WHAT is the best thing about being the chairman of Partick Thistle?
David Beattie pauses for a few seconds. "Good question," he replies eventually. The answer is delivered with a laugh, the good humour understandable.
The years have not always been kind to those who choose to hitch their wagon to the Firhill star, but, relatively speaking, these are heady times. The team, under the stewardship of Jackie McNamara, are in contention to gain promotion to the top division for the first time in years, while the financial picture is also looking rosier after Beattie and a new coterie of business-savvy directors implemented a series of fairly savage budget cuts.
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The changes were needed. Thistle had reached a point four years ago where they were haemorrhaging around £450,000 a year, their debt having grown to £1.5m. The previous board, all Thistle men and well-intentioned, were mainly from professional backgrounds – lawyers, accountants and the like – but few had experience of turning around an ailing business. Beattie, founder of Enterprise Foods and a chairman of McGhee's bakery, was the man charged with trying to add some commercial expertise and, in Billy Allan, Ian Dodd, Ajay Chopra and others, he found likeminded souls. The downsizing was fierce, but it has left Thistle in a far healthier position.
"Over the last four years there has been a huge sea-change in the finances of the business," Beattie told Herald Sport. "We're probably more stable now than we've ever been during my tenure. Emotion is huge in football. What Billy, I and the other directors have done is try to take a more pragmatic, business-focused view. There's not one of us on the board who is an expert in football. So that probably helps us make business decisions behind the scenes. We've had to make some hard ones about costs, people, and reducing budgets but they were all taken for the good of the club.
"Our philosophy now is to have a break-even budget every year, whatever happens. We're not trying to make profits at the club but we also don't want to put the club back into the hole it was in before. In the last couple of years we've managed to make a small profit of around £10,000. I'm very happy with that."
Thistle have taken up a position towards the top of the table for most of the season and, despite recent wobbles, are still favourites to go up. It is a situation that has far exceeded Beattie's expectations. The combination of an inexperienced manager in McNamara, a brutal reduction in the playing budget, and the need to lean heavily on youth to fill first-team places meant this was viewed as a long-term project. Promotion this season was certainly not part of McNamara's remit.
"We took a bit of a risk on Jackie but we wanted to give him the opportunity because we could see the hunger in him," explained Beattie. "Has he exceeded our expectations? He certainly has. We took the view that it would take a three- to-four-year plan to get the financial side of the business sorted and then we could build a team from there. Jackie has accelerated that by at least a season. There was never anything said about him taking the team into the SPL. The expectation has always been: let's build something as a club, play attractive football and start to bring more young players through the system. Jackie is certainly doing that."
McNamara's smooth immersion into the world of management has not gone unnoticed outside of Maryhill and he was among the names touted yesterday as a possible summer replacement for Peter Houston at Dundee United. "We know that there will be interest in Jackie, the better he and the team do," admitted Beattie. "We re-negotiated his contract not so long ago to reward him for doing well, but also to make sure that if he left, the club got enhanced compensation."
McNamara could stay at Firhill and still be a top-flight manager next season. It has been nine years since Thistle were last in the top flight, the subsequent absence only adding to the sense of anticipation building among the support that this may finally be the year to end that drought. Beattie is understandably cautious about the prospect but admitted there has been some forward planning.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves but we've had discussions about what we would do if it came to pass. Financially, we would essentially double our turnover so it would be how we distribute that. We would want to ensure that the players who take us there get suitably recompensed as well for their efforts by offering them better contracts.
"I believe that Thistle should be in the SPL. We're planning a bit just in case. But our set-up is fine, our ground is fine, our structure is fine and so we could go into the SPL tomorrow."
And the best thing about being chairman? "It's an honour to have your name associated with a club like Partick Thistle. That's probably the biggest thing for me."