Martin Broughton: Last-minute winner

The chairman of Liverpool Football Club has turned out to be exactly the man it needed in a crisis. But is he there to stay?

If he had achieved nothing else during his six months as chairman of Liverpool Football Club, Martin Broughton would today still be reflecting on one extraordinary triumph.

He must surely be the first Chelsea fan to have found himself serenaded by Koppites on the steps of the High Court in London.

The impromptu chorus of "We love you Martin" broke out when Liverpool's chairman emerged from the court on Wednesday, seemingly having won the right to sell the club. It reflected the widely held view among fans that Broughton has battled to save them from its reviled owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a rescue mission he appears to have finally completed yesterday. Such is the loathing now for the two Americans on Merseyside, the small matter of his 55-year love affair with Chelsea – he remains a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge – has been forgotten.

If the fans have got what they wanted, so too has Liverpool's principal lender, Royal Bank of Scotland, the prime mover in the appointment of Broughton at the club on 16 April, a day after his 63rd birthday. It gave him a simple assignment: sell Liverpool so that we get our money back.

That it was Broughton to whom RBS turned reflects the regard in which he is held in business and sporting circles. He spent 33 years at British American Tobacco, culminating in an 11-year stint as its chief executive. Combining that role with the company's chairmanship for his final five years at BAT, Broughton said his goodbyes in 2004 and promptly became chairman of British Airways, a post he retains to this day. Stepping back from frontline management has allowed him to explore other interests, and the three years he spent as chairman of the British Horseracing Board from 2004 to 2007 are widely seen in the sport as having been crucial in preventing its slide into financial oblivion.

It helped that racing was even more of a passion than football. Broughton has been a fan since childhood, his interest piqued when he was given Totopoly, the racing board game, one Christmas – typically, he and his brother rewrote the rules to improve it – and when the executive pay packets began arriving, he started buying horses.

Still, reform of the organisation of Britain's horseracing structures saw him run up against some entrenched vested interests. And Messrs Hicks and Gillett are hardly the first difficult duo with whom Broughton has found himself negotiating. At the height of the dispute between British Airways and its disgruntled cabin crew staff earlier this year, the airline asked Broughton to take a more active role in negotiations with Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, the joint general secretaries of the Unite union.

He was seen as being less overtly combative than Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, and the switch appears to have paid off: the dispute, though not yet formally resolved, has largely been settled since Broughton became more closely involved and has certainly become less rancorous.

Broughton's style is laid-back – in football parlance, he is no tea-cup thrower – and deliberate. He is renowned for taking his time to come to a decision, and then for defending his position trenchantly.

One weapon is a dry sense of humour, as recognised by the Speechwriters' Guild, which this year made him its business communicator of the year. "He can craft a phrase, select a great quotation and crack a good joke," the judges said, "which is extremely rare among top British executives and almost unheard of from a man trained as an accountant."

Perhaps that's because it's quite some time since Broughton practised. Accountancy was a trade he fell into without much thought, having left school at 18 with mediocre exam results. Broughton often talks of his childhood in Fulham as having been lacking in aspiration, though his car repairer father introduced him to football. (Chelsea was a marginally shorter walk from the family home than Fulham itself.)

Only when Broughton came 41st in a field of 3,000 students sitting national accountancy exams did he begin to realise his potential, and his star rose quickly once he joined BAT. Not that there hasn't been the odd stumble. Never a smoker, Broughton ruffled feathers shortly after becoming chief executive of Britain's biggest tobacco company by saying publicly that he'd also advised his own children – he has a son and a daughter with wife Jocelyn, a colleague at BAT whom he met when they both worked for the business in Hong Kong – never to smoke.

It could have been a public relations disaster along the lines of Gerald Ratner describing his products as "crap" or Barclays Bank boss Matt Barrett admitting he'd told his children that credit cards were too expensive. But Broughton managed to move on (possibly because by 1993 even tobacco companies had generally stopped arguing that their products did not damage health), and the episode at least proved he was prepared to be an independent thinker.

There have been similar episodes of outspokenness since. As he was an early supporter of Britain joining the euro, Labour had him marked out as a potential ally in the business world when it came to power in 1997. In fact, though Broughton has generally endeavoured to be apolitical, he found himself embroiled in a public spat with Tony Blair after the then prime minister criticised British Airways for telling a member of its check-in staff not to wear her crucifix at work.

Broughton challenged Blair on the issue during a question-and-answer session at a CBI conference. Blair offered some "frank advice". "One of the things I've learned in politics is that there are battles really worth fighting and there are battles really, really not worth fighting," he told Broughton. "All I would say is, just get on the right side of the line on this one."

Having claimed victory yesterday in a battle that Liverpool supporters certainly put in the first of those categories, might Broughton now be tempted to stay on as the club's chairman – assuming, that is, that the new owners have been as impressed as the fans? He isn't saying, but friends point out that since leaving BAT, he has enjoyed combining different roles. His chairmanship of the British Horseracing Board was followed by a 30-month term as president of the CBI, the voice of big business.

Moreover, Broughton's job at BA is about to shrink, as the airline merges with Spain's Iberia. Though he will remain chairman of BA after the deal completes, the British business will become a subsidiary of an international holding group, to be chaired by the current Iberia chief executive, Antonio Vazquez. Though his duties will now include regular trips to Madrid, the role will generally be less onerous.

If not Liverpool, expect the Football Association to renew its attempts to woo Broughton. Seen by many in the game as the ideal replacement for Lord Triesman, who stood down as FA chairman in the summer following a nasty bout of foot-in-mouth disease, Broughton told the FA last month that he would not be a candidate for the job because his priority was to sell Liverpool. That job done, a change of heart is not out of the question.

Still, staying in football, with its vested interests and rapid reversals of fortune, might represent too much of a gamble for Broughton who, despite his passion for horse-racing, is not really a betting man. After all, he has already taken one big risk. For if Liverpool's new owners live up to their promises – and manager Roy Hodgson can keep his end of the bargain with the team's performance on the pitch – Broughton may find the welcome is just a little less warm from fellow-fans back at Chelsea.

A life in brief

Born: 15 April 1947, London.

Education: Attended Westminster City Grammar but lacked the grades or funds to attend university, instead working for a small accountancy firm in London at 18.

Family: His father repaired bus and car seats for a living. Broughton has a twin brother.

Career: He moved to British and American Tobacco in 1970. Made chief executive in 1993, later chairman. Appointed chairman of British Airways in 2004, and remains so. Chosen as Liverpool FC's independent chairman in April.

He says: "I have always taken the view that if you're not at the table, you're likely to be on the menu."

They say: "He can craft a phrase, select a great quotation and crack a good joke, which is extremely rare among top British executives and almost unheard of from a man trained as an accountant." Judges at the Speechwriters' Guild earlier this year

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