23 September 2012

It’s nice to take a break from the intensity of business life, even if it is only for a few hours. I usually use squash to completely switch off. I have found that I am unable to think of anything else whilst chasing a small green ball around a rectangular court. It’s funny how the simplest things can help you escape from the most complex of conundrums.

This week, I got a visit from a friend, Diane Modahl. She runs a charity, Road To Gold, that helps inspire young people, often from underprivileged environments. She gives them a taste for athletics, encouraging and supporting young adults to become future champions and maybe even Olympians one day.

It’s fantastic having Diane at the helm, being the spokesperson, as she has experienced every stage of the Olympic journey in her own life and athletic career: the ups, the downs and the ups again.

So, a visit like this is always a welcome break and an opportunity to learn how she is doing and what is next on her agenda. It’s fantastic to see an Olympic athlete slide so perfectly into business. Yet, so many do. Why is this?

I am a firm believer that, in business, you need to compete in a very similar way to athletes in their approach to sport. Where an athlete needs physical and mental strength, a successful business person needs mental strength, and the best way to support this is by being at the top of your game physically. So, the two are nicely aligned.

It’s also important to consider (and this is my opinion so you might not agree with it) that business is not about making money; it’s about making a difference. Of course, money is important for paying the bills and, ultimately, remaining in business. However, the one area where people who fail go wrong is that they fail to make a big enough difference to peoples’ lives; either their staff or their customers.

If you take people for granted, you can’t expect to succeed. At some point, someone will come along with a better product and will care about your customer more than you do.

If you consider the brands that stick in your mind, they change your state when you simply look at their logo. Look at a bottle of Coca-Cola. My mouth is watering just thinking about a nice cold bottle of coke. Facebook: they are changing peoples’ lives by the minute, giving you new ways to communicate with your long-lost friends. Who can argue that Google isn’t the single biggest change to all society in the last decade? And, OK, not everyone can get to this level of influence but a business can only succeed if they help the client, customer or doner to cross that line and put their hand in their pocket.

This is something that Diane does so naturally. Is it her determination as an athlete and her ability to communicate that makes her fit in so well, as these two elements are key if you are going to compete successfully in business?

So, whilst there is no direct link between the importance of supporting grass roots charities and making your business a success, it is possible, in my opinion, to create one. Diane’s last event, held at the Hilton Hotel, Manchester, had some extraordinary athletes attending and talking so I jumped at the chance to take clients and some of my team along. It was a fabulous success and we were able to contribute towards her next generation of incredible athletes.

Whilst there is a great deal of money at the top end of the sporting tree these days, there is very little support low down, which, Diane explained, is why historically we have struggled on the international stage.

With more Olympic medals coming from the North West in the 2012 Olympics, I don’t think we should be risking the futures of our kids in this area. It makes sense to get stuck in now and build for the next one.

I remember being asked to find an athlete to help open a chain of gyms that Granada owned, back in my previous life. The client mentioned Manchester United and their close connections there. Naively, I telephoned the Stadium and asked to be put through to Alex Ferguson.

To my surprise they said, “No problem Sir, just putting you through now.” Now, this is a great demonstration of the power of a brand.

Whilst waiting for Sir Alex (then just Alex) my heart was pounding. I realised that they must have thought I was a journalist, as I had announced I was “Lawrence Jones from Granada.”

When Sir Alex came on the phone, I politely explained that I was looking for someone to help me for a press day photo shoot. I suggested David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. When he asked for my budget, I explained that the client had £20,000 (more likely £15,000).

Anyone who thinks Alex Ferguson is a tough nut needs to also remember he has a compassionate gene too, or maybe I just got him on a good day.

He said that he could potentially release them from their training schedule, but explained “I think you will struggle; they get a lot of money now-a-days. David got £250,000 for a hair commercial 2 weeks ago!”

To demonstrate the difference between the 2 sporting genres even back then, I eventually got Welshmen and hurdles winner Colin Jackson for £9,000 and I have a feeling he didn’t get very much of the fee I paid the agent.

There is a disproportionate amount of money across different sports but this presents opportunities for businesses to align themselves with local sports clubs and really make a difference on a community level. I love it that we help out our local cricket club and, whilst I should pop down there more often, it’s great to hear about the new juniors coming through the ranks. I’m always excited to hear about Naomi and brother Liam Brody’s progress when I bump into my old friend Simon. We started supporting them long before Liam was runner up in the 2011 Wimbledon Boys Finals. And, whilst it will be difficult keeping up with his sponsorship as he becomes a legend, I will be able to look on with pride knowing that we helped at the start.

And, at UKFast, we have a netball team, football teams, squash and a running club, just to name a few. We even have team members holding group weight training circuits, and I have lost count of the number who cycle to work. Sport is an important part of culture too, reminding us that challenge makes life interesting. Sport helps us to deal with failure, it encourages us to keep trying, it helps to keep us in good health. Is there a link between “the happiest days of your life are when you are young” and the amount of sport you were involved with back then?

If I was asked to list the top 3 things that help me compete in business, I’d put sport in there at number 2.

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