Secrets of my success: Richard Thompson

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What do you do?

My role is to provide leadership to the organisations I chair and to keep management focused. I hate having too many meetings, so strive to make them as interesting as possible. My world is very eclectic — one day I might be chairing a Surrey County Cricket Club board meeting, the next working with Freddie Flintoff or David Gandy negotiating a new TV series or designing a sponsorship deal. 

On top of all that, the Debrett’s 500 People of Influence list has just been published, which has created an extraordinary response which I’ve been dealing with. 

What gets you out of bed in the morning? 

Everything I do can have an impact on people’s lives; whether it’s agreeing a company to invest in, or managing household-name talent. There’s nothing mundane about it. 

I don’t want to look back on missed opportunities so I’m prepared to take risks. 

I remember, in launching the Debrett’s 500 a couple of years back, people questioned putting celebrities in the list as we tried to move away from the Downton Abbey feel. We were gambling with 250 years of history. One journalist asked: “How can Ant and Dec be on the list?” but in the broadcast world they are highly influential. 

What challenges do you face and how do you deal with them?

There’s a few! Finding good people in the competitive London market is very hard. You have to hire slowly and fire quickly: if you’ve made a mistake, deal with it. 

 At Surrey, we’re not well-liked in the cricket world as we’re the biggest county club. I have to distil an “us against the world” mentality, which means knowing when to be humble but also not to hide our light under a bushel. 

 In sport, your success is measured by trophies ahead of profits, so I have to juggle that too.

What was your biggest break?

When I was 19, in 1986, I joined a small computer sales firm in Croydon. It was an incredible time as Microsoft had just launched and Apple was innovating. At the interview, I was asked: “What’s seven times six?” and I quickly answered correctly (now, if I’m feeling mischievous, I’ll ask an interviewee: “What are nine sevens?” and see them sweat). Working in a small team meant I quickly understood everything from finance to management – all great experience.

Ten years on, I set up EMS, which turned into a £25 million sales and marketing agency. I could see how the industry’s focus was moving towards talent working with brands and formed Merlin Elite to specialise in that field in 2003. I’ve been working with great talent like Flintoff, Jamie and Louise Redknapp, Jamie Theakston and Matt Dawson for 12 years and they’re now close relationships. 

I sold Merlin Elite to M&C Saatchi three years ago and that was also a big break — there could have been risks in moving into such a global  agency, but we’ve maintained our boutique feel and benefited from being part of the larger group. 

What was your biggest setback?

In the early days of Merlin, I overextended myself, attempting to manage sports, entertainment and music talent. It was just too much and took its toll on me. I learned you can’t run a big business and look after many clients simultaneously: sometimes you have to say “no” and delegate; you can’t always be the player-manager. 

How do you juggle your work and personal life?

Weekends are precious and I try to do bedtime with my three young kids at least twice during the week, even if it means going back out afterwards. My daughter, Holly, has caught the entrepreneurial bug — she’s only eight years old but when loom bands were big she was selling loads to order and loved it. My wife caught us talking about how her labour time should be included in the profit margin and ran away in horror. I’m a huge sports fan, I retired from cricket at 40 but am a true Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra), cycling around Richmond Park, which is my local. I’m also doing Ride London this year.

What tips do you have for those starting out in business? 

People these days naturally do, but believe in yourself. Also, keep it simple and don’t overanalyse things.

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February 5, 2016 |
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