Many businesses have gone through difficult times since 2008 and emerged fitter, leaner or in a reinvented formut very few will have come quite as close to extinction as Premiership rugby club Wasps did, or re-established themselves to quite such dazzling effect.
Dean Kavanagh, MD of Geotech, recently hosted a West Midlands IoD regional event at the Coventry-based Ricoh Arena, which Wasps have owned since late 2014.
And over an enthralling 45 minutes, a good-sized contingent of guests heard Wasps chief executive Nick Eastwood recount the fascinating journey which has transformed a failing nomadic South Eastern-based one-trick pony into a diverse, fast-growing Midlands-based enterprise which owns a prestigious asset now valued at £60 million.
“Wasps had never really had a place to call home,” Eastwood recalled. “In fact, we have played at 21 different home grounds since the club was formed in 1867. When I arrived in 2012 we had no assets, no sponsors and no money. Had the club been relegated at the end of that season – when we survived by a single point – I’m fairly sure we would have folded. Worse followed the following January when we were one minute away from being wound up by HMRC. The payment to them was time-stamped at 5.29pm; 60 seconds later would have been too late.”
The club’s saviour was new owner Derek Richardson, whose background lay in the vastly successful Irish-based online insurance company 123.ie. and according to former RFU finance director Eastwood, ending a period as tenants of Wycombe Wanderers in favour of a wholly-owned stadium in Coventry was a key milestone.
“We looked around London and the South East, but there were simply no available options,” he admitted, “We were considering a new build further north when we came across the Ricoh, and within six months had done the deal with Coventry City Council.”
The acquisition of Arena Coventry Ltd brought a substantial business with hotel, exhibition hall and property management wings under Wasps control. Along with the magnificent 32,000 capacity Ricoh Arena, it provided an ideal base for Wasps to progress their mission statement “to be the most successful club in world rugby on and off the field.”
Eastwood believes the most prominent difference between sport – Wasps now have a Vitality Netball Superleague side operating alongside their high-flying rugby team – and other business channels, is that execution is more significant than top-line strategy. They then went on to identify four key business drivers – headed by the need to recruit, develop and retain the right playing staff. Eastwood also viewed R&D – in a sport context junior and senior academies – match and training facilities and values which are reinforced by behaviours as three further key success factors.
Away from the pitch, Eastwood believes Wasps have benefitted from the simplicity of their approach, which is focused on being a community club, diversification away from being solely a rugby club and creating long-term financial stability.
Wasps chief exec acknowledged that being in a city and area with a strong regional identity has been a huge assistance to his club since the move north, while the presence of an already-strong brand and a winning run on the pitch have done no harm.
In closing he turned to statistics to emphasise the success of a journey which he believes Wasps are only part-way through. Average gates have increased from 6,000 to 17,000, turnover has grown to £34 million from £6 million while rugby now represents only 33 per cent of the business.