FA Cup final 2014: Hull City owner Assem Allam happy that business is booming
The charismatic and controversial Hull City owner tells Kate Mason his project is ahead of schedule, why he won't just throw money at it and that he has another love – squash
Friday 16 May 2014
When Assem Allam takes his seat at Wembley tomorrow to watch his Hull City in their first FA Cup final he will be admiring not just the football club he saved from administration, but also an investment performing way ahead of schedule.
"In football I had a three-year plan," he says. "First year: spring clean the club; second year: put more money in – go mid-table Championship; third year: more money and go for promotion. And we did that. Not in three years, [but] in two and a half years."
Allam's structured approach to investing in Hull is symptomatic of the mindset that makes him such a successful businessman. He had worked at Tempest Diesels since his arrival in Hull in the 1970s. He now owns the company – renamed Allam Marine – and has made a policy of keeping both manufacturing and the company's headquarters in Hull. Allam Marine has twice won a Queen's Award for Enterprise – the emblem of which he wears proudly in his buttonhole when we meet.
A man with a clear sense of his strengths, he knows exactly how he can best support Hull. "It's not based on throwing money at it," he says. "I don't believe in sorting out a problem by throwing money at it. We have spent very little: we're not a big spender in the Premier League. We're one of the lowest spending of the 20 teams but we achieved staying in the Premier League [at] 16th and at the same time staying in the FA Cup.
"I can only run the club as a business. I know business – how to run a business: I don't know anything else."
Allam is a natural reformer. But his well-documented attempts to change the club's name from Hull City to Hull Tigers have not been popular in his adopted home town. Has he been hurt by the reaction to his attempts? No, he says, it is more bafflement at being labelled a dictator than pain.
"What is a dictator?" he asks me rhetorically. "A dictator is someone who decides something and if you don't like it: tough. That's a dictator. He does this; you don't agree. Tough. He's doing it.
"I said I want to have a strong brand to make the club grow well, get global sponsorship and to get the club to self-finance and not have to use my money. I said if you don't like that – I go. Is that dictatorial?"
Allam, 74, makes a passionate argument. And there is another sport he is passionate about that will be occupying a part of his mind when Hull come to kick-off at Wembley tomorrow: squash. While Hull's players are warming up, Allam will have one eye on the Sports Arena in his home city. There, the Allam British Open Squash Championships are in action and the title-holder and fellow Egyptian, Ramy Ashour, is seeded to be starting his semi-final shortly before 5pm. A lifelong squash fan, Allam will be anxiously checking scores.
"It's a fantastic sport: more than tennis, more than anything. You have to have very quick thinking. [You're] like a fighter: a fraction of a second makes the difference."
If Allam's football vision is running ahead of schedule, his squash project is still battling for recognition. The British Open is the oldest tournament in the history of squash. It was founded in 1922, 18 years after Hull City Association Football Club. Yet in 2010, the British Open had to be cancelled for lack of sponsorship.
The 88-year-old tournament languished unplayed for two years until Allam heard why: "We are always – my children, grandchildren – involved in squash. One day we got to know that the British Open is being cancelled because [there are] no sponsors. And then I said, 'No! Let us see what we can do here.' And that's how it started." In 2012, it returned as The Allam British Open Squash Championships.
However, many in the squash world were unamused when the British Open was held on an all-glass show court on the grass at Hull's KC Stadium. A brilliant aesthetic idea perhaps, and certainly "fun" as Allam describes it, but rain lashed in, stopping play. Then sunshine on the glass court made seeing the ball almost impossible.
But these things happen in pursuit of world dominance: he is not aiming for Hull to be a mid-tier football club and he does not want squash to be a sport for the few. Risks must be taken. And you would not bet against him succeeding, no matter how many controversies he is caught up in along the way.
Allam sees his sporting partnerships as an opportunity to repay local people who have made his expat life so happy. "I have the community at heart, I've always said that. We in business, none of us have a machine to print money. We all make our money from the communities and there must come the time that you pay back."
When, then, should we expect a top-four finish from Hull City?
"Not next season, no." He laughs. "It is our secret... but it is in the plan."
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