Histon financial prudence helps profit long-term future
No-one can deny the impact the chastening times have had on most sports clubs.
Many were forced to abort last season early because of the pandemic, and others have seen summer campaigns truncated or aborted.
It has meant lost revenue for all concerned, and with government restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, footfall and expenditure by fans will be limited for some time yet.
Histon were no exception to this rule, losing out on gate receipts and additional income from four cancelled home games for the 2019/20 season, but still with overheads to pay.
But prudent financial planning meant that they ended the campaign in profit for the first time in at least 30 years.
It was led by finance director Keith Nichols, who instigated a method that he terms profit targeting.
“What you do is divide the company down into small units, and we divide it down by teams – the under-13s, under-14s, the ladies, the under-18s, the first team and then other parts of the buildings,” he explains.
“You make each one a profit centre – not a cost centre – and you manage it, and do a forecast out how it’s running.
“We made it very visible to everybody so that every week and every month you can see how your profit is going against the target we set – and we set targets for everybody.
“I tracked it religiously right over the season.”
Nichols’ background in business has been crucial, but that is just one part of a compelling past.
Born and brought up in Barrow-in-Furness, he joined Barrow AFC in 1967 and played a handful of games in the old Third Division, now League One, but mainly featured in the Floodlit League.
He went on to study mathematics and fluid dynamics at Liverpool University, followed by a second degree, a master of philosophy in the advance design of submarines, having been sponsored by a ship building company.
Nichols, pictured below, progressed from ships to electronics and then, as he went on to the EDS Group, AT Kearney, PeopleSoft and Geometric, among others, became more involved in finance and business transformation.
“By doing that, what I realised going through all those companies was that being an accountant was great, but although it is absolutely essential, you bring the historic financial view of the company,” he says.
“It doesn’t tell you what you’re going to be in the future. I’ve gone through probably about a dozen companies where I have had to turn it round from a loss to a profit.”
Nichols, who also played rugby union for Sale in their amateur days, now runs his own company, but has been devoting time to help Histon reach a solid financial footing.
He was putting in up to 30 hours a week to achieve the profit targeting, for which he has an interesting analogy.
“It’s a bit like a big oil tanker coming into port. Five miles out it switches engines off, and then a pilot will come out to get on board with the captain and nudge it in bit by bit,” says Nichols.
“I’m a bit like the pilot that has come on board and taken into harbour because I’ve done it a lot of times – I just do the nudges here and there.
“I tell each of the profit centres this is what we must do to keep on board.
“John Hall, who was the chairman last year, was magnificent and backed me with every single step.
“John was a fantastic person to communicate and share information with. Everyone was behind it, and there was a lot of learning that went on.”
Nichols’ involvement in Histon came about by chance initially.
He was invited by a friend to a game more than 13 years ago, but was not so enamoured by the idea.
“My first reaction was, ‘no, why would I want to do that? I can go and see a rugby match just round the corner, or nip up to Northampton to watch them, so why should I bother?’,” he explains.
“But I went down, I enjoyed it and I met a number of people who I have never forgotten, it was absolutely fantastic.
“I was walking around – and it seems rather silly – but I asked someone where the toilets were. It was Gareth Baldwin (the former chairman) and he walked me all the way round the ground, talked to me and I felt so great. I felt like he wanted me to be there – it was such a great experience.
“I probably attribute my connection with Histon to Gareth Baldwin.”
After going to work in Germany for three years, on his return to these shores Nichols began attending Histon matches.
He became part of the Histon Independent Supporters’ Trust (HIST), running their finances and, having previously been invited to do the sums for the board, said yes last season.
Nichols was also crucial in being able to access grants during the fallow period. They have been able to get funding from Sport England, South Cambs District Council and the Football Foundation, which in turn has enabled them to make vital upgrades to the ground and improve health and safety.
A large area of tarmacking has been carried out; paint markings have been put around the ground; the floodlight system has been serviced; the stadium has been washed down, cleaned and repainted; and 20 tonnes of sand was put on the pitch.
“Histon have been short of money for many years,” says Nichols.
“It means the ground has suffered a little bit – if you go round the ground it had not had a lick of paint for quite a long time.
“I set out a financial plan when I came on board that I got all the directors to agree to, and we needed to put any money we make into long-term improvements into the club.
“It looks like a ground that people want to go to. It’s where a lot of the profit has gone, so we’ve not just made a profit, we’ve put it to really good use in the long-term parts of the club rather than short-term spending.”
There are also new measures in place to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, which includes being able to purchase season tickets and matchday tickets online – with efforts being made to have minimal need for physical money.
Nichols added: “I don’t want the company to go back to the days when it had to scrimp and scrape and find money to do the most basic things.
“I think we’re pretty confident we’re past that stage now, as long as we manage it in the right way, are careful and spend within our capabilities.”
Histon have announced five new signings ahead of their trip to Biggleswade United in the FA Cup, first qualifying round this Saturday (September 12).
Josh Dawkin, Sam Reed, Tobi Lawal, Jonathan Peters and Finley Wilkinson have all put pen to paper on deals this week.
Dawkin, Reed and Lawal have all moved to the Stutes, while Peters and Wilkinson have been promoted from the under-18s.