Rags to riches business stories are not uncommon, yet many of us enjoy them. We root for the underdog, admire their resilience, marvel at their wealth and applaud how it was won. When people from poor backgrounds reveal how they were invariably told “no”, we bristle at the injustice and celebrate their bank balance even more.
There’s a reason Hollywood likes a true story – if the Jo Malones, the Jan Koums and the Oprah Winfreys of this world can build wealth and success from nothing, maybe Joe Public can too. Perhaps we can learn from these entrepreneurs, who overcame challenges and prejudice by taking a risk, having a vision, seizing an opportunity, sticking two fingers up at the naysayers and rolling with their luck.
To tell someone at 25 this is as far as you go - that's not acceptable
British millionaire Barry Hearn, the son of a cleaner and a bus driver, knows what it’s like to be told “no”. People from his walk of life, brought up on a council estate, didn’t go in to accountancy, he explains. In those days people still wore bowler hats and didn’t use Christian names. “But when I was 12 my mother had come home from cleaning this man’s house and said to me: ‘When you grow up you’re going to be a chartered accountant’. She had no idea what he did, but he had told her: ‘You never see a poor one’.”
Motivated by this stranger’s wealth, Hearn studied articles for four years on £6 a week after his uncle asked the small practice he employed to do him a favour and take on his nephew. Hearn qualified aged 21 on £12 a week. It was when he moved to Thomson McLintock (now KPMG) to work on its secretarial investment and personal services team that his progress halted.
“When they made me a manager they said to me: ‘Congratulations, you’re the youngest manager we’ve ever employed’. I was 25, I think. I wouldn’t let anyone get in my way; I could talk anyone into anything. But they said: ‘You realise this is as far as you can go?’ I hadn’t gone to university; there was no family money. Those were the standards in those days; that’s how it was. But to tell someone at the age of 25 this is as far as you go – that’s not acceptable.”
And accept it he did not. He had built up an evening practice by then of around 80 clients and had been playing the Stock Exchange “with little bits of money”. When one of his audit clients, textile company Deryck Healy International, offered him £7,500 a year to become its finance director, Hearn leapt at the chance.
“That’s where it all started. It was a life-changing moment,” he says. “Life deals you many strange hands doesn’t it? You can be the smartest kid on the block, but you need that bit of luck. And the essence is timing. My job was to diversify the group and within a year I had bought a UK-wide chain of snooker halls [Lucania Snooker Clubs].” Having made “a few million”, he realised he had no wish to stop there.
Hearn had met and was managing up-and-coming snooker professional Steve Davis (“still my best friend”) in the late 1970s and later managed world champions Dennis Taylor and Terry Griffiths. In 1982 he started Matchroom, a company that has since diversified from management to events and televised entertainment (it is currently the biggest independent supplier of programming for Sky, which will transmit 2,000 hours of Matchroom content this year).
My sportsmen have to be paid and my TV broadcasters have to be satisfied or I’m out of business
Its portfolio includes snooker, boxing, darts, fishing, pool, tenpin bowling, and poker – all sports that Hearn either played or had a passion for. Cricket, triathlons and netball are also on his radar.
Hearn knows that he’s had the last laugh. The economia Rich List puts his personal wealth at £45m. He is chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) and the World Snooker Association, and formerly of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. And KPMG now audits Matchroom and its associated companies, which remain privately owned. The business turned over, by Hearn’s reckoning, £100m last year.
“I always thought it shouldn’t be about that [background],” continues Hearn. “It should be about ability. It’s funny, because I could buy most of them 100 times over now. I am who I am, I’m happy to be king of the working class.”
Nobody can accuse Hearn of hiding his light under a bushel. These are a few of his reflections: “I don’t want to sound too big-headed but I was quite smart”; “I always have a lot of confidence in my own ability. Otherwise you’d be lost in this type of job”; “I don’t ever have a bad day, a bad hour. I take adversity as if it’s nothing. I have skin like a rhinoceros and I believe in myself”; “that’s what I am, working class with huge amounts of common sense and an unbeatable work ethic.”
Nor does he make any bones about his wealth: “The problem is that I am old and I’m rich, which means I tell the truth because I don’t really care, and it’s an independence that you can’t value”; “When I was young I only wanted to live on the house on the top of the hill. I was focused entirely on money, I wanted to be rich”; “I’m a money man – I know my strengths and weaknesses”; “I don’t have private jets, I have no need for them. I could certainly afford it but that’s not how I live my life”.
Although he admits to not seeing much of his children when they were growing up – he had a business to run, money to make – his family takes priority now. His son Eddie and daughter Katie both work for the business, as group managing director and director of programming respectively. His spoils are for them, and for future generations. “We’re a family business, we make reasonable profits, and we enjoy our life, which is important,” explains Hearn. “I don’t want to float. An extra hundred million in the bank wouldn’t change my life. What’s the point of taking a quick buck? Spending it on a desert island?”
I like to give the impression of a flamboyant barrow boy, but the truth is, you've only got to scratch the surface to find a normal accountant
He applies this no-nonsense perspective to most aspects of his life. His business is simply selling wares, says Hearn. “This is not complicated. I do events that give people value for money; whether they’re a sponsor, a broadcaster or a paying customer. If I give them value for money, I stay in business for a long time.”
He learned from the American way, recalls Hearn. “I saw satellite and cable television coming. I knew how difficult it was to get things on TV (if you got 15 minutes on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon you’d done well). In America there were sports channels starting and you could see this was going to come over the pond. So I started building sports events, because I knew they would need product.”
There were a few “rocky” years in the early 1990s, when Hearn says he probably over-stretched himself before the market had fully matured.But he’s sure he wouldn’t be in such a confident position if it weren’t for his training.
“I can honestly say that, without accountancy, I would not be sitting here. I don’t know what I’d be doing – I might have been very successful doing something else, I might have got time doing something else. But there isn’t a day when I don’t sit in my den and look at my pictures [there are framed photos everywhere of Hearn with some of the world’s best-known snooker players and boxers], or my marathon times, and in the middle there is my certificate for the associate and my certificate for the fellowship. They’re the two most important things in there.”
This is not said to curry favour. Hearn feels passionately that his professional qualification combined with his personal savvy have been fundamental to his rise to the top. He says he relies on his training “every day of my life. I’m a numbers freak. I love the idea of balancing books. I make copious notes on everything…”
He opens the top drawer of his desk and reveals an A4 sheet of paper covered with lists of dates: the number of times he went to the gym each day. Since 2008. “Everywhere you go you will see figures, and figures, and figures,” he reveals. “Accountancy is so exciting. That’s my strength. I like to give the impression of flamboyant barrow boy, East End multimillionaire whizz-kid, but the truth is, you’ve only got to scrape the surface to find a normal accountant.”
This man should be cloned and put into schools. Does he have much involvement at grass roots level? When he was chairman of Leyton Orient Football Club, it won countless FA Community Club awards. “We reached out to 200,000 kids in this part of the world,” he says. “A footballer could walk into a school whereas a policeman couldn’t and that was fundamental. We used our community plan to educate about knife crime, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs… Football was a conduit.” Hearn was chairman for 19 years and retains honorary presidency as well as owning the ground, which he says he bought from the council for £350,000 on a 999-year lease.
But as a businessman, Hearn prefers to create opportunity rather than try to solve society’s problems. He’s critical of the 2012 Olympic legacy, feeling it’s a chance missed. “It’s all very well creating something as fantastic as the Olympics, probably the greatest sporting event ever to have taken place in this country in my lifetime, but you have to consider sustainability. The legacy of the Olympics is about encouraging young people to play sport and the numbers have dropped.
“Politicians pay lip service, I’m in the real world,” he continues. “My sportsmen have to be paid [and] my TV broadcasters have to be satisfied or I’m out of business.
“There wasn’t a government minister who didn’t want his picture taken with a gold medal winner. But what about the kid who lives in a tower block in east London. What chance have they got? As a salesman, I’m supposed to be good at bullshit. Trust me when I tell you that politicians leave me dead in their wake.”
Since he’s raised the subject of payment, does he think, I wonder, if his line of business is contributing to the perceived moral decline of sport, placing money and lucrative rights deals above traditional values? “I’d use the word ‘evolution’,” he says, “because in any sport, things change.
“It’s getting back to that simplicity, the common sense approach: the more ability in a sport, the more profile it has. The more energy it seems to have, the more likelihood of building a solid support base, both in TV ratings and live attendances. Sponsors lead us but most important is the man who gets off his backside, buys a ticket, leaves the comfort of his house and travels to a venue to watch his chosen sport. If you can pack out venues, you’ve got something right.”
And Hearn knows a thing or two about that. He’s turned the relatively niche sport of darts into a major attraction with his Premier League concept, which even he describes as “unbelievable”.
He says 100,000 people will go and watch Premier League darts this year, while the World Darts Championship peaked at 1.8 million viewers at Christmas. “That was huge for Sky. In translatable terms, double the Ryder Cup peak, bigger than F1 and bigger than the Capital One Cup final live.”
Hearn has been described as “the man responsible for masterminding the PDC’s incredible rise over the past two decades.” Does he know what the public wants before they do? “I produce every event at a level that would entertain me,” agrees Hearn. “As a working class man, I’m a pretty good yardstick. I reckon, and so far it hasn’t been wrong, that if I can entertain myself it follows that I will entertain normal people.”
And that makes lots of people happy: sponsors, broadcasters, sportsmen, customers and, yes, Barry Hearn. He will always be a fan of Leyton Orient. But now that he’s free of the demands of the chairman role, he says he’s the happiest person you’ll ever see.
“I wake up and I feel like Barbara Streisand – I feel like singing Free Again. I sleep like a baby and I work every day with my kids. It doesn’t get any better than that.”