Hampshire's knight in shining armour
A decade or so ago, not long after the new chairman of Hampshire was starting to grapple with the dual responsibility of staving off administration and developing their new ground at the Rose Bowl, an old codger got to his feet and addressed him at the annual general meeting. What would happen, he said, if the owner of this great club went under a bus? "Well," said Rod Bransgrove, "I'll be dead."
That one instant response told the highly amused membership a considerable amount about a man who had become the first proprietor of a county cricket club in England: his sardonic humour, his quick-wittedness, his articulation, as well as a prevalent sense that life should not always be taken so seriously. He likes to have fun.
Alas for Bransgrove, the past decade has not exactly been filled with jocular moments. It has been one of sparring matches with everybody, from those opposed to the development of the Rose Bowl, to the ECB, to even the long-serving club scorer whom he 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 old grammar school, spending a year at Canterbury Technical College, and being bored as a draughtsman, he chose instead to go into the pharmaceutical industry. A natural salesman, he was one 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.
The pair developed a series of hormone-replacement therapy products, utilising old 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, he owned 6,581,476 shares worth £2.13 each, which comprised 10.8% of the company. This was then floated on the stock exchange and their value multiplied over 10 years to more than £15 each. Bransgrove became seriously rich.
He still loved cricket and the company of the players he met through the Smith brothers, Robin and Chris; the latter ran a wine bar Bransgrove part-owned in Romsey. When he 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 completed without his financial input and expertise.
Upon becoming the chairman of Hampshire in 2000, he had to oversee the transformation of an area of scrubland on the outskirts of Southampton into a stadium in which one-day international cricket could be played. And he had to delve into the estimated £30m he had made out of pharmaceuticals (other ventures, including children's cartoons and a small share-holding in Southampton FC, followed) to finance it. The club itself, let alone 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.
He suffered a panic attack when he took over and would have pulled out had a press conference not been set up for later that day. He disliked being referred to as "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 with his time and his Chablis (he keeps his own supply at the ground) has had a love-hate relationship with the media.
Within five years he had injected nearly £5m of his own capital (now more than £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 course would be integral to the success of the project. Hampshire succeeded in securing an advance from the Lottery Commission. There was still an obstacle to overcome: the threat of a judicial review when the club obtained borrowing from Eastleigh Borough Council to fund the building of a hotel.
If his relationship with the ECB could also be tetchy, not least over the bidding process when it awarded a Test match to Cardiff in 2009 - "The 'W' in ECB is silent but powerful," he said - that was in part because he was determined to turn the Rose Bowl into as fine a model of a modern Test ground as could be found. He understood, he said, why there was opposition - some of it personal - to the Rose Bowl obtaining Test status, for he felt he had challenged his rivals' "cosy" way of operating. So there have been administrators as well as journalists along the way with whom he has had fractious moments. He has constantly questioned the ECB's governance, and once frog-marched a reporter from Southampton's local paper out to the middle in response to criticism of the pitch. But he found an easy 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 pros of lesser renown, such as Kevan James and Giles White.
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, too, for the ECB increasingly was keen to stage Test cricket in different parts of the country. And last year the Rose Bowl came top in an independent survey of facilities at international venues.
One day Bransgrove, who is now 60, will move from his Edwardian home near Romsey and retire to Spain, but as with Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United, that date cannot be foreseen. Before that he wants to stage an Ashes Test and make the ground - or his allotment, as his wife calls it - and the business more viable. He has had the odd inquiry from prospective buyers. "A Spanish 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 we had been noticed outside the UK, 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 data. 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."
The fact that Hampshire, let alone 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 coming days - even if, by his own admission, he will be more than a little trepidatious.