Interview with Rick Parry, Former Chief Executive of the FA Premier League and Liverpool FC

Jersey International Business School were pleased to welcome Rick Parry, Former Chief Executive of the FA Premier League and Liverpool FC, to present at a special lunch time event at Longueville Manor as part of our Club (N)ED for Executive and Non-Executive Directors. Whilst Rick was in Jersey, he also presented to our degree students studying on the BSc (Hons) International Financial Services degree on “The challenges of being CEO for a major international football club”.

Rick spent five years working on Manchester’s bids for the Olympic Games and in 1990 was approached by The Football Association to explore the feasibility of establishing a new top level league. After six months he was invited to become The FA Premier League’s first Chief Executive and remained in that role until 1997. Rick then left to join Liverpool FC, the club he had always supported, and became Chief Executive in 2000. In his nine years in charge the club won ten trophies, including the UEFA Champions League in a memorable final in 2005.

We took the opportunity to interview Rick about his career highlights and challenges, the Hicks & Gillett situation and his current thoughts on the Premier League and Liverpool Football club.

What would you say are your top three career highlights?

It’s very difficult to narrow it down to three. It’s almost a cliché but it’s got to be Istanbul in 2005, Dortmund in 2001 and keeping hold of Stephen Gerrard in 2004.

They seem to be football related highlights rather than some of your other achievements, why is that?

The highs in football tend to be higher than anything else, just like the lows in football tend to be lower, so I choose those for that reason. There are other things that I’ve had great satisfaction from or really enjoyed but no doubt all my 10 top would probably be football related.

When you took up the position within Liverpool Football Club, you were a supporter. How, if in any way, do you think it impacted on your objectives?

It doesn’t impact your decisions as you’ve got to act objectively. The difference is, and I can say this now I’m not working in football and I tell a lot of my friends who are still Liverpool supporters, that I can now be like them and see everything in black and white whereas in reality when you’re involved, it’s never that simple. I think the advantage you have as a supporter is that you do understand and absolutely get the values of the club which for a club like Liverpool, is absolutely essential, more so than many other clubs. You don’t let it affect the decisions that you’re taking but when match day comes you’re the same as every other supporter. Trying to live that roller-coaster is a challenge but it doesn’t mean you do silly things or make decisions from a supporter point of view rather than a business point of view. You’ve got to put that to one side and do what’s right. For a club like Liverpool, when I was there, their philosophy was all about winning so your goals in running the club are the same as the goals of a supporter anyway.

How would you describe your style of management and leadership and how does this differ?

I think I’m more of a leader, I hope I am anyway. Although there is no doubt the distinctions tend to blur, if you do all the right things as a leader then your management issues are less of an issue anyway. None of us are perfect but it’s easier in many ways, at a club like Liverpool, rather than many other organisations, where you’re having to find different ways of motivating and exciting people. In football it’s almost done for you. You have a large number of staff who completely understand the values and ethos of the club and who are extraordinarily loyal and hardworking, and if you can’t relate to the aims of a football club then you’ve got a problem. The balance you have to achieve is to remember it’s not all about 11 higher paid players, you’ve also got a lot of highly committed, hardworking staff who need to be rewarded and involved.

Which skills do you feel are important to develop early in one’s career?

All of them, but it’s important not to be too focused and to remember that your career path will take all sorts of twists and turns. I was always competitive and wanted to be the best at everything, no matter what it was, and so I think that it’s important to have pride in what you are doing. The greatest maxim of all is to try to learn from every situation. You never ever stop learning. Also, we look at people we work with and admire and try and emulate them. Always look upwards and around you. Remember you’ve got 2 ears and one mouth and to use them in that ratio – be a good listener and take a lot in. Look for things that will stretch and test you which enables you to grow.

  1. If your colleagues and team were asked to describe you in 5 words, what would those words be?

I can’t even begin to imagine. Driven, honest, caring, rational and quiet.

What where the biggest challenges you faced during your career and how did you overcome them?

I’m sure they fall into 2 distinct types:

One – The work-based challenges facing the organisation, being balanced and coming up with solutions, drawing on resources you need to help solve issues. Very often the task is actually defining what the challenge or the problem really is because very often it’s not what it appears. Don’t just tackle the symptoms, make sure you really understand the cause of it and sometimes that means taking a little bit more time, which isn’t a bad thing, rather than diving into knee-jerk reactions. This can be tough in football as very often the line is “we need an answer today” and you have to tell them to wait. The best example of that was actually getting the Premier League formed. I was originally hired to write a plan which was 12 pages and took about 3 days. That was easy, but making it happen and ripping English football apart was actually a bit more testing and it is definitely about being able to carry people and involve others.

Two – The personal challenges. Coping with pressure, exposure and the public eye. In particular as a Chief Executive, and as much in a football club as anywhere else, it’s often an extremely lonely position. When you’re caught in an argument between a foreign manager and foreign owners… who are you going to pick up the phone to? Who are you talking to? Two things I consciously did were not to read the papers – because if you don’t read it it’s amazing how little it worries you and anybody who says they don’t worry about the press when its negative is lying. Secondly, consciously managing your life so that you make an effort to switch off every now and then. One of the things I did make sure of was when I was home I switched off and took the kids to and from school, attended sports days and tried to have a positive balance and not miss out on the important things. You have to keep things in perspective. One thing you can’t buy more of is time and it goes by very quickly.

With the great benefit of hindsight, how do you feel about the Hicks & Gillett situation?

The trouble is you don’t have hindsight, so if you had foresight then life would be a lot easier. At the end of the day, you take what you are told and what is in legal documents at face value. When you’ve got expensive teams of legal and financial advisors and they are telling you everything is fine, you definitely take that at face value. People tend to think it was David Moores and I who sold Liverpool, and that goes with the territory if you’ve got a high profile job, but it was the board of directors. The non-executives, everybody, had collectively been advised by lots of different people and there was pressure from some of our shareholders who just wanted to maximise cash. It was very much a collective decision that it was the right thing to do. Would we have changed the process radically? I’m not sure how we could or would have done, it was complicated. Actually, we had chosen to go with Dubai International Capital but that deal was looking increasingly unlikely and David wanted to sell the club. At the end of the day there weren’t too many alternatives on the table. Do we wish it had turned out differently? Well obviously we do, everybody does, but with hindsight would we have done anything much differently? Given all the circumstances at the time, honestly, I’m not sure. Who would have foreseen that they would fall out with each other? They didn’t, that’s hundred percent for sure. Would I be warier doing a deal with two Americans in the future… quite possibly.

What are your thoughts on the Premier League and Liverpool Football Club at the moment?

It’s great to see Liverpool riding high at the moment and playing well. This far into the season you notice a pattern starting to emerge. Is there any reason why they can’t keep it up? Obviously with injuries and the second half of the season taking its toll as players get tired you always wonder about the size of the squad, but in terms of the way they are playing, if you’ve got two exciting players that can score goals, in any league or any standard of football, that is gold dust, a fantastic advantage and plus point, so fingers crossed. Also, not being in Europe, not having that distraction, it’s a distraction we would have liked, but given that we are not there is a plus of having the focus very much on the league. Beyond Liverpool I think it’s going to be an incredibly open league because for the first time ever, to have Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United change their managers in one season is completely unprecedented, so you never know how that will work out for them. Even if Liverpool do fall a little short it’s still going to be a really exciting league and I wouldn’t be confident in predicting who will come out on top.