The English Premier League, a playground for billionaires—male billionaires—lures owners from around the globe. Russian Roman Abramovich controls Chelsea, which in May clinched its fourth EPL title in 10 years. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, owns No. 2 Manchester City. Americans control five of the league’s 20 teams, including fabled Manchester United and its hated rival, Liverpool.
These men clash in the world’s richest soccer league, as Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its July/August special Rivarly issue. Abramovich’s Chelsea broke the British record in 2011, paying £50 million ($78 million) to lure striker Fernando Torres from Liverpool, controlled by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. Club nicknames—Gunners, Hammers, Spurs (as in the blades fighting cocks wear to stab opponents)—proclaim testosterone-infused ambitions.
Into this all-boys club has stepped a female interloper: a low-key Swiss-German heiress named Katharina Liebherr. Her team, Southampton, known as the Saints, plays in the namesake seaside town 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of London.
Liebherr, 37, brings to the one-time church club what her CEO, Gareth Rogers, calls “real warmth” and “an acute sense of empathy”—attributes rarely voiced, at least as compliments, in British football.
But Liebherr is proving herself. She inherited Southampton from her father, Markus Liebherr, after he died suddenly in August 2010. She took charge when Chairman Nicola Cortese departed after a January 2014 power struggle.
The tabloids blamed her. “Liebherr the Dream Wrecker!” scolded the Daily Mail. “EXCLUSIVE. REVEALED,’’ trumpeted the Sun. “Woman at center of Southampton nightmare.” Liebherr endured more wrath when Coach Mauricio Pochettino defected to Tottenham Hotspur and 10 players transferred last year. By the end of that summer, the Saints were a 6-1 bet at U.K. bookmakers to be booted to a lower division, a fate they last suffered in 2005.
The bookies were wrong. Liebherr has presided over the team’s most successful Premier League season ever. Southampton finished seventh with a club-high 60 points. It returned a profit of £33.4 million in fiscal 2014, the first since it almost went bankrupt in 2009.
And the Saints—with annual revenue of £106 million in the 2013–2014 season, a quarter of Manchester United’s £433 million—qualified for Europe-wide competition for the first time in 12 seasons. “I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t a difficult summer,” CEO Rogers says. “While the entire world was predicting a meltdown, internally that wasn’t the case.”
Through the ups and downs, Liebherr worked behind the scenes. (She declined to speak for this story.) When Cortese left, she named herself non-executive chairman and promised fans “stability and calm.” By March 2014, she’d created a new board. She loaned the team £20 million to clear a debt, added 14 players, and hired Dutch soccer legend Ronald Koeman as coach.
She watched from the owner’s box at St. Mary’s Stadium on April 25 as fans sang, “When the Saints Go Marching in,” to greet Tottenham and Pochettino, the coach who’d fled.
The Saints, emboldened after beating the 20-time league champion Manchester United Red Devils in January, held their own in the 2-2 draw. “They’re having a fantastic season,” Pochettino said of his former club.
Southampton’s turnaround has taken many by surprise. Ralph Krueger, Southampton’s new chairman, says tying the Saints last year probably would have been seen as “a disaster” for Tottenham. “Now we have much more respect,” he says.
Liebherr was never a football nut. She inherited about $1 billion. The team, now valued by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index at about $260 million, was a bonus. Her father, an heir to machinery maker Liebherr-International in Bulle, Switzerland, also designated her as sole shareholder in technology and real estate firm MALI Holding in Horgen. Markus, who’d bought Southampton for a paltry £14 million in 2009, didn’t live to see it return to the EPL in 2012.
Katharina, though, “was hungry for the club to go into a new direction,” says Krueger, a former National Hockey League coach. “She loves to speak about being outside of the box,” says Krueger, who, like Liebherr, had no soccer experience. He describes her as “warm and open and honest” with “a more motherly kind of instinct.”
Soccer has proved a challenge. “She knows she doesn’t understand everything about football but has learned by watching,” Koeman says. She does know she wants to play in Europe. After vaulting into the UEFA Europa League in May, she’s ultimately chasing the UEFA Champions League, the realm of the Manchesters and Chelsea. “People tell us it’s not possible, with our budget and our infrastructure,” Krueger says. “We believe it is.”
This story appears in the July/August special Rivalry Issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine.