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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hampshire's knight in shining armour

A decade or so ago, not long after the new Chairman of Hampshire was beginning to grapple with the dual responsibility of staving off administration and developing their new ground at the Rose Bowl, an elderly codger got to his feet and addressed him at the annual general meeting. What would happen, they said, if the owner of this great club went under a bus? "Well," said Rod Bransgrove, "I'll be dead."

That instant response told the highly amused membership a substantial amount about a man who had become the first owner of a county cricket club in England: his sardonic humour, his quick-wittedness, his articulation, and a prevalent sense that life ought to not always be taken so seriously. They likes to have fun.

Alas for Bransgrove, the past decade has not exactly been filled with jocular moments. It's been of sparring matches with everybody, from those against the development of the Rose Bowl, to the ECB, to even the long-serving club scorer whom they banned from the ground.


Bransgrove had, in fact, grown up in Kent, watching Colin Cowdrey, Alan Knott and Derek Underwood at Canterbury, and in Surrey, and had been a sufficiently promising batsman to attend trial at The Oval in his youth. A career in first-class cricket was not forthcoming, though, and after leaving Chatham House in Ramsgate, Ted Heath's elderly grammar school, spending a year at Canterbury Technical College, and being bored as a draughtsman, they chosen in lieu to go in to the pharmaceutical industry. A natural salesman, they was of the first people to spot the potential in hormone replacement therapy, joining forces with a Hampshire-based pharmaceutical importer, Feroze Janmohamed (now a non-executive director of the Rose Bowl), to form Imperial Pharmaceutical Services.

They still loved cricket and the company of the players they met through the Smith brothers, Robin and Chris; the latter ran a wine bar Bransgrove part-owned in Romsey. When they was offered the chairmanship of Hampshire, it was not merely on account of his track record in business. The club was in financial difficulties, not least over the proposed move to the Rose Bowl. The whole venture would, in all probability, not have been done without his financial input and expertise.

The pair developed a series of hormone-replacement therapy products, utilising elderly compounds that had become generic. Doctors were increasingly prescribing this treatment and Bransgrove spotted gaps in the market. When a merger of the cash-rich Imperial with Shire took place in 1996, they owned 6,581,476 shares worth £2.13 each, which comprised ten.8% of the company. This was then floated on the stock exchange and their value multiplied over ten years to over £15 each. Bransgrove became seriously rich.

They suffered a panic assault when they took over and would have pulled out had a press conference not been set up for later that day. They disliked being often called "the man with deep pockets", as occurred in a radio interview, took exception to Wisden making a reference to his yacht, and although always generous along with his time and his Chablis (they keeps his own supply at the ground) has had a love-hate relationship with the media.

On becoming the chairman of Hampshire in 2000, they had to oversee the transformation of an area of scrubland on the outskirts of Southampton in to a stadium in which one-day international cricket could be played. And they had to delve in to the estimated £30m they had made out of pharmaceuticals (other ventures, including kid's cartoons and a tiny share-holding in Southampton FC, followed) to finance it. The club itself, not to mention the project, was in danger of folding not long after this development was underway, so his immediate involvement was to inject some capital and restructure the business from a mere county cricket club to a public limited company and limited company subsidiaries.

If his relationship with the ECB could even be tetchy, not least over the bidding technique when it awarded a Check match to Cardiff in 2009 - "The 'W' in ECB is silent but powerful," they said - that was in part because they was determined to turn the Rose Bowl in to as fine a model of a contemporary Check ground as could be found. They understood, they said, why there was opposition - some of it personal - to the Rose Bowl obtaining Check status, for they felt they had challenged his rivals' "cosy" way of operating. So there's been administrators as well as journalists along the way with whom they has had fractious moments. They has constantly questioned the ECB's governance, and two times frog-marched a reporter from Southampton's local paper out to the middle in response to criticism of the pitch. But they found an simple comradeship with the players. Not merely the star names such as Shane Warne and Ian Botham and Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, whose death affected him, but the professionals of lesser renown, such as Kevan James and Giles White.

Within years they had injected  Â£5m of his own capital (now over £6m), created Rose Bowl as a separate entity from the county club, and had soon come to the realisation that the staging of concerts and building of a golf work would be integral to the success of the project. Hampshire succeeded in securing an advance from the Lottery Commission. There was still an hindrance to overcome: the threat of a judicial review when the club obtained borrowing from Eastleigh Borough Council to fund the building of a hotel.

The fact that Hampshire, not to mention the Rose Bowl, are still in existence is largely down to Bransgrove, so moving abroad might well be a cause for regret. Doubtless this will occur to him over the approaching days - even if, by his own admission, they will be over a tiny trepidatious.

All the while, the ground was being improved. In the middle there was less lateral movement. On the boundary there was more seating. If the public transport links were not as handy as had been the case at Northlands Road, the building of a second access road alleviated the congestion often experienced at the conclusion of a one-day fixture. The timing was important, , for the ECB increasingly was keen to stage Check cricket in different parts of the country. And last year the Rose Bowl came top in an independent survey of facilities at international venues.

 day Bransgrove, who is now 60, will move from his Edwardian home near Romsey and retire to France, but as with Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United, that date cannot be foreseen. Before that they wishes to stage an Ashes Check and make the ground - or his allotment, as his spouse calls it - and the business more viable. They has had the odd inquiry from potential buyers. "A French intermediary approached me claiming to represent 'significant Middle East interests' keen to secure a position in a British stadium-based sports business. Whist it was mildly flattering that they had been noticed outside the United Kingdom, I did not pursue a dialogue. I sent some visuals and basic public information but did not go as far as non-disclosure agreements or the provision of financial information. I also responded to an inquiry about equity/financial structure of the Rose Bowl from Mike Haysman, Allen Stanford's cricket advisor, whom I had met at the ground, but I heard no more."

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