Mike Hughes wouldn’t dare say he was ‘bowled over’ by the impact Stuart Robertson has had on cricket – but he was. Having invented the Twenty20 format, Robertson is now weaving his magic in Hampshire.
All industries need their convincing innovators. Not just someone who can come up with a game-changing idea or process, but who can also sell the idea and lead sometimes reluctant colleagues to believe in what he or she is doing and put their faith in them.
Stuart Robertson – now commercial director of the Ageas Bowl, the home of Hampshire Cricket – is one such innovator. When he suggested to the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) that a new short-form version of the game played with 20 overs per side would be a bold new direction that could massively broaden its appeal, it backed him.
The move followed the end of the Benson & Hedges Cup and a concern about falling crowds and wavering sponsors. In Robertson’s mind, the new Twenty20 format would mean that each team would have a single innings, which is restricted to a maximum of 20 overs, with a typical game taking a couple of hours at the most. That brought it into line with other popular sports, but it was always only a means to an end – securing the long-term future of the whole sport.
“I am very proud of my role in that whole process and the research I commissioned and managed into the potential of Twenty20,” he says. “There were a lot of other people as well, but I think I was able to stand back and look at it through a consumer lens.”
In his current role, that openness to diversification and courage to push accepted boundaries have led to little short of a revolution at the Bowl, with a hotel and an 18-hole golf course among the most important recent developments.
“I had nine years at the ECB and then three years at Edgbaston in similar roles before I first came here in 2006,” Robertson says. “KPMG had just been asked to look at the feasibility of a 150-acre site that became the Rose Bowl and is now the Ageas Bowl. That study was based on the fact that cricket alone was not going to sustain those acres as a long-term viable operation.
“KPMG came up with a few options like football parks, a driving range and a major conference hotel, because there was a dearth of facilities in the area and the location was great. I saw the plans and knew there was no better place to work in cricket, nowhere so innovative, so it was a no-brainer for me and I came down to take the job.”
Robertson’s focus was still on the cricket side of the operation, maximising interest and revenue by sweating the assets down to the last drop. During his first spell there from 2006 to 2010, the ground was awarded Test status and was impressively upgraded to become a national challenger to Edgbaston and The Oval.
“We put in two new spectator stands, improved the media facilities and introduced an innovative new debenture scheme – the first one to offer an interest rate over four or five years, which put at least a few million into our coffers to crack on with the stand while the hotel financing deal was done with Eastleigh Borough Council, and all the time we were building our spectator base,” he explains.
“Throughout it all, we have been 100% committed to the fact that, whatever we do, is purely to protect Hampshire cricket for the next 150 years. Our chairman, Rod Bransgrove, speaks passionately about how he vowed, when he stepped in during 2001, that never again on his watch would he allow Hampshire Cricket to come to the brink as it had done.
“People may look at it and think it is all about commercial activity, but it isn’t – it is all about wrapping a 365-day business around a seasonal sport that has big changes in revenue depending on who the international opposition is. We now have a successful year-round business and we will continue to innovate and come up with new things to do, but we will not do anything that could compromise the cricket.”
His principles will chime with many BQ entrepreneurs who are shaking up their own sectors with changes that might have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. But whether the business is digital or manufacturing, finance or logistics, the protection of the core product is paramount and you need to keep the audience that believes in it at the same time as offering some new signposts when the route gets challenging.
And it’s working. Of the group’s £16m turnover, around £7m is from Hampshire Cricket, the clear result of less talk and more Robertson. “This is a huge industry now, which is one reason why Eastleigh Borough Council was able to help,” he says. “They can’t just dole cash out left, right and centre – it has to be done through major investment and development opportunities. So, this is around developing an economic impact, and a study we had done said that was valued at around £50m, with all the multipliers of the supply chain effects. That is not all on site, but understandable when you think of the hotel and all the catering it does and the jobs created and the effect that sort of development can have.”
Alongside Robertson, his local council is clearly also an innovator. Instead of unrolling red tape, it has cut through it and voted to support a hugely-important local business and cultivate the influence it can have on the whole region. Its strategy supports the belief that there is no such thing as a lone inventor and that instead the great names that have influenced British business always needed support from the managing directors, purchasing managers and ruling bodies that can either throw a lifeline or a millstone. The Ageas Bowl avoided the millstone.
“Part of KPMG’s original plan was to create what we are now calling a destination resort, so that, as well as a commercial business hotel, there will be an 18-hole golf course to add more leisure to that offering along with a 15,000-square foot spa and a restaurant.
“There is clearly a big leisure market in this region because it is such a lovely part of the world, so this all links together as part of that wider plan and is a key part of our own corporate social responsibility and being a good neighbour to our local communities.
“Hilton is an amazing global brand, and one of the things we wanted to attend to was that people should start saying ‘I am going to the Hilton at the Ageas’ or ‘I am going to watch cricket at the Ageas’. From a marketing perspective, it is taking time and I am aware that repetition is reputation and we just need to be consistent at how we deliver this.
“We need to support the cross-selling of everything we have here and look at the different touchpoints that people have at the venue. It makes absolute sense to cross-reference each different side of the business and co-ordinate them rather than have disparate businesses, while delivering a hotel with Hilton as the first and foremost aim.”
If such an enlightened approach starts to rub off on the rest of the region then there will no limit to how much support and investment the Ageas effect could attract. Robertson summarises it as “a thriving region”.
“I had a meeting with the airport just before this interview and we were both talking about some real optimism,” he says. “They had just had more visitors than ever and it feels like a vibrant place and even when I first came down here I wasn’t aware of the friendly rivalry between Portsmouth and Southampton, which is a really good thing because there are cities vying for attention while we are surrounded by a leisure tourism market with the New Forest and South Downs on our doorstep.
“Then, among all that, there are the speciality areas like maritime, aerospace and technology that will always remain here. It is a good place to be right now and we will play our part in that wherever we can.”
There hardly needs to be more evidence of Robertson’s innovations, but just in case, let’s look at Cage Cricket. This is a “street” version of the game, played inside a small fenced area on a pitch marked with coloured squares and targets on the walls. Everybody gets time in each position for this solo game, with points being gathered for targets hit or balls caught.
“It was the brainchild of former Hampshire player Lawrence Prittipaul and Trevor McArdle, who had been talking about cricketing opportunities in the inner cities and was born as an opportunity to utilise existing play spaces,” he explains. “We were mentoring them a bit in the early days and I just loved the idea and was happy to lend my support where I could. As we have seen with Twenty20, cricket can’t just stand alone anymore.”
He plays himself, but just for the wonderfully-named “Nomansland” village in the Hampshire Regional Division One South, on a pitch with four oak trees and a war memorial, where you can hit a six from one county into the next. That’s many people’s idea of perfect cricket, and it has its place at the heart of the game. But it – and UK plc – needs innovators like Robertson to see beyond the four oaks.