BRIAN RILEY, the acting Chairman of the Racing Association (RA) and member of the Racing Restructuring Task Team (RTT), is a man with a business profile of the highest order. He is steeped in building and managing blue-chip businesses at executive level and attributes his documented success to goal-orienting his expertise.
Riley touches on his professional background in today’s Turf Talk feature, and then we focus on racing with him in ‘Seven Questions’.
Riley spent his early years in insurance and banking in the United Kingdom learning the ropes, though in those days he was more interested in playing football than working.
He recalls: “It was unsurprising as playing semiprofessional was more fun and I earned as much from football as I did from my day job. I was a bit of a rebel in my early days and took every Wednesday afternoon off to play in a business football league until I scored a few goals, made the local newspaper and was found out and reprimanded by the Company.
“I remember arrogantly responding to my manager suggesting he judge me on my results and not my time. Something I still stand by today! I moved to South Africa in 1988 on a management contract from Barclays and never returned. Working my way up through the ranks I became CEO of WesBank in 2007 and announced to the staff that I would be leaving in 7 years which I did to the day on 31st December 2013.
“After 15 months I was approached to bring the previously failed African Bank out of curatorship. Again I stipulated up front my departure date and duly left the Company 3 years later in the capable hands of Basani Maluleka, the only Black female CEO of a Bank in SA. I remained on the Board at African bank for 2 years and have just stepped down this month.
“The reason I set myself time limitations was to concentrate my efforts on achieving ambitious goals within a set period. It also forced the succession question on the table at the right time. It might not work for everyone but it worked well for me.
“Apart from spending most of my time working with the MOD team and the RA at the moment my ex WesBank CFO and I launch a new vehicle financing business named Marquis Finance next month.
“I Chair the Company that will have taken 9 months to set up. It is a high tech, low touch, low cost business funded by a major Bank offering more value to intermediaries with a simple streamlined financing process. Having worked in the vehicle financing business we know where all of the bloated costs and inefficiencies are hence the opportunity to do something different. Finding and maintaining a differential advantage is fundamental to the success of any business.
“As for my horse racing interests as an owner – We all spend our well earned surplus funds on some indulgence. Mine, fortunately or unfortunately, is horses.
“My grandparents were in the betting business many moons ago. I recall running down the shops to see them. There were always good stories to be heard and I was hooked. I bought my first horse in SA with a colleague of mine about 20 years ago. It was a Caesour trained by Joey Ramsden. It never won. I have fared a bit better since then with a couple of grade 2’s and grade 3 winners but still no elusive Grade 1.”
On the questions asked below, Riley makes it clear that the answers are his alone and do not reflect the input of members of the RA or of the MOD team.
TT: In your long high-level business experience, how do the complexities of Phumelela and its associated businesses rate, as a business to save and continue with? You suddenly find yourself in a role that is vital for all of us in racing. Are you happy you have taken it on?
BR: “Phumelela is complex but not more or less than many businesses of this size. Being schooled in business practice at FirstRand we always “chunked” businesses into profit centres. The smaller the better! The entire cost base of the business is allocated to these profit centres. Any unit that generates revenue could be a profit centre. In Phumelela some of the revenue generators aren’t set up that way so it’s a little more difficult to assess the value creators or detractors. The MOD team with the assistance of some specialists are ploughing through the detail. Thereafter, hopefully, an offer will be made from the capital so generously provided by MOD to acquire sufficient assets from Phumelela to ensure racing continues in the short term and has time to turn the business around in the medium term. Can it be saved? In my humble opinion a turnaround requires a few key ingredients. They are a burning platform, sufficient funding, an excellent management team and a new workable model. The last two are linked. We certainly have the first ingredient. There is probably sufficient funding for the first phase however some of the industry’s fixed assets will need to be monetised in the medium term or additional funding provided.
“I think a lot will depend upon the person chosen as CEO of the new RaceCo. We often term the phrase “It is not a one man band” however if the leader of the band is not the right person then it’s not a band I want to listen to.”
TT: We’re all somewhat impatient, and we’ve been told to trust the Business Rescue Practitioner (BRP), who is paying himself more than the State President. Will his services have the desired outcome, what do we know so far, or, alternatively, what can be revealed about his investigations so far?
BR: “The BRP, John Evans, incidentally is someone I have worked with before. He handled the ABIL (African Bank Investments Limited) transaction, a business which became APIL (African Phoenix Investment Limited), still listed on the stock exchange I believe.
“Regarding him paying himself more than the President, I think that is an unfair comparison as we grossly underpay the President of this country. Again, only in my opinion, we should pay the President similarly to top private Companies and of course hold him as accountable but that is a matter for another day.
“The BRP is there to protect creditors. The payment to the BRP is voted upon and was approved by creditors. The Banks deal with these issues regularly and understand standard practice so payment terms were guided by them.
“With regard to his services they are essentially twofold. To keep the business going and to provide a plan to the creditors within a specified period (31st July). Whilst he will always try to provide a plan that includes the business as a going concern if it is not in the interest of the creditors then it essentially defaults to liquidation.
“On his investigations he will also be ploughing through the detail and be assigning his valuations to the various assets of Phumelela so that when an offer is made he understands if it is in creditor’s interest or not. He is also obliged to spend no more than necessary to keep racing going. They are very difficult and frustrating times as you say until a concrete deal is concluded.”
TT: The Task Team recently appointed someone to look into the affairs of Tellytrack, in-depth. Is there anything you can share about the report you’ve been given?
BR: “A media consultant was commissioned by MOD and a report received and distributed to the BRP, MOD and the Tellytrack partners. I can say no more at this stage as I am precluded from doing so by a Non Disclosure Agreement.”
TT: What do you foresee happening at Kenilworth, with Cape racing? Is an inclusive solution being sought? The same for Gold Circle: What do you think is the end game there, and is there a future chance of the racing industry under one umbrella?
“Kenilworth racing is integral to South African Racing. Whomever I speak to in the industry there seems to be common cause to pull the operators under one body. I agree with that approach but each operator is controlled by its independent Board and its members. One step at a time seems. My comments are similar for Gold Circle.
TT: Looking at the future – in your view – what can be done to streamline racing and make it more popular, more profitable or more accessible to the public?
BR: “During my career as part of my development I was sent to a fancy oversees business school. It is almost standard practice, either as you become CEO of a listed Company or are about to step into that role.
“Whilst grateful for the opportunity I hated every minute of it. 140 CEO’s or designates from around the world living and working together for three months is difficult. Living with that many egos (including mine) is simply intolerable. I did however learn one invaluable lesson. It wasn’t on the curriculum but kept nagging away at me. “It is less about the quality of the answer and more about the quality of the question”!
“I regularly hear fantastic ideas that are never implemented but it is often because we are trying to resolve the right issues at the wrong time.
“The industry is in trouble and should face up to a new “normal”. For instance at the RA it should be asking itself; How can we provide more value for our members off a reducing revenue base? The NHRA could ask itself “How can we retain the integrity of racing off a significantly reduced cost base”? The various associations that depend on donations for survival could be asking “Where are we going to supplement our lost income from?”
“We cannot allow ourselves to become victims of circumstances. The responsibility lies with all of us to think and do things differently. The businesses I have helped turn around shrunk in size before they stabilised and grew. Racing will be no different. I think what I am trying to say in a roundabout way to your questions regarding the way to turn racing around is start from within, put the right questions on the table.
“Whatever we are doing today will not get us through this crisis. Start with turning around your own area. The bigger industry changes will take time. Simply cutting costs and doing things the same way is not good enough. We have to make some tough calls.
“I believe we all have the answers to many of our problems. We just need to be prepared, address the difficult questions and create change. The MOD team has seen so many opportunities to improve operations and racing and more than anything this gives me confidence we will survive.”
TT: The industry has been asked to support Tabonline, many of us are doing that and there has been an improvement, but there still seems to be problems with basic things like bank deposits and software consistency? Will the future include a true commitment to excellence so that platforms like TABonline can compete with the best?
BR: “Tabonline under the BRP is not going to improve much. There will be no short investment under BR other than to “keep the lights on”. It needs an investment and will be the core revenue generator for years to come so is likely to be invested in and improved if MOD acquires it.”
TT: Again, asking you as a man whose been through the mill with big business experience more often than not – and considering the economic direction this country seems to be taking – where does the future of SA racing lie, and do you think it is it bright?
BR: “To state the obvious, Racing will be what Racing makes of it. If we get the right assets out of Phumelela, sufficiently invest in the business, generate revenue from all of the industry’s assets, bring Government on side which means transformation, come together under the right leadership then I think we can expect to pull through and re-grow this industry in the medium term. In a nutshell, I am on the optimistic side of the fence!”
TT: Tell us about your horses.
BR: “My best runners so far have been Rivarine, Rocket Countdown, Hyaku and Thanks John amongst others. I have horses in training spread across the country with Candice Bass-Robinson, Mike and Adam Azzie, Paul Lafferty and Gavin Smith.”