‘It’s tough to beat me’: Barry Hearn talks to Business Leader the keys to success

Interview | Sport
Barry Hearn – Founder of Matchroom Sport

Barry Hearn is the Founder of Matchroom Sport and one of the most recognisable people in the world of business and sport. Here he talks about the price you need to pay for success, and gives some home truths about leadership and business in the UK.

Can you tell us about what life was like for you growing up?

It is no secret that I came from a very working-class background. My father was a bus driver and my mother was a cleaner; and I enjoyed a very happy upbringing, as children do not want for anything they do not have.

But as I grew older, I started to see what other people had and it did not make me envious, it made me become ambitious. My mum always pushed me on and wanted me to do better too; and when I was twelve years old, she told me that I was going to be a chartered accountant. I asked her ‘what do they do?’ and she said ‘I don’t know but the man whose house I clean told me that you never see a poor one’.

At that time though I wanted to play sport at a high level, but I did – as she foresaw – become an accountant and qualified when I was 20 years old.

What was your early business career like?

I became a Fellow at 25 years old and joined a very good firm, and one day I was overseeing an audit and I told this business that they needed to hire a Finance Director. They agreed and offered me the job, and I joined in 1973.

I was the Financial Director of an investment company and after a string of business failures I bought a series of snooker halls for the company, which turned out to be a sharp investment as the sport was just taking off.

It was pure luck to find it and around 1975/76 a tall, ginger, skinny kid walked in to one of the snooker halls – and it was Steve Davis. Following this, I bought a stake in this business for a small amount of money and then sold it in 1982. Following the sale, I formed Matchroom Sports.

What was your ambition at this point?

Well, I had sold my previous business for a lot of money and for me, at that point, it was about managing a few snooker players and having some fun. I also thought about retiring, but after six weeks of fishing I got bored and I needed to exercise my brain!

To do this, I set up Matchroom Sport and focused heavily on promoting snooker and its players. Then in 1987, I became involved in boxing.

MATCHROOM SPORT IS ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL COMPANIES IN THE UK. IN DEVELOPING THE BUSINESS, WHAT WERE THE MAIN CHALLENGES YOU FACED?

The world then didn’t exist in the same way it does today, as you only had the BBC and ITV that were interested in sport – you were lucky to get 15 minutes coverage, let along 15 hours!

I had spent time in the United States and looked at ESPN and thought ‘wow’, it wouldn’t be long before this came to the UK. So, I was creating events in preparation for this happening, but I overstretched myself by doing this.

I was two years ahead of my time, but when a sports-based TV channel came to the UK they would need content and programmes. I was preparing for this, but in doing so I nearly went bankrupt.

When I a determined about something though, I take it all the way down the road, and I continued to create content because it put me in pole position for when Sky and others launched.

In your opinion – what are the key traits you need to be successful?

Common sense. I always ask myself about anything I am creating – would I buy this myself? Secondly, I would say work ethic – you need to have a good one.

My biggest asset is my ability to work whatever hours are necessary. If the product you have is good enough, then your relentless work ethic will pay off.

I would also say that the idea of giving value to people and expecting value back is also key; and you must make sacrifices in your life to achieve greatness and success.

How did you deal with people telling you not to do things, or that they will not work?

I just do not listen to anybody. Or I listen to people and then I do what I want. People are always envious and critical, but you must also listen to younger people who have new and exciting ideas.

Listen and learn, but also be prepared to ignore because there are people who fail in life who want to give you opinions. So, I think – if you are right, why haven’t you got the big house?

How have you taken advantage of the luck afforded to you?

It’s tough to beat me and it helps if the man upstairs rolls you the odd sweety now and again! For me it was Steve Davis walking in the snooker hall or Sky coming across the hill like a cavalry to save me.

Looking at several key times in my career, and I have had some luck, but it’s about making sure that when you’ve had that luck that you maximise it. That you grasp the opportunity and give it everything.

You can never be complacent in life and you can never settle for what you have – whether that be a nice house or because you’ve earned your first million pounds.

How have you reacted to the Covid-19 crisis?

It’s been unbelievable and you can compare it to a world war, as it’s something that changes everything. What you have to do is take stock and then be creative.

You must start seeing how you can work in a new environment that we have not come across before. It’s very easy to sit at home and say I’m furloughed and I have enough money, but you need to keep innovating and demanding things from yourself.

It is a two-way street, as all of our staff will get 100% of their wages throughout this time but they need to also work hard in return.

You find out about yourself in times like these, and I find it motivating. It is about adapting and realising that you might not make as much money as you did before, for a while, but if you can make something – it’s better than nothing.

Covid-19 has thrown a curve ball at a level I’ve never seen before. I’m not frightened though, as it will shape us as people.

Do you think some businesses are treating the situation as an excuse for poor management?

Yes, I think there are many that won’t survive and there are lessons to learn from this. We, as a company, have always been very Victorian and we are savers. Working class people are always looking for somebody to take away what we’ve got.

There are many companies where I’m asking – where is the money? Where are your reserves? Why are you in so much trouble? What happens if….? – this is one of the most important questions in business.

What happens if the world ends tomorrow? Well, that won’t matter as we’re done for. What happens if the world just stops? Well, that’s COVID-19 and too many businesses were sleepwalking into it.

Do you think there is a culture in the UK of ‘cashing in’ too early?

Too many people in business have a mentality of let’s get money out as quick as possible and let’s borrow as much money as we can to reward ourselves, without having any focus on creating reserves for a rainy day.

And what do these people do now? They go to government crying because they may go bust, because they have not run a proper business.

People are going to run out of cash in weeks – not months – and I find that fundamentally flawed in a business plan. The people you employ are your biggest asset and they need to be protected.

Nobody wants to stand up and say ‘I’ve not run this business very well’, but so many business leaders should be ashamed of themselves as the money has gone out in massive dividends or huge director salaries. I believe in success being rewarded, but not at the expense of running a proper business.

Lots of companies will also use this time as an excuse to cut their labour force and the furlough scheme has deferred what will be very high unemployment levels. We need to learn from this, as complacency is a killer in business and in life, and people should pay the price for failure. You should be looking at trading your way out of this crisis, not bailing your way out.

Watch the Business Leader Insight interview with Barry Hearn here.

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