Sporting heroes to business leaders
Will Carling led the England rugby union team to Grand Slam after Grand Slam in the 1990s having been made captain at the tender age of just 22.
Carling’s sporting prowess and dashing good looks made him rugby’s media darling. A sporting icon and household name, Carling is now making rich business by offering us mere mortals the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in his and other legendary sports stars’ company.
WCM (Will Carling Management) provides unique corporate hospitality events to blue chip clients combining the usual fizz and canapés with the somewhat rarer chance to mingle with the cream of sport. Clients include BT, IBM, HSBC, Morgan-Stanley, HP and GlaxoSmithKline, while Carling books in top draw names such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson, Sir Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer, Ian Botham, Sir Viv Richards, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Seve Ballesteros, Colin Montgomerie, Damon Hill and Lord Coe (the full list reads like an A-Z of sporting icons).
“We provide something that money can’t usually buy,” says Carling. “We create tailored small exclusive events where clients can mingle with the stars.” A dinner for 40 guests with four England rugby stars will set you back £20,000, but Carling says you could expect to pay substantially more to sit the likes of Becker and McEnroe across your table. After four years of trading, WCM has a turnover of £4.5m and “very nice” profits. It’s clearly more to Carling than an excuse to get the ‘old boys’ round for drinks.
“I always wanted to get into business after playing,” says Carling. “And I’m very passionate about making it succeed. I’m in it for the right reasons. As with sport, if you’re in it just for the money you won’t succeed.”
Focused on his new role of entrepreneur, Carling claims he now looks to the likes of Charles Dunstone for inspiration, not sporting figures. With wife Lisa taking care of the day-today running of the business, Carling’s role is to pull in the stars and convince corporations to part with their cash. However, he insists his name has limited impact.
“It opens doors and people are usually interested in meeting you once to see what you’re like, but unless you’ve got something to say, they won’t be interested again,” he says. “Fame certainly isn’t a passport to success.”
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He acknowledges though that there are skills he’s transferred from sport. Having been responsible for motivating 14 other individuals to perform to capacity for 80 minutes, and with a degree in psychology, Carling knows how to get inside people’s heads – a skill he’s now applying to business. “The key to having a successful team is understanding individuals and what makes them tick. Nowadays I have to apply that strategy to clients and understand their individual needs.”
So how far does business come to replacing the buzz of a roaring Twickenham? “Bizarrely it does come close,” says Carling. “I love rugby more than anyone but I know I was lucky to get to do what I did – and I feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing now. It’s a new challenge and it’s exciting.”
Leeds United Football Club may have fallen on hard times but as recently as 1992 they were crowned Division One champions, thanks in no small part to the efforts of top goalscorer Lee Chapman. In an 18-year career spanning 13 clubs, Chapman amassed a highly respectable 202 goals. But when he finally hung up his boots in 1996 he was uncertain about what to do next.
“You think you’re going to play forever,” says Chapman. “In the last couple of years I did a bit of media work; but I wasn’t keen to do it in the long term.” At that point though, the Premiership boom was in full swing and footballers were in demand. Chapman, married to actress Leslie Ash, was no stranger to the public gaze and saw it as the perfect opportunity to exploit.
“Opening a bar, club or restaurant seemed a logical option. As a footballer I’d got to eat and drink in the best places all over the world so had an idea of what worked well,” says Chapman. “I always considered my chief job was to entertain people and running a bar was a way of continuing this.”
After a three-month involvement in a bar in South Kensington, Chapman launched celebrity hang-out Teatro in trendy Soho in 1998. “It was the only place to be for at least two years,” says Chapman. However, the limelight eventually shifted and he became tired of the pressures of central London. “It’s an incredibly competitive area,” he says. “Overheads are high and margins are tight and sooner or later everyone has enough of the West End.”
Having sold Teatro, Chapman has opted to concentrate on his Clapham bar and restaurant So.uk. “It’s a style bar with great food and live DJs, we’re trying to improve the traditional local boozer,” says Chapman, who is currently looking for new plots to expand the concept, if not the brand. “I don’t think the people who go to So.uk would like to be part of a chain,” he adds.
With the help of a bar manager, Chapman takes full control of running the business from his home office. It’s something he enjoys but had to learn from scratch. “Football in no way prepared me for this,” he says. “The skills are very different. It’s been hard work and I’ve had to learn from my mistakes and pick up what I can from accountants and lawyers.”
Aside from attracting fellow celebrities and much-needed publicity to Teatro, Chapman doesn’t think his name has benefited him in business: “Banks certainly aren’t impressed by a name and, although they won’t go against you just because of it, they can be wary and want to see what you can actually do.”
Chapman does, however, think the managers he played under have shaped his approach to business. “I’ve probably taken from the methodical approach of Howard Wilkinson and the flamboyance of Brian Clough most,” he says. “I’d like to think I’ve found a balance between the two, whereby I plan but also have charisma and a desire to entertain.”
But that’s where it ends. “I’m an entrepreneur now, not a footballer,” says Chapman. “Sport as a career is very much in the past.” But has business replaced the rush of hearing leather spank the back of the net? “It’ll never compare to scoring a goal,” he admits. “That’s just the most incredible feeling. But I do take great enjoyment in having a place that’s packed with smiling people and my new challenge is to sustain that feeling.”
David Lloyd has become so successful as an entrepreneur he’s arguably better known by younger generations for the sports clubs that carry his name than for mixing it with the likes of McEnroe, Nastase and Connors. While he claims “once a sportsman, always a sportsman” it’s a quandary he’s happy with and one he describes as “having the best of both worlds”.
Lloyd finds it hard to choose which he’s enjoyed more. “Competing at the highest level at Wimbledon was something I was very lucky to experience and you can’t buy that, but opening the first David Lloyd Leisure was incredible too.”
For Lloyd, there was no soul searching to find something to replace the high of competitive sport. “I would have gone into business anyway,” he says. At 17 he did a bookkeeping course and immediately after his playing career shifted tennis rackets from the continent to bolster his income. “Every penny I earned I saved and it all went towards having my own club,” he adds.
Essentially though, it came down to shaping his own destiny. “I’m the kind of person that needs to make the decisions. I can’t be managed. Tennis is a very individual sport and I don’t know whether or not that has influenced my character, but I’m no good at not being in charge.”
Lloyd’s only stint as employee, following the sale of David Lloyd Leisure to Whitbread for £200m in 1995, was unhappy and short-lived. “I couldn’t cope,” he says. “I could no longer make decisions.” Lloyd’s not the first entrepreneur to find postacquisition loss of control insufferable though, and merely building the company was a massive achievement given the City’s initial lack of interest in a tennis player with a vision.
“My name was detrimental to raising funds,” he recalls. “The banks thought while I might have the sporting knowledge, I wouldn’t have the intelligence or business acumen. It certainly didn’t open any doors. City people want to see a CV, not who you beat at tennis in 1978.” However, Lloyd acknowledges that once the business was up and running, customers placed value in his name.
Hard to beat
Nowadays, his name isn’t even his own, as Whitbread have persisted with the David Lloyd Leisure brand. Among Hull City Football Club supporters it’s even a dirty word. Lloyd’s ill-fated venture into football club ownership has left him, perhaps justifiably, bemused. “I only got involved because I thought sport as a whole would benefit,” he insists. “The business plan I drew up was very ambitious, but the fans and the council weren’t ready for it and didn’t back it. I had death threats – football can be ridiculously tribal – so I pulled out.”
The experience shook Lloyd but he appears vindicated by the success Hull are now enjoying using his blueprint. He too has moved on. Next Generation, a chain of luxury leisure clubs similar to the original David Lloyd Leisure concept and started and run in the UK by his son Scott, has a UK turnover of £35m and is also prospering under Lloyd’s guidance in Australia. Lloyd also has property and leisure interests in Barbados and is a non-executive director of fledgling indoor children’s soft play company Topsy Turvy.
Resolutely refusing to decide between entrepreneur or sportsman, Lloyd admits his sporting career did prepare him for business in one crucial way. “It taught me mental strength,” he says. “As a player I knew if I had that and had prepared properly then I’d be very difficult to beat.”
“Rugby taught me nothing about business,” insists Fran Cotton, former England rugby union captain and co-founder of Cotton Traders, the leisurewear manufacturer and retailer that now boasts 500 employees and a turnover of £50m.
“However, rugby is also all about team spirit and the whole ethos of the way we run this business is that everyone is part of a team” he concedes. “Both Steve (Smith, his partner) and myself captained our country and learnt a lot about leadership and it’s those skills that translate to business.”
Unlike today’s well-paid professionals, Cotton and Smith had to combine their playing careers with employment and it was there that they picked up their business grounding. Having set up a sports clothing division for French Connection they eventually decided to go it alone.
“We put together a business plan and did the fundraising circuit. The first people that showed interest were 3i and we did a deal,” says Cotton. Having proved their business credentials, they had little problem raising the money and Cotton insists the only influence their name had was persuading investors to take a closer look.
Cotton Traders started off selling England replica rugby shirts and then moved on to Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and France, growing a £2m turnover in under two years. The company has since expanded into general leisurewear through mail order and also has 42 nationwide stores.
Rugby now only accounts for 2% of the company’s sales, but the sport remains core to its brand. “People know rugby products need to be durable and of good quality to offer high performance,” says Cotton. “That’s why we work to keep the association and sponsor Bath, Gloucester, Leicester and Sale Sharks. That whole association is essential. Our personal continued involvements in the sport have also obviously helped build that brand awareness.”
At 15 Denys Shortt was playing hockey for England. By 21 he’d retired from sport. The founder of DCS Europe, a distribution company with an £81m turnover and operating in 45 different countries, he’s adamant the experience provided him with the grounding for his future successes. “It was a very good stage in life to learn about discipline,” he says.
Shortt’s centre forward position taught him to always be on top of his game. “It’s a ruthless position, if you don’t score you’ll be booted out of the team.” Indeed, despite being fast-tracked to the international stage, Shortt was left out of the final squad for the Seoul Olympics – a bitter disappointment he’s never forgotten. “It was my first knock, but it’s good in business to have experienced lows. You learn you have to pick yourself up and work hard towards the next opportunity.”
Shortt relates sport to everything he does in business. “People aren’t good at focusing on their goals. In my business everything is geared to achieving them. The more shots you put on goal, the more likely you are to score. It’s the same with picking up the phone.”
Haig Oundjian, three times British Champion figure skater, secured top-five finishes in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and is another entrepreneur who claims the discipline he learnt as a young sports star stood him in good stead for a life in business.
Now a director of Watford Football Club, MD of a Canadian carpet distribution company and partner of branded merchandising company Corporate Couture, as well as being heavily involved in Sport England and BOA, he recalls: “I had to train before school as in the evenings all the rinks were full. At the time of the ’68 Olympics I was doing mock A-levels and could only train on Saturdays from 11pm to 1am. It taught me a lot about self-discipline.”
The uneven playing field from which he competed also taught him to rationalise success. “I learnt you don’t always succeed by winning,” he says. “You succeed by pushing yourself to the best of your ability. Sport taught me about self-discipline, motivation, respect for opponents and to respond to failure by just getting on with it.”