Chris Thomas- CEO, London Wasps & Wycombe Wanderers Share PDF Print E-mail
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Chris Thomas Featured Profile
Chris Thomas is the CEO of London Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers.
A chartered accountant with over 20 years experience in the financial services sector, Chris has held senior finance positions within NatWest Group, KPMG Consulting, Zurich Financial Services and the Bank of America.
He possesses a combination of financial expertise and business acumen and takes responsibility for the delivery of business improvement and change across both clubs.
Before taking his current role full time, Chris experienced a very successful interim period which saw him assume the responsibilities of the departed Paul Harrison in April. During this period, he steered the club through the St George’s Day Game project which saw over 60,000 people gather at Twickenham for the inaugural fixture.
How has your experience in banking and insurance helped you in your current position with both London Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers?
Quite a lot, actually. It’s one of those businesses that needs a lot of work on the finance side. Cash is quite tight typically within rugby clubs so having good financial discipline and good financial experience is quite an advantage.
Having just joined the sports world a couple of years ago, what’s the most favourable part of your job?
As a sports fan, its very strange working with people you’ve watched for a couple of years, such as Dai Young, Simon Shaw, Phil Vickery and Riki Flutey. You walk into work and you’re seeing very familiar faces. Also, it’s very strange seeing things from the inside rather than just from a supporter’s perspective.
Conversely, what is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think certainly at Wasps we’ve had a lot of off-the-field events that have been quite difficult. As an accountant coming from finance, having to deal with the media is something I’ve never had to come across in my career before. Supporters and the public always want to know what’s going on. Everyone has an opinion. Trying to manage that aspect, whilst presenting the right story is quite tricky.
How difficult is it to come into an industry where clubs are constantly taking a hit financially?
One thing banks aren’t short of is cash. Sport clubs are loss making and have revenues that are very lumpy. You get your sponsorship revenue in and you have your sixteen games a season. That’s when you can drive your income, so it’s very different pressures.
Also, the ability to go and lend or borrow money is quite difficult with sports clubs. At the moment, banks are not willing to give any sort of finance to sport clubs and there is a lot of pressure to reduce overdrafts or move it onto loan accounts. It’s very difficult to find any finance to help you.
A lot of clubs are reliant on an owner to write the check at the end of the day for the difference between your revenues at your costs. That’s the case across the Premiership, with the exception of the Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints who do make profit.
Has it proven tricky juggling your duties and managing your time between the two clubs?
The difficulty is matches because between the two clubs. They play over forty games at home and you have to be a bit selective on where you’re going. As a business, it’s very similar running the finance, sales and marketing. We now have one team here that manages both clubs, so we have sales people who will sell Wasps products and Wycombe products in one go. You don’t need two teams, one specialising in football and one specialising in rugby.
On the pitch, both your clubs haven’t been doing so well…
With Wycombe, it’s difficult to compete in that league. There are clubs there with large budgets and it’s whether we can keep above that relegation zone. They’ve been very good in the low-market, bringing in some players very cheaply to try and bolster the squad. The ideal for Wycombe would be a nice comfortable place in League One, not yo-yoing between the two divisions.
With the rugby, it’s just unbelievable how many injuries we’ve had, which is really what’s causing a lot of the problems. Look at the other club who’ve got a similar injury record to us at the moment and they’re only two points ahead of us and we’re both at the bottom of the table. It’s difficult to compete when a lot of your key players are either retired or in the physio’s room.
Is one sport harder to operate in than the other?
Certainly on the football side, the fan base is much more local. Being a League One team, you’ve got a core loyal support that comes to the games regardless of the team’s position or how the team’s playing. It doesn’t seem to make a difference on how many people will turn up. They will come week in week out and support the team.
With Wasps now, comparing the three years where we’ve struggled a little bit to where we were a few years ago when we were winning every game, we’ve found that it’s more difficult to keep those fans coming in. Apart from the core support, it seems to be more of a discretionary purchase for rugby supporters. The core is a lot smaller in rugby than it is in football.
With the current economic climate, do you feel you have to invest more on marketing to attract more people to the games?
It’s difficult. I think you could spend a lot of money marketing and still not get anymore people coming in. We’ve done quite a lot of research with people to understand why they’re not coming to games or why they’re not coming as often. We just get one answer and that’s they can’t afford to. They want to come to as many games as they can afford, but it is an expensive thing to do. With disposable incomes very much reduced over the last couple of years, it’s difficult to justify coming to watch rugby or football four or five times a year.
Marketing has becoming a lot easier with the growth of social networking. Are you able to exploit this trend at all?
We do. We have a new media manager, Alison Donnelly, who joined us just over a year ago. She is very strong on the social marketing and has really taken that on for both clubs and increased the presence we’ve got on there. We’ve got the highest profile on Facebook and twitter out of all the Premiership sides and Alison very much drives that.
The last I heard, Wasps was looking for a new stadium, with the Olympic Stadium being mentioned as a possibility. With Steve Hayes looking for a buyer, what is the latest on the stadium front? Has it been put on hold?
Wasps have to move in terms of a stadium. At Wycombe, its not a big enough stadium to allow us to grow and compete with your Leicester’s and Northampton’s, who have got the much bigger stadiums and have got the capability to generate more non-match day revenues. The key thing is that you not only need to be attracting the 10,000–12,000 supporters every week, but also need to be able to generate that non-match day revenue, your conferencing revenue and have functions in your stadium that can generate quite a lot of extra revenue.
Steve Hayes is saying: “I’ve taken the club as far as I can and want someone else to take it on to the next stage”. We now are really dependant on when the new owners come in, where they want to move to and what their strategy is. It’s a ‘wait and see’ on that stadium, but you really need to have a bigger capacity to be able to compete.
Has the search for a new owner affected the club and has it proven much of a distraction?
A few things you need to do are on hold. We’ve heard that a couple of the potential buyers would like to move the club back to London so if they want to do that for next season, they need to make that decision before the end of March when we have to nominate the ground for next year. Until we know that, we can’t really start planning i.e. season tickets, campaigns, do we have to market a new ground?
When the ownership situation is sorted, where do you envision and hope Wasps will be?
We know we’re in a period of transition. Last summer we recruited Dai Young on a four-year contract because we recognise that it was a long-term fix. This year, we’ve told Dai to get his foundations right. He’s got a very good nucleus of young players coming through alongside some of the more established players. There aren’t short fixes. You’ve got to get the right infrastructure in place and the right processes. If you look at Harlequins now and the success that they’re having this year, it hasn’t been overnight. They’ve got the right structures, the right coaches in, they’re building there players through there academies and that has given them foundations for how they’re playing now.

Chris Thomas is the CEO of London Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers.

A chartered accountant with over 20 years experience in the financial services sector, Chris has held senior finance positions within NatWest Group, KPMG Consulting, Zurich Financial Services and the Bank of America. 

He possesses a combination of financial expertise and business acumen and takes responsibility for the delivery of business improvement and change across both clubs. 

Before taking his current role full time, Chris experienced a very successful interim period which saw him assume the responsibilities of the departed Paul Harrison in April. During this period, he steered the club through the St George’s Day Game project which saw over 60,000 people gather at Twickenham for the inaugural fixture. 

By Edward Rangsi

 

How has your experience in banking and insurance helped you in your current position with both London Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers?

Quite a lot, actually. It’s one of those businesses that needs a lot of work on the finance side. Cash is quite tight typically within rugby and football clubs so having good financial discipline and good financial experience is quite an advantage. 

 

Having just joined the sports world a couple of years ago, what’s the most favourable part of your job? 

As a sports fan, its very strange working with people you’ve watched for a couple of years, such as Dai Young, Simon Shaw, Phil Vickery and Riki Flutey. You walk into work and you’re seeing very familiar faces. Also, it’s very strange seeing things from the inside rather than just from a supporter’s perspective. 

 

Conversely, what is the most challenging aspect of your job?

I think certainly at Wasps we’ve had a lot of off-the-field events that have been quite difficult. As an accountant coming from finance, having to deal with the media is something I’ve never had to come across in my career before. Supporters and the public always want to know what’s going on. Everyone has an opinion. Trying to manage that aspect, whilst presenting the right story is quite tricky. 

 

How difficult is it to come into an industry where clubs are constantly taking a hit financially? 

One thing banks aren’t short of is cash. Sport clubs are loss making and have revenues that are very lumpy. You get your sponsorship revenue in installments and you have your sixteen games a season. For a rugby club, that’s when you can drive your income, so it’s very different pressures. 

Also, the ability to go and lend or borrow money is quite difficult with sports clubs. At the moment, banks are not willing to give any sort of finance to sport clubs and there is a lot of pressure to reduce overdrafts or move it onto loan accounts. It’s very difficult to find any finance to help you cover long and short term funding requirements. 

A lot of clubs are reliant on an owner to write the cheque at the end of the day for the difference between your revenues at your costs. That’s the case across the Premiership, with the exception of the Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints who do make profit. 

 

Has it proven tricky juggling your duties and managing your time between the two clubs? 

The difficulty is matches because between the two clubs. They play over forty games at home and you have to be a bit selective on where you’re going. As a business, it’s very similar running the finance, sales and marketing. We now have one team here that manages both clubs, so we have sales people who will sell Wasps products and Wycombe products in one go. You don’t need two teams, one specialising in football and one specialising in rugby. 

 

On the pitch, both your clubs haven’t been doing so well…

With Wycombe, it’s difficult to compete in that league. There are clubs there with large budgets and it’s a case of whether we can keep above that relegation zone. They’ve been very good in the loan market, bringing in some players very cheaply to try and bolster the squad. The ideal for Wycombe would be a nice comfortable place in League One, not yo-yoing between the two divisions. 

With the rugby, it’s just unbelievable how many injuries we’ve had, which is really what’s causing a lot of the problems. If you look at Bath who’ve got a similar injury record to us at the moment and they’re only two points ahead of us and we’re both at the bottom of the table. It’s difficult to compete when a lot of your key players are either retired or in the physio’s room. 

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