|Simon Bazalgette - CEO, The Jockey Club|
|Profile of the week|
Monday, 09 March 2015 12:25
Often described by media commentators as the most influential figure in British horseracing, Simon Bazalgette has been Group Chief Executive of the largest commercial group in the UK’s second biggest spectator sport since 2008.
Headlining its range of assets, The Jockey Club stages several of the UK’s most iconic events, including the Crabbie’s Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival and The Investec Derby. It manages more than 3,000 acres of racehorse training facilities and The National Stud. Its Jockey Club Live joint venture makes it the UK’s sixth largest music promoter.
Simon oversees the maximum return from the group’s resources for reinvestment back into the sport, in line with The Jockey Club’s Royal Charter commitments to act for the long-term good of the sport. Outside of racing he is the non-executive Chairman of The Grubb Institute.
By Tariq Saleh
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My career you can probably split into three discreet parts. I spent 10 years in the city doing accounting and then financial advisory, floatations, fundraising and then became a management consultant specialising in media and entertainment companies.
Then in the 90s I switched to a music broadcast start up called music choice and I did that for 10 years, working with joint venture and partners; Sky, Time Warner, Sony, floated that in 1999 as chief executive and in 2003 I left there and did various consulting projects and in 2004 I accidentally fell into horse racing which is where I’ve been ever since, joining the Jockey Club about six years ago.
How did you become the chief executive at the Jockey Club?
By accident. I got involved in horse racing by accident, I got involved really from my media background. In 2004 the sport got itself into quite a difficult position with its pay-tv rights and was looking for options and the only option that really looked possible was whether they could start their own pay-tv business.
I was introduced to them by some people I’d been working with at Sky and effectively was asked the question, ‘is it possible for a sport to run its own pay-tv channel?’, particularly as Sky, the biggest sports subscription service, was saying it was not possible.
But actually from my background I thought it was a viable proposition and we got it up and running and in fact it was a huge success and Racing UK, which is still a very successful pay-tv channel today and formed the heart of a bigger media group, a racecourse media group that we formed.
When I thought I’d got that to the most it could possibly be after about four and half years, I was going to step down, I was executive chairman, I was going to become non-executive chairman and the Jockey Club sneaked up on me and when I thought I was going portfolio career and doing lots of different things I suddenly discovered I was running the biggest commercial group in horse racing so it’s been a great ride ever since.
Can you tell us what the Jockey Club is and your role as the CEO?
The Jockey Club is the biggest commercial group in horse racing, the cart of it really is that we’re the biggest racecourse operator, we own and operate Epsom, New Market, Cheltenham, Aintree, so we’ve got the Grand National, we’ve got the Investec Derby, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, so we’re the biggest racecourse operator by quite some distance.
But alongside that we also own the national stud, we own and operate the major training grounds in New Market, Lambourn and Epsom, we have major media groups, so it’s a whole range of things but the essence of it is that we don’t take any profits out, we’re a commercial business, we generate commercial profits but we reinvest that all back into the sport and our mission is really about the long-term good of the sport, making sure that horse racing is in a successful position for the next 50 years and beyond.
What expertise have you brought with you from the entertainment business world to the Jockey Club?
A range of things; I’ve got a good financial and strategic background from my time in the city, but equally I’m used to innovation and growth and dealing with very volatile businesses from my music start up days and the successful floatation of that and probably more than anything the thing that the entertainment business teaches you, is how to deal with people who are very creative and passionate about what they do and the entertainment business is very good at managing those kind of people in order to align them with what the business needs to achieve and making sure everybody gets the best of both worlds and I think sport and horse racing is exactly the same.
There are a lot of people who work very hard at the cold face of horse racing and making sure the show is fantastic and the horses are in great shape and they’re incredibly passionate, but you need to harness that passion and make sure it’s really being harnessed for the good of the sport and making sure everybody’s on the same side, so I think that’s what the entertainment business more than anything brings and the parallels for the horse racing business.
When you look back, what has changed for the Jockey Club in the last five years?
When I joined the Jockey Club six years ago it was a time of some crisis, there was a funding crisis in the sport, particularly in terms of the money that horse racing generates from the betting industry, that was falling apart somewhat and I would say that horse racing had probably to some extent forgotten that it needed to think about its consumers rather than the supplier side, it’s very important that you balance both of that and that balance had got out of kilter five or six years ago.
Over the last five or six years though we’ve become much more customer-centric, I think we’ve brought some core values to the Jockey Club over the last five or six years about what we’re really about and getting the whole industry and particularly the Jockey Club, as the biggest element of it together and focusing the various stakeholders in the sport around that and the result of that has been very significant growth in our business.
We’ve added 30% to our top line, we’ve added 20 or 30% to the operating profits and meanwhile at the same time, contributing an additional 50% to prize money at our racecourses and being part of much more commercial focus of the sport and bringing an innovation to make sure that we’re keeping up with modern life and not just seen as a bit of a relic of history.
What is the state of horse racing today as a sport?
From a customer point of view it’s in very good shape. We’re very focused on the customers, we’re the second biggest spectator sport after football in terms of attendances, those have held up very strongly during the recession and I’d say we’re probably the best at corporate hospitality in terms of a whole range of different options for businesses to entertain their clients and do it in a way where you can build a much stronger relationship with them.
We’ve managed to build on our big events, our big festivals, the Investec Derby, the Crabbie’s Grand National, the Cheltenham festival, the Qipco Guineas festival. We’ve created the Qipco British champions day and British champions series in that time to help people follow the top end of flat racing, so from that point of view I’d say the sport is in good shape.
Where it’s much more challenging is at the funding end of the sport in making sure that the owners, the trainers, the people who actually keep the show on the road and make a living out of supporting the sport, that there’s enough money to do that and to compete with the international market because France in particular has a very well-funded sport as does Ireland and it’s easier for horses to travel there.
So at the top end we have to make sure that we’re offering enough money and at the bottom end we have to make sure that the people who earn a living out of the sport are doing so, that’s much more challenging and it’s much more fragile and that’s really more to do with regulatory issues around how the betting industry contributes to the sport. There’s a lot of effort in the sport to fix that but without taking our eye off the fact that we have to keep providing a fantastic customer experience for people who want to go racing and understand more about racing.