Business can learn a great deal from sport, especially when Saracens’ boss, Nigel Wray is the teacher…

Success follows him around like a besotted fan: from pizza to property to publishing, Nigel Wray has swished his magic wand over vast swathes of the business world. And he wafts it modestly and deftly. Unforgettable comments during our highly civilised conversation at his home in Totteridge, North London, include “humility is such a strong word, don’t you think?” along with “once you slip into arrogance, that’s it, there’s no recovery” and “my talent is for locating other people who are far better at running things than me”.

In November 1995, Nigel – a sports nut since childhood – backed Saracens Rugby Club to the tune of around £2 million, and then put his enchanted wand to more good use by taking Saracens, his local team, into a golden era as its chairman. In May 2016 his ambitions were realised when the North London rugby union side achieved greatness with an historic double, winning both the Aviva Premiership and the European Champions Cup. Who better, then, to understand what’s needed to achieve business success, and to explain what the world of business can learn from the sporting arena?

Nigel started his career in merchant banking, earning £35 a week. He then became a media entrepreneur, buying a foreign affairs newsletter – The Fleet Street Letter – “for not much money” and reshaping it into a City title. Things looked bad for a while – “we were down to £98 in the bank in the late 1970s” – but then the business took off big style. Before long, Nigel had teamed up with Michael Green, who ran Carlton TV: “We merged the Fleet Street Letter with Carlton and under Michael’s leadership the business became one of the great growth stories. We bought Moving Picture Company, Technicolor, and then obviously became the largest TV company in the UK. That was all under Michael. It was then that I first discovered that I don’t have to run things. If I can find someone who’s far better than I am to run things, what’s the problem?”

He later succeeded – again big style – in property (after discovering someone who was fantastic in this sector, Nick Leslau) and, perhaps less predictably, in pizzas with Domino’s. Nigel says: “I bumped into someone on the stairs one day in 1997 who asked whether I’d be interested in investing in a pizza company. I’d never given pizzas a thought. But what he did say, which struck me as interesting, is that there were around 5,000 Domino’s outlets in the US and only 95 in the UK. So I invested in Domino’s, which without doubt was one of the most predictably successful businesses I’ve ever seen or will ever expect to see.”

And why did Domino’s do so well? Well, it was nothing much to do with me, says Nigel (hmm, we begin to detect a theme here.) He explains: “A chap called Stephen Hemsley came in. He was an accountant and – he knows this – I thought he’d never make it to CEO. Accountants can’t be CEOs, or so I thought. But Stephen was absolutely brilliant. And he turned it from a really good amateur business into a highly professional one. He realised: don’t screw the franchisees, make sure they do really well and, surprise surprise, you’ll do really well too. So success was down to just one person. In business – and sport – it’s always down to people.”

Nigel describes his time with Saracens as “the longest learning experience of my life”. So what has this hugely successful, vastly experienced businessman learned at a rugby club that he hadn’t picked up already elsewhere?

First and foremost, he learned the importance of living by a set of values. “You’ve got to know what you stand for,” Nigel says. “When I arrived at Saracens we started out with good ideas, finished second in the league and won the cup, but we then spent the next 10 or so years meandering. Then Brendan Venter, a tough South African, arrived as director of rugby in 2009. He asked: ‘What does Saracens stand for?’ And no one knew. And I bet you if you go into virtually any company today and ask various people what their organisation stands for, they won’t know either. To be a truly great business you’ve got to know what you stand for.

“What Brendan said – which has had such an impact – is that Saracens is going to stand for building great memories together, for working hard on the field of play, and for enjoying our time with each other on and off the field. In a nutshell, being part of Saracens means building something that one day we’ll look back on with a smile… and with pride.”

Nigel continues: “With that ethos as our foundation, we evolved a no-blame culture – if someone drops the ball, that’s OK. You are blamed if you’re lazy, but not for making a mistake. We also focused on involving the whole family: wives, kids, parents and grandparents. It sounds trite: but everyone loves everyone. There’s a great deal of love out there. When you think of rugby you think– it’s tough and physically hard – so how can we start discussing love? But it’s there all right.

“If you’d asked me to discuss this ten years ago, I’d have said: yeah, sure. But now I believe it. People will go to far greater lengths for mates they love than they will ever go for people whom they happen to just vaguely know. If you could transfer that energy into industry, so the bloke down the end of the room really knows the bloke down the other end – knows his kids and his family; if they shared things together… that would be massive.”

Nigel believes that this approach can be replicated in business – maybe not to the same extent, but to some degree: “I’m not saying you can go as far with this in business as you can in sport, but you can go some of the way. A successful company has to be a team that works hard for each other.”

So what other gems from the sporting world can also be applied to business? Well, in both arenas, profit follows but never leads, believes Nigel. He explains: “I read recently that profit is merely something that tells you you’re doing it well. I totally agree. And with sport you can substitute the word ‘profit’ with ‘winning’. In both sport and business, ‘doing it well’ is the hard work, the training, the being together, the teamwork, the caring and the sacrifice. If you just want to make money, you won’t. If you want to create a good business, a good product, you must look after your customers and your people, and have fun together, then you might make money. But you must focus on it that way round, not the other.”

Another thing that is crucial to success in both sport and business is “the person at the top” and their attitude, says Nigel: “You have to get the leader right because nothing self corrects down there – don’t blame the guys on the shop floor, blame the guy at the top. Everything flows from there. A great quote from a famous netball coach in the States who sadly died recently, Pat Summitt, is: ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’. That’s so true. We’ll all work with someone who cares for us. No one wants to work for a sh*t, do they? It just doesn’t work.

“It’s down to one person. That person must have the drive and the energy. And they must have good people on hand who are not afraid to question them. Because if it’s just you, then sooner or later you’ll believe your own publicity and go off the cliff.”

To wrap up our chat with Nigel, we ask him our final question. What’s his advice for achieving success in business? He replies: “Believe in yourself, otherwise why should anyone else believe in you? Find something you really believe in – that you have real passion for. Then do it as best you can, and not just for the short term. And then you may – may – make money. Money may follow but it won’t lead.”

Nigel Wray is a man who has enjoyed success across the board. He has learned many lessons on his journey from business into sport. The big three things that we will always remember from our conversation are…

Firstly, it’s about the people. Or rather, the person. The individual at the top of the organisation is even more critical than you would have ever imagined: they need to drive the whole show and therefore must have the passion, skill and attitude to build something extraordinary. Get the wrong person at the top and everything will fail.

Secondly, profit (or winning) may follow but it never leads. Money (or sporting victory) is a byproduct of a successful, thriving, happy organisation where people work hard and care about each other and their customers.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s about standing for something and it’s about love. Yes, love. As sport demonstrates so powerfully, we’re not automatons – we’re emotional human beings who need to feel as if we have a purpose beyond basic profit. We want to feel like we’re part of something special. When we’re retired, we want to look back at the time we spent at work with our colleagues and smile. If there’s no chance of that, if there’s no team bond or joy, then the business is ultimately doomed.

It seems that the business world really does have a great deal to learn from sport. But it has even more to learn from Nigel Wray.




 Nigel Wray spoke to BDLN founder John Maffioli