FORMER Newcastle United finance director Les Wheatley has returned to the North East to spearhead an expansion drive at security business The Protector Group.
EVEN on a bright spring morning, the view out of the window of Les Wheatley’s new office is never going to set your spine tingling.
This is, after all, Team Valley, Gateshead, at its most industrial, and even a deep blue sky can’t mask the greyness of the surroundings.
For a man used to turning up for work at St James’ Park or Anfield, where the sparkling motors of millionaire footballers line the car park, it might seem like a bit of a come down.
After our interview, we walk down the steps in the two-storey utilitarian office building, where scores of safety industry certificates cover the walls.
"It’s not quite the same as Liverpool," Wheatley, 57, laughs. For sure, there’s nothing quite like the "This is Anfield" sign that the greatest names in football have tapped prior to stepping out on to the famous turf.
Softly spoken Wheatley, from Birkenhead, is the first to admit it was a wrench to leave Liverpool in January 2009. But he acknowledges his departure became inevitable following the arrival of US owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, whose public falling out led to a period of uncustomary turbulence in the boardroom.
The writing was on the wall when Rick Parry, the club’s chief executive, a friend of Wheatley’s with whom he had worked several times in the past and who brought him to Merseyside from Newcastle, was unceremoniously told by Hicks he was no longer required.
"He did a TV interview in Dallas sitting by his fire, basically saying that Rick’s position was untenable," recalls Wheatley.
"But he hadn’t told Rick he was doing the interview. He showed Sky a letter that he had written to Rick but he hadn’t sent it or it was in the post and Rick was on the train to London oblivious to all of this going on."
Wheatley, who joined Liverpool as finance director in 2000, admits relations between the incumbent management team and the new owners were "always a bit strained".
"The two guys fell out pretty quickly, or they appeared to. But an awful lot of what we heard was in the public domain. We weren’t on any inside track. They appointed a group finance director that we didn’t know anything about and when he arrived it became pretty clear our time was limited."
If there’s any lingering bitterness, then Wheatley – who was recruited by Parry to drive forward the redevelopment of Anfield – certainly doesn’t show it. He has many fond memories from his time at the club, in particular that famous night in Istanbul when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 half-time deficit to win the European Cup.
"It was disappointing for me on a personal level because it was a great job, but I’m more hurt that we never saw through the job that we were there to do ... to do the stadium. And it looks even more remote than ever now."
Progress had been good on the project until a need for new investment eventually led to the arrival of the Americans. They subsequently wanted to put their own stamp on the plans which increased costs and then the economy dropped off a cliff.
"It would have been a fantastic stadium but the economics of it were a bit strange," Wheatley says diplomatically.
If his two years at Newcastle United were also "a bit strange", then at least they were never dull. Perhaps Wheatley, who in 1998 was "pretending to be retired in my mid- 40s" after seven years at Greater Manchester Buses, should have seen it coming.
Just days after Parry, then chief executive of the Premier League, introduced him to Newcastle chief executive Freddie Fletcher, the infamous scandal involving Freddy Shepherd, Douglas Hall and "Fake Sheikh" Mazher Mahmood exploded onto the front pages.
Wheatley moved to the North East once things had calmed down. Little did he know that the stadium project he was brought in to lead, by raising £55m, would stoke more controversy.
Wheatley looks back on his two years at the club, initially as finance director and later as chief operating officer, with fondness.
A keen sportsman -–he admits that he secured a place at Durham University principally due to his proficiency on the rugby field – he was excited at the prospect of working in football. He says: "The job at Newcastle was to get the stadium to happen and to try and re- establish some faith with the City because at the end of the day it was shortly after the float that all this (the Hall and Shepherd scandal) had happened.
"Stadium building was very much the Halls’ forte as property developers. I got the money raised and along with great help from Steve Walton (of Barclays Bank, now chief executive of Sunderland FC), then we set about trying to sell it and getting people moved around - and we ended up upsetting quite a number of people."
The battle with the Save Our Seats campaign (SOS) famously ended up in court. And, while the club won the day, Wheatley admits: "I don’t think we won the hearts and minds back."
"You obviously have regrets because it upset an awful lot of people," he says, looking back. "But I don’t see how we could have handled it any different, however hard we’d tried.
"We were trying to get Newcastle up there alongside with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. We had to get more revenues into the club."
"In the end the club was sued by five people. It was good sport for a while in the Press but an awful lot of hard work for what went on. It could have been handled better, I’m sure. But I’m not sure we would have got a different result because whatever happened those people had to be moved.
"What I am happy with is that we didn’t run away from it. We faced up to all those people who were unhappy.
"Legally we were proven that we hadn’t gone against anything that we said and I also think if you look at the stadium now and what it achieved post those events it moved Newcastle up into the top five or six clubs in the UK and the top 20 in the world."
Whilst getting the stadium built was his proudest achievement, working with the St James’ Park staff is his fondest memory.
"We put them through a difficult time," he says. "We were knocking down their offices, so they would go home at night and they would come in the following morning and their offices weren’t there.
"We had the team trying to sell new seats to people coming in aggressive, upset, crying. We put them through an awful lot but they rose to that and stayed together as a team."
Now living in Gosforth, Newcastle, he admits: "It doesn’t feel like I have been away for 10 years.I was at Liverpool for 10 years to do the same job and I never got one brick in the ground but I was at Newcastle for two and we got it done."
Throughout his career, Wheatley seems to have found himself with businesses that have an uncanny ability to find their way into the newspapers.
For example, his spell at Westland helicopters in the 1980s coincided with the crisis that beset Margaret Thatcher’s government. And during his time at Greater Manchester Buses – the last of the bus companies to be privatised – involved difficult decisions that saw 1,200 staff were made redundant.
He is especially proud of what was achieved in Manchester, however, where he led an employee buy-out, beating off a rival bid from Stagecoach, and then ran a company where the board was comprised of representatives of six unions, bankers and private equity representatives.
"There were some interesting debates," he recalls. "But at the end of the day both have aims in making the business successful, just perhaps different aims in what you do with that success once you have earned it."
The bus company was sold two years later to Stagecoach for 10 times what the employees paid for it. And 2,000 staff got the best part of a year’s salary in return for their £1,000 investment.
Fast forward 13 years and Wheatley finds himself back in industry and with a new challenge. He is enjoying being back in the region – wife Ann hails from Sunderland – and is now a regular visitor to both St James’ and the Stadium of Light. It has also meant a reunion with Fletcher, who joined the board of Protector two years ago along with former Metropolitan Police chief Sir John Stephens.
Now Wheatley’s challenge is to help raise around £3m to fund the growth of the firm’s innovative mobile CCTV systems which are already proving extremely successful. It is hoped to increase turnover from £8m to £20m in three years and deliver 100 new jobs.
He says: "They’ve had two tough years and are coming out of the other side of that having kind of reinvented themselves. What they had was some great ideas. What they needed was some assistance in turning them into concrete, fundable plans."
He is delighted by the welcome he has received.
"They couldn’t have been more helpful," he says. "This is the owner and chairman’s office – he moved out – so that’s an example of literally how accommodating they have been He now has a desk downstairs that he shares with someone else. For the owner to do that is a good sign."
But does he miss the glamour of working in football? @ "At the end of the day, what I did in football most people would think was the boring bits of it ... finance and systems etc. That’s still more or less what I do now.
"And football clubs organisationally aren’t big. The players may get paid a bit more than the guys here do, but most of our staff at Liverpool were shop and ticket office assistants. he administration was done by a handful of people.
So I am quite comfortable here and these guys could not have been more helpful to me. Because it’s a new industry it’s exciting for me to learn.
"My job has always been finding a project, raising money for it and making it happen. The fact that it’s this rather than a football stadium is no real difference in terms of what I need to do."
Les Wheatley’s CV
Born: Birkenhead, Merseyside, 1952
Family: Married to Ann, two children Catherine (29) and Robert (26)
Education: Birkenhead Park High School, Durham University
1973-78: Arthur Young
1978-80: International Paper UK
1980-82: Kingsley Leisure
1984-86: Westland Group
1986-90: Ernst and Young
1990-97: Greater Manchester Buses/ Stagecoach Manchester
1998-2000: Newcastle United FC
2000-2009: Liverpool FC
2010: Protector Group
What’s your favourite book?
As a proud dad it would have to be my daughter’s first academic book; Michael Hanneke’s Cinema – The Ethic of the Image. By Catherine Wheatley.
What was the last album you bought?
The Beatles collection remastered. What else for a Merseysider whose teen years were in the 60s?
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Have to be a professional rugby player. Although all my playing days were very much in the amateur age.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Something horrible happening to my family that I couldn’t sort out.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
I have developed most of my business style from team sports rather than business itself.
On that basis it would have to be the one a number claim credit for: "The more I practise, the luckier I get."
And the worst?
Rule by fear.
What’s your poison?
Simple tastes, a pint or a nice glass of wine dependent on who I am with and where I am.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and the Sunday Times.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
My first pay packet was for about £15 and was holiday work in a Co-op Dairy milk bottling plant.
How do you keep fit?
What’s your most irritating habit?
Never letting a subject drop, verging on the sarcastic.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
It would have to be someone creative but light-hearted. Walt Disney brings a smile to most people’s face.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
This would have to be a musical night with a quartet of famous singer- songwriters talking about and playing some of their best songs. Elton John, Neil Sedaka, Carol King and Stevie Wonder.
How would you like to be remembered?
With a nice drink and a few funny stories about times past.