the whole point of why Phil had set the partnership trust up – he didn’t want that to happen.
“He wanted the employees to be secure in their jobs and own their own futures.
“They could never sell it off.
“I think Baxi was the first ever wholly employee-owned business in the manufacturing sector.”
Coupled with his vision for employee ownership, Philip Baxendale also wanted Baxi to recognise a wider role in the local community.
It was this feeling of responsibility which led to Baxi taking control of North End and ultimately reviving the club’s fortunes.
“I still think it was fortuitous that Baxi, at that time, wanted to invest in local community projects because I don’t know whether North End would have got somebody else to invest,” Higginson revealed.
“Maybe they would have got somebody else to invest but Baxi coming in when they did was the right thing and came at the right time.
“It was the right thing for the company to do.
“Not all the shareholders agreed with it.
“I am not saying that they kicked up a major fuss about it but not all the shareholders thought it was a good idea .
“I thought it was a good idea for one reason. Preston needed investment – it needed somebody to do it, so why not Baxi?
“I could not think of anybody else who could do it or was going to do it.
“Trevor Hemmings was a possibility – I think he was on the board but he had made no move at the time.
“So I think Baxi did the right thing by going in, especially when I went in that first day and saw the state the club was in. It was in a pretty bad way.
“It needed somebody like Bryan Gray, who was from industry and business, to get involved and bring it up to speed with the business world which football had now become.
“Football wasn’t just a sport anymore, it was big business but at the time Preston had been left behind.”
Gray proved to be an enormously successful chairman of North End during his reign.
As well as being pivotal to the redevelopment of the ground and making some shrewd managerial appointments, such as Gary Peters and David Moyes, Gray was also instrumental in making Deepdale the home of the National Football Museum until it moved to Manchester in 2012.
Indeed, Higginson, after his cameo role at North End, would later become the museum’s voluntary financial director.
“Bryan Gray was very successful for Preston. He was really keen on seeing the club do well,” said Higginson, who has one daughter Jill and a granddaughter Catherine.
“Preston North End under his chairmanship hadn’t done better for a long, long time,” he said.
“He helped develop the ground. By the time he stood down, three sides of the ground had been developed.
“He had got all the funding from various places – he was good at that – he knew how to get the money. The Sir Tom Finney Stand was the first to be built and it is an enormous, impressive stand.
“It’s only my opinion but I think it was Bryan’s vision to have the museum in the Sir Tom Finney stand at Deepdale.
“I think he had been to a meeting with the FA where the idea of a museum had been discussed and straight away Bryan felt that the museum ought to be in Preston
“Deepdale is one of the birthplaces of football – it has historical links to the beginnings of the game.
“It is the oldest ground to have continuous football matches staged there.
“He really was the driving force behind bringing the museum to Preston.”
Higginson, who used to work alongside Sir Tom Finney’s father Joe as a young accounts clerk at Norweb, feels sad that the museum is no longer at Deepdale.
He gains some consolation that the city still attracts students from across the globe to study the various football artefacts which are not on display in Manchester, but remain stored in Preston.
“When the museum was being set up, we had to find funding – it needed paying for,” Higginson recalls.
“Bryan asked me if could speak to the director of the museum Kevin Moore.
“So I rang Kevin and he told me that they were looking for a voluntary finance director and would I be interested?
“I liked the idea so I said I would do it.”
Initially, it was just known as the Football Museum, but once it attained national status, the museum was able to grant free entry for visitors.
In its infancy, most of the artefacts and memorabilia for the museum came from the ‘Official FIFA Collection’.
FIFA had bought the 4,000 or so artefacts from an English journalist called Harry Langton, who had painstakingly collected all the materials throughout his life.
Included among the fascinating array of items were artefacts dating back to medieval times.
Nowadays, the museum boasts around 140,000 different items in its possession, the majority of which are stored in Preston.
“There were a lot of people who did a lot of work in getting the museum up and running in Preston,” Higginson said.
“The fact that the museum ended up going to Manchester …it should never have happened.
“I feel sad that it’s no longer at Deepdale.”