Making a point in business

Making a point in business

After London 2012 and ahead of the Glasgow Games, sports business is booming. Richard Orr meets three Scottish stars who have created businesses on the back of athletic success.

Sport is often cited as a wonderful training ground for business life. The endeavour required to succeed in sport – at any level – develops an attitude and character which will fortify an individual for all sorts of challenges.

This view was recently confirmed when a study by the Isle of Man Government, The Naked Chief Executive, revealed that in a survey of 100 CEOs from the UK’s top FTSE 500 companies, 71% of those questioned said that playing sport in their school days positively influenced their business careers.

Furthermore, twice as many (46%) of those CEOs excelled in sport than those who did so academically (23%) when they were at school. We can see this trend across business in Scotland.

Sir Bill Gammell, who steered Cairn Energy to becoming a US$10bn organisation, is an obvious example, transferring his talents as an international rugby player into the board room to become one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Gammell often draws direct comparisons between sport and business, particularly in terms of always striving to be better and taking bold decisions. Financier Roger Jenkins further demonstrates the transferable skills between sport and business. He and his brother David were both successful track and field athletes.

David won Olympic 4x400m silver in 1972, (though he later notoriously admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs while on trial for smuggling steroids), while Roger represented Scotland and GB to an international level. Roger has since thrived immeasurably in the business world.

Famed for his relationship with Supermodel Elle Macpherson, he was believed to be the highest paid FTSE 100 CEO in his post as chief of Barclays Capital's Private Equity Group, earning a reported £75m in 2005.

David meanwhile is now, ironically, leading a successful sports nutrition and supplement business. There are other, more unusual but equally successful examples around the world.

Few people would see the obvious link between heavyweight boxing and kitchen innovation, but in 1996 a certain George Foreman did just that – the three-time world champion took his ‘lean, mean, fat reducing grilling machine’ to market and in the process created a cookery phenomenon across the globe.

People don’t buy grills anymore – they buy ‘Foremans’. So, is there a secret ingredient that equips sportspeople, top level or otherwise, with an edge in the commercial world? Probably not. But what sport does give them is a foundation in basic life skills that are applicable to most endeavours – be that business, study or even everyday hobbies and tasks like DIY. Simple yet essential traits, such as understanding the need for preparation, determination and most of all, hard work to see a job through; communication and leadership skills; and of course, a belief that the task, no matter how challenging, can be achieved.

Here, BQ takes a look at three Scots sports stars who have done just that, and created emerging businesses off the back of their athletic careers.

Keith Cook – British champion fencer

Growing up in the disadvantaged Pilton area of Edinburgh, Keith Cook was smitten by swordsmanship at a young age – owing to hours spent watching the Zorro television series and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.

He used to enjoy mock sword-fights with his Grandmother using rolled up newspapers. But the idea of Keith ever becoming a champion in the regal sport of fencing was fanciful to say the least. An upper-class activity, it was generally only practiced in the most prestigious of fee-paying schools.

However it was through a friend who attended such an establishment that Keith got involved in fencing, and he soon began training at an Edinburgh club.

“It was a great way to get away from the pressure of everyday life as youngster. “I used to ride my bike to training three times a week.

“I couldn’t afford the bus fare, but as a result it made me fitter than the other children, and more driven for success. Nobody else had the will to win that I had. “Before long I was excelling, and that grit helped me produce some amazing results over the years,” Cook remembers.

Within a few years he was in the British Junior squad, travelling all over the world, and in 1998, aged 17, he claimed a senior bronze medal in the team event for Scotland at the Commonwealth Championships in Malaysia.

He spent the next decade competing around the world as one of Britain’s best. 2012 was expected to be Keith’s biggest year yet – as the UK Champion he was widely expected to represent Team GB at the London Olympics, but his dream was shattered due to a discrepancy in the selection process, the legal battle against which he is still fighting today.

That selection debate, Keith believes, was borne out of a decision by him to step out of the British Fencing ‘pathway’ system – designed to support the UK’s elite fencers – and instead self-fund his career to enable more time with his young family.

“I was away from home more than 160 days a year, and I didn’t want to be away from my kids so much,” says Cook.

“So I had to think of a way to support my fencing aspirations while staying at home as much as I could. It was an issue, because even though I had been a leisure centre manager in the past, there were big gaps in my CV from when I had been a supported athlete. So in 2010 I created Fencing Fun. It meant I could continue fencing but keep the money coming in.”

Fencing Fun mirrors and builds upon the positive experience of Keith’s own childhood – it is a company devoted to introducing the sport of fencing to primary school children, developing their skills in a safe and enjoyable environment, using plastic masks and foam and plastic swords that are ideal for younger children to learn the skills of the sport.

“I created my own syllabus – something that would capture the kids’ imaginations. Sword fighting is everywhere on TV – Peter Pan, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean – but there was nowhere for any primary aged child to fence in Scotland.

"I thought that was crazy, because it is the perfect time to capture their enthusiasm. So the Fencing Fun programme develops skill, speed, agility, timing and fitness – but at the same time it remains fun.

“What makes Fencing Fun unique in Britain is that we have our own grading system, due to launch at Easter. “It’s just like karate belts – but instead of belts we use gloves. It means that when the kids go on to clubs when they are older, they can show their coaches their grading and the moves they have learned, so the coach knows they are already quite advanced.”

The business model works well – it’s a true niche, captive market that an expert like Cook has the skills to exploit. Children want to try fencing, and they enjoy it.

The Olympics have helped – but the retention levels of Cook’s classes speak for themselves. Davidson Main’s Primary School in Edinburgh has run two classes every week for more than two years, with 95% of pupils who started coming back week after week.

One child, having taken up fencing less than two years ago, is already British under-10s champion, defeating pupils from the exclusive, fencing focused Sussex House School in London.

“We’ve grown so much,” Cook remarks proudly. “Now we coach 520 children a week. I have employed eight coaches, including one in Shetland. We are also beginning to branch out into the corporate market, offering ‘Fencing Experience’ days to staff and management.”

Cook’s own status has certainly helped this growth. Last year, he was signed up by technology giant Samsung as one of their sponsored athletes, alongside the likes of Victoria Pendleton and David Beckham. The world-renowned Leon Paul fencing-wear brand has agreed to produce the ‘Grading Gloves’ for Cook’s syllabus. In many ways, for Cook, sport is his business. He opts not to divulge his profit margins, but, he says, “It keeps me fencing.”

sports insetColin Smith – Scotland cricketer

Ten years ago, Colin Smith was at the peak of his cricketing career – on his way to amassing more than 100 international caps as Scotland’s wicket-keeper and enjoying spells as a professional player in the English County leagues.

Despite his prowess on the field – particularly in catching out unwitting batsmen – he felt there was potential to be even better, if only the right equipment were available to practice his catching behind the stumps.

“There was nothing out there that could replicate what happened in a game,” the Aberdeen based Smith recalls.

“The only option was practice drills with at least four or five people. You needed someone with an accurate arm to bowl, and someone else to ‘nick’ it with the bat – which not many people can do on purpose.

“And then you needed two or three slip fielders, otherwise the ball ends up in a hedge. So you and a mate couldn’t do a meaningful session on your own.”

So he looked around to see what else was available. “I used to use the grass-roller at the cricket ground – it had a half circle shape which, when the ball was thrown towards it, deflected off at an angle and it worked quite well,” Smith recalls.

“But the ball had a predictable bounce and the roller would hardly fit in your kit bag! So it was about taking that idea and making something that worked much better.”

So Colin got to work – and with his Dad created the prototype of what became ‘Katchet’ – a cricket training aid which, when a ball is thrown towards it, deflects it at unpredictable angles.

After drawing up a home DIY prototype, Colin contacted a manufacturing and design agency, Motion Touch, to create a mass-production product. Initial investment was heavy – and Colin, along with business and cricket colleague Neil MacRae, scraped together £25,000 to make 750 units.

“We phoned up retailers and asked if they were interested. That was quite tough. But I was playing for Scotland, so the marketing ploy would be that I would go to coaches and wicket keepers in county cricket and let them have a go.

“One of the first people who bought it was John Buchanan (coach of the all-conquering Australia team of the early 2000s). During the 2005 Ashes series Australia came up to play Scotland in Edinburgh.

"He loved it straight away and wanted 10 of them. To be able to say Australia uses Katchet is a great selling point – they were the top team in the world at the time, despite that Ashes series loss. They were our biggest assets, and John gave us an endorsement which we still use today.

“The Katchet has grown massively since then. It is now at the stage where it is almost part of the structure of cricket. Every international team in the world uses it, and almost every professional team.

“The ECB even made training videos to go with it. If I switch on the cricket and you see the players training in the background, I nearly always see one.”

Katchet is now part and parcel of cricket training. Colin and Neil’s company has sold more than 15,000 units since they took the product to market – aided by a patent on the design. Colin firmly believes that his time in sport set him up well for a business career.

“I’m not a naturally confident person. I wasn’t even confident playing cricket, I was racked with self-doubt.

“So at some point I always had to actually step up and do it to prove to myself that I could. That’s how I was with cricket, and it was the same with the Katchcet. “I had a desire to succeed in sport, and I had the same desire for the Katchet. I was willing to do everything I possibly could to make that happen. But me being me – the cricketer – is possibly the most important thing. I had the contacts and the players and coaches knew me – that was the biggest thing.”

Angela Mudge - world hillrunning champion

Angela Mudge had a challenging start to life – she was born with pedal defects, meaning her feet were facing the wrong way, as well as one of her twin sister’s feet. But despite spending her early years in braces, the naturalised Scot has gone on to become one of the country’s most decorated, if relatively unknown athletes.

In her chosen sport, she has won or medalled at every level – Scottish, British, European and World. Hill-running (or fell-running) is an extreme sport – most easily described as running marathon distances over a mountain.

Angela herself has won the most daunting of all these races – the ‘Everest Marathon’.

To train her body to do this sport at the highest level takes a significant amount of commitment and many hours a week on the hills and Munros within driving distance of her Stirling home.

But, despite the popularity of hill-running worldwide, and Angela’s ability, it was difficult for her to acquire funding or sponsorship, as it wasn’t a ‘priority sport’ in Britain. So Angela needed to find a way to ensure she could fulfil her athletic potential and pay the bills at the same time.

“In 2004, when I was competing at GB level, I looked into doing physiotherapy but it was a long and expensive process to become fully qualified,” she said.

“So I opted for sports massage. It was a 10-month course which I could do at weekends, at the end of which I would gain a diploma to practice.

“I had to do 100 hours of practical massage to become qualified so I ended up doing some ‘on the job’ training with the tennis players at Stirling University.

“When I became qualified I became the uni masseur and they were happy for me to operate from there professionally.”

Mudge works with a range of clients, from elite sports people to – perhaps surprisingly – the inactive.

“Yes, I give a lot of remedial massage to nonsporting people.It’s the same problems but often a different cause. So you get muscle and RSI strains through lack of activity rather than too much.”

The link from sports person to sports masseur is an obvious one – but valuable nonetheless as Mudge can offer clients an insight that many others couldn’t.

“Being a sports person myself, I can empathise with the psyche of a person who is injured. I can understand what they’re going through and can advise of what else they can do in a meantime while they recover.

“So while a doctor may say ‘stop running’, I can say, well actually you can still do other things, like going on your bike or go to the gym. I can relate to them.”

Richard Orr works for the Winning Scotland Foundation, a foundation set up by Sir Bill Gammell, and is manager of the Champions In School programme, where leading sport figures inspire Scotland’s young people with multiple school visits.