From club to commercial powerhouse; chief executive David Ellis on life at Harlequins

Harlerquins' Ellis chats to MT about his challenge in bringing one of the world's most famous rugby teams into profitability

by Gabriella Griffith
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

‘As a professional sports club we are very much in the public eye and that is part of our daily routine,’ says Harlequins chief executive David Ellis speaking about the notable differences from leading one of the world’s most famous rugby clubs to running other types of businesses.  

‘Because of this we generate a huge amount of passion, enthusiasm and loyalty from supporters to staff. It is inspiring and humbling. Many companies would spend a long time and a lot of money trying to recreate what we have and still not be able to achieve it,’ he says.  

Ellis was on holiday back in 2010 when his wife spotted something in the paper that would set him on a completely new career path. She happened across an ad for the chief executive role at Harlequins rugby club. Ellis was happily working in social housing, but being a long time Harlequins supporter and lover of rugby, it was an opportunity he couldn’t ignore.

‘I really loved the job I was doing at the time but when my wife saw the advert, I knew I would forever regret not having a go,’ says Ellis. ‘I’m a massive rugby fan and used to play a lot, I had even briefly done some training at the club when I was 17, although I was no-where near good enough to make the grade.’

He might not have made the back row at Harlequins when he was a teenager but when Ellis went for the role of chief executive, they snapped him up to take the helm at the club, despite never having run a club before.

‘Coming from a role in social housing it wasn’t exactly a seamless transition so my first challenge was just to sit, listen and watch to get to grips with the new environment,’ he explains.

‘My primary task as chief executive was to set about ensuring the club’s sustainability. We were doing very well on the field, but we needed to be more commercially successful off it. Harlequins is an extremely high performing  rugby club, from junior up to the senior level – we have three England captains playing for us. But commercially, we were losing money – we needed to find a way to break even and stand on our own two feet.’

One of the real learning curves for Ellis was the transition of moving from a traditional business to a club – motivations and priorities are a different ball game (pun intended) when you’re working at one of the world’s best-known rugby clubs. While looking after the interests of the players, ensuring top notch coaching and a stadium to be proud of, Ellis would have to create extra revenue streams by encouraging other uses of the stadium; promote the team, popularise club rugby and capitalize on sponsorship.

‘It is a club, not a business and it’s essential we don’t get the balance wrong,’ explains Ellis.

‘I sat back and looked at the opportunities for growth – we were one of the most recognizable rugby brands in the world but quite a small business. It was my task to pull the club into a more professional and commercial way of thinking.’

Image: Harlequins: Nick Easter

Having earmarked certain areas of the business for growth potential, Ellis set out a set of key objectives, which would hopefully drive the club into profitability.

Firstly, in order to make the most out of the grounds, Ellis embarked on a renovation of The Stoop – Harlequins’ stadium. Cue a big screen installed for every home match, upgrades of all the public areas and a more extensive refurbishment of the corporate hospitality areas for starters. In addition there are new turnstiles, new seating, and anti-rooting netting to stop the local pigeons having their way with the newly spruced up stadium.

‘We knew we had to invest in the club if we were going to ensure sustainability – we’ve always had arguably the best stadium in premiership rugby - now it’s even better and will keep improving.’

Having the best facilities to offer fans fitted into Ellis’ plans in more ways than one. The chief executive wanted to please loyal fans but also attract more.

‘We have a great base of very loyal supporters here at Harlequins but rugby is strange in that the national team attracts a huge amount of support which doesn’t always trickle down to club level,’ says Ellis.

‘One of the challenges, as we see it, is to get more people engaged at club level – we have three England captains – there’s no reason people shouldn’t come here to see them.’

In order to stoke people’s interest in club rugby, Ellis decided to focus even more on driving Harlequins’ links with the local community. Along with his community team he placed specific emphasis on developing existing community events across Surrey and Sussex getting local teams involved, teaching them the ‘Harlequins’ way of rugby and building up enthusiasm.

‘We have initiatives which go beyond rugby and are working towards building a Harlequins Foundation. Through that we want to encourage active lifestyles through an interest in sport in general, reach out to non-traditional rugby communities and get more girls playing sport.'

Image: Harlequins: Mascots Jack and Louis Ingamells

According to Ellis, ticket sales still make up the vast chunk of the club’s revenue – something that will no doubt be bolstered by the drive to get more supporters. But going forward, Ellis wants to find new revenue streams to support the club’s ambitions. He continues to push the stadium as a venue to be used for both corporate and community events – strengthening the revenues generated by the space.

‘The London Broncos use the stadium some of the time, but we want to make The Stoop a real hub of our community. The local college sit their exams here and we host weddings and other non-rugby events, but we are also looking at new and innovative ways to make the most of the facilities we have. ’

Sponsorship and commercial partnerships present huge opportunities in the sporting world; it’s something Premiership football teams capitalize on very well and now something Ellis is driving at Harlequins alongside the commercial team. Rather than simply smacking logos on shirts and making banners, he sees a lot of opportunity to utilise the network of fans and create targeted promotions with the sponsors, which include Etihad, DHL, and Greene King.

‘We want to take a new approach to our superb sponsors to engage with our supporters in a different way,’ he says. ‘We are very well supported by our sponsors like DHL and we are working hard with all of them to engage with their brand and our supporters in order to benefit everyone."

There’s a lot of work being done to turn the club into a profitable machine, sustain itself and as Ellis puts it, ‘stand on its own two feet.’ According to the chief executive, this work is not finished.

‘We’re not profitable yet but we are achieving double digit growth on the top line, and we’re the fastest growing rugby club in England,’ he enthuses.

‘We probably could have made a profit by now but we have been reinvesting and staying true to the principle of putting the club first. We project we’ll make a slight loss next year and become profitable the following.’

Harlequins won the Aviva Premiership in 2011/12 and they are currently preparing for another season of top flight rugby. On Friday they will compete in the final of the JP Morgan Asset Management Premiership Rugby 7s in Bath – but are there any lessons the chief executive garners from the rugby department?

‘You certainly learn from the players – it’s remarkable the way they learn excellence from a young age. They make really effective decisions in a split second and the margin for error is very low,’ he says.

‘We try and do the same, adopting the same principals off the field, we continually ask how we can do things better and make more effective decisions."

It’s no mean feat trying to catapult a loss-making club into the black, while maintaining the club’s culture and keeping the team and its fans at the forefront of everything. But it’s clearly something Ellis is relishing and by all accounts, succeeding in.

‘Taking the club to the next level is a massively exciting job in what is one of the fastest growing sports in the world,’ he beams.

‘We also have the World Cup in 2015 being hosted in England and the sport will be included in the Olympic Games in Rio, it is a great time to be in rugby, the opportunities are endless and the challenge is to do our best to make the most of these times.’


Win tickets to a Harlequins match!

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Take a look here for more details.

The DHL-Harlequins relationship

DHL has been the Official Logistics Partner to Harlequins since 2012. Harlequins constantly face the challenges of global logistics, making sure all of the players’ kit and equipment is in the right place at exactly the right time. Having confidence in the logistics is essential, especially when travelling for matches away - it means that the coaches and support staff can focus 100% on the match, wherever in the world they are.

DHL acts as a facilitator for businesses to reach global markets, whether that is for an SME or one of the country's most popular rugby clubs.

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