Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ireland's 25 most powerful women: Whelan sparkles at top of her game

Susan Whelan was a central figure in Leicester's football fairytale. She tells Dearbhail McDonald about her journey to the top of the Premier League

Susan Whelan CEO of Leicester City at WXN Leadership Summit at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin.
Susan Whelan CEO of Leicester City at WXN Leadership Summit at the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin.
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Leicester City Football Club chief executive Susan Whelan began her sparkling career in her family's Dublin city centre jewellery business, rising all the way to the glory of last year's unlikely win for her club in the English Premier League.

Dearbhail McDonald: Football is full of highs and lows. You have seen both sides with Leicester, having had a more difficult season this year. How do you manage those highs and lows as a business?

Susan Whelan: Winning the Premier League was obviously very exciting. That last day on the pitch with Andrea Bocelli singing was spine-tingling stuff. You appreciate the highs after you have had some of the lows. It is impossible not to get excited on a Saturday afternoon about the game. But people often say to me, 'Oh my goodness, you must have butterflies, you must be nervous at this stage on a Saturday afternoon?' But we have done everything we can at that point and what happens out there, that is it. If it doesn't go well, there is no point in being depressed about it for two days. You have just got to pick yourself up and go again.

DMcD: How difficult was it to give Premier League-winning manager Claudio Ranieri his marching orders after last year's epic win?

SW: It was a very, very tough decision. He is a very fine man, a very fine manager. It was a long, hard decision.

DMcD: Your journey from your family's jewellery business to Leicester City really came through the Srivaddhanaprabha family in Thailand, who own the King Power duty free empire and who bought Leicester in 2010 for £39m (€44m). Tell me about that journey and how you got involved.

SW: I had been working in my father's business in Dublin. He told me to spread my wings and get out of the nest, which I did, and I went to work with Aer Rianta International (ARI), based in Shannon. They were starting to develop their overseas business at that time, and I worked with them for four years, going backwards and forwards overseas. The opportunity came up to work in Asia, because ARI were developing their business network out there and I worked in Thailand, China and Pakistan. But Aer Rianta decided to concentrate in other areas, so the chairman of King Power International Group, Mr [Vichai] Srivaddhanaprabha, invited me to stay and work with them. That was almost 18 years ago now. I have been there and grown with them all the way along.

DMcD: When the company bought Leicester, you got appointed to the board of the club and later took over as ceo.

SW: Yeah, I suppose the first year really was all about learning and listening and so forth, I was up there once a week - really just to observe and to learn a little bit about the business. It was after the first six months that all of us went on the main board and then he said to me in the July after that, in 2011, would I step in and become ceo?

DMcD: Did you have much knowledge of football before you took on the role?

SW: Not at all. I am sure some people would say I still don't.

DMcD: Did this lack of football knowledge matter, or did a knowledge of merchandising, commercial rights and advertising come to the fore?

SW: I had to look at the bits that were common between the businesses to see how I could help to shape it a little bit. So obviously, putting in infrastructure was very important, striving for excellence both on and off the pitch was very important. And also, developing the fundamentals of the business for the long-term.

DMcD: How important is a strong commercial foundation for a football club if it wants to compete and win in the big leagues?

SW: The commercial side is very important. Obviously in the UK, the television rights generates a lot of cash if you win the division. For the longevity and sustainability of a club, though, there are a lot of other aspects, and it is not really all just about the money. It is very important that you are relevant and embedded in the community in which you operate. You have to develop the global reach through social media and so forth. But the club - particularly Leicester - has got to be more than just about what happens on the pitch, because you can't always control that.

DMcD: And what about your other day job with King Power?

SW: I am very lucky, I have been able to retain a role, as you say, in both operations. Duty Free is what I have been doing for all of these years. I am the senior executive vice-president for merchandising. So, that really means leading on the commercial side. But I have a great team in Thailand. I am involved in commercial strategy, commercial planning and managing key accounts.

DMcD: For many years, English football had a laddish image. Are there other women coming up through the ranks?

SW: Absolutely, yeah. And if you look at our own board, it is pretty evenly spread, in terms of number of directors and so forth.

DMcD: One of the things that is important for WXN and for other women's networks is the idea of a mentor or a sponsor, or somebody who is going to speak for you when you are not in the room. How important is that for you, and have you done it for others?

SW: It is very important. I think it would be great to do it. Have I done it for anybody? Not yet. I keep on feeling, you know, that when I get a little bit of time that I could actually put an arm around somebody. I would be really delighted to do that.

DMcD: I am sure you have done it informally though, have you? Or just by virtue of the way you lead?

SW: I hope so, I hope so. And not necessarily just for women. It could be for anybody who would feel that I could help in some way.

DMcD: What type of a leader are you?

SW: I don't know, you would have to ask the others.

DMcD: One that listens?

SW: I hope one that listens, but not afraid to make the decision at the end of the day. Consensus - I try to build consensus - you can't always do that, but if it is possible to have a decision process through consensus, I think it is a much more positive outcome, obviously.

DMcD: Was it inevitable that you would have gone the retail route, given your family's exposure? Were you always destined for business, or what had you hoped?

SW: I think so, yeah. Well, I never would have sat back at age 10 and said 'I want to run a football club'. Definitely not! Retail was certainly closer to home. I enjoyed working with my dad.

DMcD: In business terms, what keeps you awake at night?

SW: Thinking of all the things I haven't got done in the day.

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