UKFast Sale Sharks Sponsor speaks to RugbyUnited Sale Sharks
With the coming of the new Board to Sale Sharks came the return of major sponsor UKFast* led by the charismatic Lawrence Jones MBE**. Rugby United thought this would be the ideal opportunity to talk to a sponsor of a Premiership club and find out how these deals come together. However in a searingly honest interest this interview became just so much more……..
Sale Sharks was the first commercial contract that Lawrence signed for UKFast back in 2000 little guessing the impact it would have not only on his life but those of the fans. As a fan Lawrence had attended Sale Sharks whilst at Heywood Road and looking to build his business literally knocked on the door of the portacabin the management team were using at the time in the carpark of Heywood Road. Allan Rowley certainly wasn’t convinced about Sale Sharks customers using the Internet but the guy behind him (Dave Swanton) trying desperately to send a fax certainly was!
Shortly after that Lawrence helped Sale Sharks deal with their website issues leading to UKFast taking over responsibility for their website and utilising his marketing experience to drive progression behind the scenes, including developing online sales from nothing to over a million pounds. In focusing on business growth Lawrence knew that communications was key and was happy to be associated with such a great club as Sale Sharks.
Internal politics began to cause the relationship between Sale Sharks and UKFast to gradually sour with a number of changes of Chief Executive and Lawrence increasingly frustrated at having to re-explain what he felt was needed to grow the club’s communication strategy. He began to feel that the owners didn’t understand the commitment he was making to the club. The move to Stockport made Lawrence nervous but he rose to the challenge to help the club fill the stadium and at that time felt the club had a winning formula on and off the field.
Lawrence personally continued to believe in Sale Sharks but the relationship continued to deteriorate. In the season Sale Sharks won the Premiership they had needed a new key sponsor and Lawrence had been approached personally. After a lot of soul searching, and despite the misgivings of his wife Lawrence pledged an amount at the limit of his possibilities at the time. He was understandably extremely disappointed to find that even after the contract had been signed Sale Sharks owner continued to seek an alternative sponsor. Although UKFast continued as the main sponsor it had left a bad taste with Lawrence but like a marriage he felt he was committed to the long term relationship. However the values on which he had built UKFast were no longer chiming with that of the owner and he freely accepts that as different businesses demand different approaches so theirs were miles apart. Equally Lawrence is quick to point out that many people at Sale Sharks had the same values but being friendly with players like Charlie Hodgson and Dwayne Peel he began to be unhappy with the way they were treated. The final straw for him came when his heavily pregnant wife was barred from using an exit they had always used because it passed the owners box and so professionally he parted from Sale Sharks.
I say professionally because Lawrence continued to be a Sale Sharks fan and maintain an interest in the club. However his business ethos is to develop partners and ‘friends’ (and I was increasingly convinced of this) he began to feel that successive CEOs didn’t understand rugby or running a small business and lost his personal appetite to keep explaining his strategic view of growing the club.
I asked him how he’d felt abut the move to the A J Bell Stadium and like many fans he was bewildered by it. Why not build a new stadium and maintain their real estate portfolio? There are clearly issues around its accessibility and the impact of less control over the match day experience. Lawrence felt many fans were disenfranchised and still believes Sale Sharks need their own ground. At this stage, despite his wife’s reservations he did put out feelers regarding ownership or larger investment but they came to nothing.
Having parted company but in advance of announcing changes Mark Cueto (a hero of Lawrence’s since training at Altrincham Kersal ) found out that Lawrence owned a hotel in Verbier and came looking for him. Both tell the story of Cueto arriving at the Hotel and asking the guy in a disreputable hoodie shovelling snow where he could find Lawrence Jones, only for Lawrence to say it was him and Cueto to quip that he ‘didn’t think times were that bad’. The pair of them went on to have a few drinks by the fire and reminisce. Lawrence clearly has great admiration for Cueto and when Cueto finally asked him if he’d come back as a sponsor gave a qualified ‘only if the owners changed’ – to which Cueto replied with a twinkle in his eye that he’d be in touch.
Lawrence wasn’t unduly surprised when Cueto called him a few months later to say that the deal had been done. In fact Lawrence describes it as probably the easiest deal Sale have ever done as here was a man who passionately believed in the team and knew from a fan’s point of view what the fans needed. Lawrence has a lot of time for the new Board and believes they understand the need for a winning formula on and off the pitch. The new owners and Directors want to understand how they can make the club a place that players and fans want to be. He is passionate about marketing the matchday experience and filling it full of razzmatazz and quality from the fist pint/wine/coke. Lawrence believes Rugby is in the business of entertainment on and off the pitch, creating warm feelings.
He is full of ideas of creating a full stadium recognising that fans need to want to come week in and week out. Indeed the stadium staff have clearly bought into this and service has been much better this year. He stands by the decision to move to Fridays believing it allows rugby players of all ages to attend before their playing commitments. I asked him if he thought it would continue and he wasn’t sure. Attendance is currently 82% up on last season and this suggests Sale Sharks is beginning to get it right.
So what does UKFast get from this as a sponsor? Well Lawrence wryly acknowledged could be a double edged sword as by helping Sale Sharks grow and develop they seek more from a sponsor and that puts the prices up! However he sees a clear analogy between a fast internet connection, a fast growing business and a fast and resilient sport in Rugby Union. It’s also a great place to entertain clients and the more successful Sale Sharks are the more coverage UKFast gets. Lawrence is a big believer in community development and the effort Sale Sharks puts into growing community development was a driver for him although he believes Sale should still do more to celebrate their efforts.
We digressed somewhat as we discussed the positive impact UKFast seeks to have on the local community. Lawrence was keen to describe the partnership he has with local schools and it was great to hear about individuals who came for work experience and are now department heads within the business.
I asked him how negative impact on Sale Sharks could rebound on UKFast and we were able to use the very topical example of Denny Solomona. Both Lawrence and I as unrelated parties have received a lot of ‘abuse’ on social media and Lawrence has tried to respond constructively recognising that fans are passionate about their clubs. However he relates the matter to business – people are constantly in contract but if they want to leave then companies either have to change their minds or let them leave and doesn’t really see that Denny is any different.
UKFast do a great deal to retain staff after losing a key member to Facebook many years ago. As a result Lawrence thinks a great deal about how he retains good people and believes that rugby clubs need to do the same. Therefore if Denny wanted to return to Rugby Union that much why shouldn’t Sale capitalise on that desire. Clearly if they didn’t there were two other RU clubs waiting in the wings. The issue is between Denny and Castleford Tigers and for them to resolve.
Having said that Lawrence sees Denny as a brilliant signing and Denny as a potential game changer with lightning fast pace and great ball skills so overall he’s pleased with the signing.
Having a mutual interest in mental toughness and resilience it was only a matter of time before we moved onto this with Lawrence acting as psychological coach to the world renowned Laura Massaro amongst others. Lawrence believes that rugby needs to urgently review this aspect of the modern game. He believes that Sale Sharks have the players to win the Premiership but questions whether they have the self belief themselves. He believes the growth of youngsters is ideal as they tend to have been winners from their club and county teams but they need to maintain that winning mentality. Interestingly he believes the stated aim of Top 4 is wrong as that allows for losses and gives the players mental time to manoeuvre where there should be none. Lawrence would like to see emphasis on the motivation to win placed by Sale Sharks.
Interestingly when I asked him who was impressing him at Sale this season he turned to the off field team with Mark Cueto first in line. He’s always been a great ambassador for the club but Lawrence also believes he’s doing excellently in his new commercial role. However Lawrence struggled when it came to the team and he believes collectively and individually they need to be much more focused. He gave the analogy of getting on a plane to the Maldives and not arriving if you’re even one degree out! Lawrence supports Dimes determination to grow a North West Academy but believes strongly that the youngsters coming through like the Curry twins have to see themselves as winners to succeed.
I asked him what drives him to give so much back locally and for the first time he went a little quiet. In 2001 Lawrence was snowboarding in France when he got caught up in an avalanche and found himself thinking why he was there and why he was saved. He describes how he stopped worrying about himself and began to be more interested and concerned for other people; and he’s never stopped since. He believes his staff are part of a bigger family and indeed the family feeling at Sale is part of his attraction to the club. He was genuinely proud to tell me of the 20 babies born to UKFast families this year and is interested in all of them. He talks quietly of how he feels genuinely blessed in his work. He and his wife, Gail have always worked really hard and come a tremendous distance but as Lawrence says ‘there’s no point being the richest man in the graveyard, so if he can help someone, he will’. (you only have to look at his blog, which came out 2 days after this interview). His passion is for coaching young entrepreneurs and has a real buzz when they progress and write to keep him informed of their progress. He tells me that UKFast is full of great people and that frees hip up to do the things he enjoys – and with that he’s off to give a hand in the warehouse!
(Massive thanks to Ginny, Tim and of course Lawrence who gave me an amazing amount of time and was very candid and open throughout the interview).
UKFast is the UK's largest privately-owned hosting provider with over 17 years' experience in cloud and dedicated hosting. All of UKFast’s hosting solutions are designed to help businesses grow, with 24/7/365 support and dedicated account management as standard.
Two people started UKFast together in 1999, and since then their team has grown to over 300-strong. Those same two people, CEO Lawrence and wife Gail, are as active in the business today as they ever were. They are experienced in being, as well as supporting, both small and large businesses, which helps them to understand business needs.
They helped set up the UK's newest business technology magazine, BusinessCloud, with former regional newspaper and magazine editor Chris Maguire. The magazine is 80 pages in size and focuses on "demystifying technology for a business audience".
In June 2015 Lawrence Jones received an MBE for his services to the digital economy.
** Lawrence Jones MBE
Lawrence Jones is founder and CEO of UKFast, a cloud technology business with numerous awards for culture, customer service, innovation and leadership. In 17 years he has led its phenomenal growth from a startup in a spare bedroom to a £300 million enterprise. In 2015, Lawrence was awarded an MBE by the Queen for his contribution to the digital industry.
Today, Lawrence continues to mentor and inspire huge numbers of people including professional athletes, musicians, fellow entrepreneurs and people who want to make a difference. Lawrence’s blog is read by more than 200,000 people every month.
In 2012, Lawrence Jones was named Ernst & Young Technology Entrepreneur of the Year and, in 2013, he received ‘Director of the Year for a Small to Medium Company’ at the Institute of Directors’ awards ceremony.
In July 2016 Jones received an honorary doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) from Manchester Metropolitan University