Games on the field fuel battles beyond it

First published in the Financial Times on 19th June 2012.

It is a myth that victory in the sporting arena shows commercial acumen

You can learn a lot about an entrepreneur’s approach to business by playing them at sport.

In tennis I adopt the strategy espoused by Simon Ramo. He realised that amateur tennis is lost by the player who makes the most unforced errors – not by their opponent playing winning shots.

Charles Ellis, in his brilliant book Winning The Loser’s Game, explains that investing is similar – investors defeat themselves by thinking they understand more than they do, taking overambitious risks.

By its nature sport is competitive, and so are entrepreneurs. Tycoons typically choose those sports where their wealth can help them win. The most obvious example is yachting, where only the exceedingly rich can participate in the big contests.

The America’s Cup might be the oldest sporting trophy in the world, but money and technology still make all the difference: perhaps that is why Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, is drawn to it. Indeed, combat between plutocrats does not get much fiercer than the rivalry between Mr Ellison and fellow billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli over the 2010 event. The Oracle boss is known to be litigious in business, and so he proved in sport with his arcane, lengthy lawsuit that enabled him to gain admission to the race. Meanwhile, sponsors pulled out, not wishing to endorse a battle between two strong-willed industrialists.

A number of captains of industry enjoy poker or bridge – psychological games that require the player to read players and calculate probabilities. The legendary financier Jim Slater and the television magnate Michael Green both used to belong to the same bridge club, while Warren Buffett enjoys playing with fellow billionaire Bill Gates. As the Sage of Omaha says, “Bridge has got to be the best intellectual exercise out there.”

The traditional sports for top male executives were golf and shooting game. Both appealed because they tend to be expensive and exclusive, and each permits long conversations about wheeler-dealing, in between bursts of activity. But I suspect their popularity is waning in the era of diverse boardrooms, austerity and the Bribery Act.

Instead, depressingly, football has come to dominate everything. Of course, almost no bosses actually play the game – they simply watch and talk about it endlessly. To me, sport is about activity and participation – being a sports fan watching professionals play is as frustrating as just discussing deals, rather than actually doing them.

The really big shots own their own clubs, of course. This allows them to control matters without being athletic, thus appealing to their megalomania and vanity. At least 40 members of the Sunday Times Rich List own Premier League or Championship clubs – mostly, one assumes, as toys rather than business undertakings.

I’ve played entrepreneurs at sports and games ranging from table tennis to cricket, snooker to squash. Annoyingly, I’ve lost rather more often than I care to reveal. Typically, many entrepreneurs are loners and possess an obsessive desire to win. These characteristics militate against their cherishing two vital elements of any worthy sportsman or woman: team spirit and fair play. Thus I’ve heard anecdotes about the FTSE chief executive who cheats on the cricket pitch, and I’ve been thrashed by a billionaire retailer at Monopoly, who epitomised the saying “It is not enough that I should win: everybody else must lose”.

It is a myth that victory in the sporting arena is a sure indicator of commercial acumen. Running a business requires a different set of qualities – flexibility, patience, numeracy, strategic thinking, sales ability and organisational skills. Most great entrepreneurs are at heart promoters or inventors, while sports stars are athletes. This might account for the fact that very few of the latter have ever founded great companies, despite many trying.

Entrepreneurs who have made fortunes from sport are an interesting breed. Formula One offers case studies such as Ron Dennis, the principal behind the McLaren Grand Prix team. His obsessive behaviour is as legendary as the performance of his racing cars. About his management style, he states: “There are people in this organisation, and I don’t say this with any pride, who are frightened of me.”

I greatly admire his achievements – but I’m not sure I’d like to work for the man.