The financial fixer for football
BSc Business and Economics 1974
On graduating Keith Harris’s report said, ‘if he spent as much time on his Economics as he did on football, he would be good’. Of course, the man who was Chairman of the Football League and assisted in the sale of Chelsea to Roman Abramovich might now reply that his experience while here as a player for Bradford Park Avenue was time well spent.
Keith came up to Bradford the day before his first lectures started; Bradford was his first choice because it offered an exciting multidisciplinary approach, and a chance to return to his northern roots. The first in his family to go to university, he hadn’t even had chance to visit campus before then, and found himself living in a digs in Queensbury. He loved football and was also regularly to be found on the pitch, as a player for Bradford Park Avenue for a couple of terms, though he never formally made it onto the club’s books.
His course was the first chance to encounter the independence of self-directed learning; “For the first time you realised that as an iceberg is one-eighth above the surface, so lectures were just the eighth above…” Keith recalls the insights his early studies offered him: “The peripheral stuff – psychology and sociology – was interesting. Understanding economics and maths is important, but in business, it’s the psychology.”
Researching his PhD thesis at Surrey proved a decisive move, as it required an in-depth understanding of developing international markets. From that point Keith’s career took off at a breakneck pace – from taking a graduate entry-level position at Morgan Grenfell he became associate director within three years, relocated to America in 1985, and eventually rose to become President of the company.
He returned to London in 1990, establishing Apax Corporate Finance in partnership with Apax Partners, which became one of the largest private equity houses in the UK. In 1994 he was headhunted to run what became one of the largest investment banks in the world - HSBC Investment Bank.
From finance to football
Under Keith’s five-year oversight, the organisation’s annual profits went from £40million to £480million, with operations in 46 countries and over 12,000 staff. However, five years on and he had had enough of living out of a suitcase, travelling the world. He was then presented with two compelling opportunities- becoming Executive Chairman of Seymour Pierce, the job he stills holds, and being asked to become Chairman of the Football League. He accepted both challenges.
Keith’s tenure as Chairman of the Football League was marked by huge changes in the football world, as clubs floated themselves on the markets following the boom in investment from broadcasters. The end of his tenure as Chairman of the Football League in 2002 didn’t mark the end of his lifelong love of football, as Seymour Pierce has continued to be involved in the financing of many football clubs; beyond Chelsea there were the sales of Aston Villa, Manchester City, Derby, Hull, West Ham, and Tottenham.
Looking back on his time at Bradford, Keith appreciates the ‘character-forming’ part of a university experience – learning self-discipline and self-reliance, how to wire a plug or how to manage your own money – often for the first time.
Keith would share the same advice he was given - ‘pick a subject you enjoy and the rest will follow’. “I hired a lot of bright people who had Classics degrees, Sciences degrees, Arts degrees, Economics degrees – because it brings fresh thinking. The analogy is very much with what Arsene Wenger has said: ‘Show me a brilliant athlete with a good attitude and I’ll make a footballer out of him.’”