IT’S A TOUGH JOB, BUT SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT

By Nicky Godding. Pictured: Martin St. Quinton
Martin St Quinton main

As if being the boss at one legendary UK sporting organisation wasn’t enough, Martin St. Quinton is Chairman of two

Martin St. Quinton has been Chairman and outright owner of Gloucester Rugby Club since 2016. Last year he was appointed Chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse.

Which does he prefer, rugby or racing? “That’s not fair, it’s like asking which of your children you like best.”

But horseracing is a passion. He hasn’t missed the Cheltenham Festival for 40 years and can boast three winners as an owner – in 1995, 1996 and 2004.

Martin’s involvement with Gloucester Rugby began in the 1990s after meeting its previous owner Tom Walkinshaw. At the time, he was a senior director at the international business systems company Danka Plc. “We sponsored Tom’s Formula 1 Arrows team for something like $10 million. I love sport, and travelled to many of the races, but I’m honestly not that enthusiastic about F1.”

But when Tom invited him to watch Gloucester Rugby, Martin was hooked.

“I asked Tom if he’d sell me a share of the club. To begin with he wouldn’t consider it. A few years later he changed his mind and sold me 20 per cent, and a further 20 per cent 12 months later.

But in 2010 Tom died and his son Ryan took over. With motor racing often taking Walkinshaw junior overseas, the family finally approached Martin to buy the club outright. He didn’t hesitate.

Gloucester Rugby is now thriving. Last year it welcomed new CEO, Lance Bradley, formerly Managing Director of Mitsubishi in Cirencester, and a new coach.

Successfully making a stand

Martin chaired the committee which raised £45 million to build the stunning Princess Royal Stand at Cheltenham Racecourse that opened in 2015, although he wasn’t the Jockey Club’s first choice to fundraise.

That was Sandy Dudgeon, but before the businessman chaired his first meeting, he was relocated to Hong Kong by his employers, so he asked Martin to step in.

How do you go about raising £45 million? “We asked our banks, but it was only a few years after the 2008 crash and the terms they were offering were absolutely off the scale,” said Martin. “So we had to rethink.”

With so much real estate, the Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham Racecourse, is asset rich. The committee seized this advantage, developing a novel solution for its time.

They raised money through a retail bond. “We offered a five-year bond with a 4.75 per cent return on an investment, which could be anything from £2,000 to £100,000,” said Martin. “We also offered investors a three per cent interest which we called Rewards 4 Racing. It was like a voucher which they could redeem at any Jockey Club racecourse.”

A loan of £10,000 would give an investor £475 a year for five years, plus their £10,000 loan back. On top of that the racecourse would give them £300 to spend at any of its racecourses.

“Our advisers told us that people would’t take up the Rewards 4 Racing, but they were wrong,” said Martin. “Investors were quick to redeem their rewards. Many put them towards discounts, such as for a table for 10 at a meeting. It was an unbelievable success. We secured £25 million on those terms with investors and the banks lending us the other £20 million at the same low rate we enjoyed before.”

It was the first retail bond of its type, and a turning point as the racecourse began to realise the passion its supporters have for Cheltenham.

The stand got built ahead of time and on budget, and has cemented

Cheltenham Racecourse’s reputation as one of the best sporting facilities in the country.

A master copy stroke

Martin was born and brought up in Yorkshire. He attended Pocklington School which boasts two other notable old boys: William Wilberforce whose campaign led to the abolition of slavery in 1807, and the playwright Tom Stoppard.

While Martin was at Durham University his mother died of cancer. So after graduating, he returned home to work alongside his brother in the family business which sold drawing office materials to architects, and artists’ materials.

By 1981, the market for plain paper photocopying was taking off and Rank Xerox’s 25-year patent on the machines, which had given it a world monopoly, had run out.

Martin seized the chance to import cheaper photocopying machines from Japanese manufacturers such as Canon and Toshiba. He was so successful that the American company Danka came calling. Martin merged his business and became CEO of Danka’s International Operations.

Danka was the first company to put its logo on racing jockey’s silks when the rules changed in 1995 to allow companies to advertise in this way.

“That was the year Kim Bailey won the Champion Hurdle with Alderbrook and the Gold Cub with Master Oats,” said Martin. “Three weeks later Jenny Pitman won the Grand National with Royal Athlete. Their jockeys all wore the Danka logo, for which we paid a small amount in comparison to today. The outcome was the Danka logo appearing in racing reports on news stands in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney – all over the world.”

For six years, Martin travelled the world acquiring more than 50 companies in 30 countries and Danka became the world’s second largest photocopier company, with sales in excess of £1 billion. But leaving his wife and four children at home for long periods of time was increasingly miserable.

Martin’s lightbulb moment came when one morning he received a letter from Delta Airlines. “It said “Congratulations Mr St. Quinton, you are now a member of our million air miles club”. But I hardly ever used Delta. I usually flew BA or American Airlines. Delta was my third choice.” If he’d flown one million miles with Delta, he must have flown many more with the other two airlines. With a heavy heart, he bowed out of Danka a year later and redirected his business focus to the UK.

Using private equity investment he set up UK telecoms company Azzuri. “We bought 16 businesses in the UK, merged them and sold to Prudential in 2007.” He was awarded the title Entrepreneur of the Year for his effective buy-and-build strategy.

Since then Martin has taken on nonexecutive roles for companies from pharmaceutical and recruitment to property management, but most of his time is taken up with Gloucester Rugby, and now Cheltenham Racecourse.

Martin St Quinton Gloucester Rugby

What Gloucester rugby supporters and Cheltenham racegoers should love about Martin is that he enjoys getting under the skin of both. “Last October I arrived early for the Cheltenham Showcase. We did the team briefing, then some of the staff showed me what they did on gate access and cash collection. I watched England beat the All Blacks in the World Cup with our Regional Director Ian Renton, then drove to Gloucester, and headed straight for the Shed. It’s a great place to be when Gloucester’s winning.”

His plans for Gloucester are to drive the club up the premier league, but what are his ambitions for Cheltenham? He won’t be drawn as to whether The Festival in March will expand to five days. “We love the four days, but we are always open minded on ways to develop the business.”

What concerns him more is racing’s funding issue following the government slashing the stakes to £2 per spin on fixed odds betting terminals which could close thousands of betting shops.

“Of course the government needed to tackle the problem. I like watching horse racing in betting shops but hated watching people piling £20 notes into these wretched machines.

“The consequences of a gambling addiction can be brutal, but I think that the pendulum might have swung too far the other way. Those with a serious addiction will gamble online. It would have been a gentler landing for the betting shops and their employees facing redundancy if the stakes had been cut to £5 or possibly £10.”

Less money going through betting shops means that the industry has to look at other ways to build up the prize money. Selling global media rights could be one solution, or securing more money through the Tote, in which The Jockey Club has a stake. Sponsorship and hospitality are also opportunities, but Martin also wants to broaden racing’s fan base. “We should get more young people involved.”

The racecourse is winning here too. It currently has more than 1,000 members aged between 18-28, a big increase on last year.

“Whatever your age, if you love horses, or even if you don’t, but you love the atmosphere, a day at the races is one of the best things you’ll ever experience.”