Making a profit is the name of the game

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The Independent Online
A walk down Wembley Way on any day other than a cup final, or when a pop concert is being staged, is a lonely one. There are no hot- dog stands, and no vendors of scarves, hats, drinks or programmes. Quite simply, no money is changing hands.

Making a profit from a stadium complex the size of Wembley is as difficult a manage- ment task as they come, particularly in the leisure industry which thrives on mass audiences. Putting bottoms on seats is the name of the game.

The future can only be difficult for Wembley if it loses out to Manchester in the final chase for millions of pounds of funds to build a new national stadium. For the first time in its 72-year history, the 68-acre home of English football would have a serious business competitor, and the nostalgia of the 1948 Olympics and 1966 World Cup Final might not be enough to see it through another 72 years.

Wembley has already been as close to going to the financial wall as is conceivably possible. Receivers would have been running the company today but for a recent refinancing, involving banks exchanging buckets of debt for mountains of share certificates.

By far the majority of Wembley's financial problems stemmed from a crazy acquisition spending spree in the 1980s. If it moved, Wembley bought it - from film distribution companies, night-clubs, tent-hire firms, corporate hospitality services, through to greyhound tracks either side of the Atlantic and bingo halls.

The acquisitive money, be it cash or in share form, was rolled out at an alarming rate. The problem was that the recession arrived and the money from customers stopped rolling in. The Wembley company lost pounds 65.7m last year, equivalent to pounds 821.25 for each of the 80,000 seats in the stadium.

Sir Brian Wolfson, who presided over the 1980s spending spree, has left the group, and been replaced as chairman by Claes Hultman, the Swedish head of the process control company Eurotherm.

Much of the hard work, such as the sale of unprofitable and unnecessary assets and the refinancing, was completed before Mr Hultman took the helm. His job now is to rejuvenate a stadium complex that is lost in a time warp, out of touch with the needs and demands of the Nineties and, more to the point, the 21st century consumer.

Wembley needs to be razed and rebuilt. It is just not possible to make the changes necessary within the confines of the current building structure.