He is a man with more shells than a beachcomber, but there is no disputing entrepreneur Chris Akers’ ability to spot the golden sands of opportunity – even though he has sometimes strayed dangerously close to shark-infested waters.
The founder of Sports Internet Group, which was sold to Sky for &£300m last month, and former Leeds Sporting chairman, remains somewhat of an enigma, despite being involved in a string of companies, ranging from James Brown’s I Feel Good to Sportsworld Media, Eurotelecom and Intechnology.
One former colleague says: “Akers is known to have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies – although not all of them are completely visible.”
The “shell maestro” and one-time City financier has made a habit of being in the right place at the right time, even though by his own admission he doesn’t stick around long. Yet his latest plan to link up with Lord Zetland and bid for Redcar and other Northern race courses has raised a few eyebrows.
How could the man who made his fortune in the technological white heat of the Net possibly be interested in the dusty old world of horseracing? The answer lies, as ever, in the potential to make hard cash.
Akers says: “I have spent a lot of time looking at other sports. Rugby – both league and union, and cricket, and frankly at club level they are lost causes. What is the point in just surviving?
“Racing is in a similar situation to football ten years ago before Sky became involved. We must look at the fundamentals, if we can boost TV exposure, attendance will undoubtedly rise.
“And although it will be very hard for any sport to overcome the might of football, horseracing has the potential to be a strong number two.”
If successful, the shell company behind the bid – one of Akers’ collection – the Seahorse Group, plans to relocate the course outside the town and build a 537-acre super site, complete with hotels, restaurants and a theme park.
“Football clubs such as Sunderland, Bolton and Derby have seen the benefits of relocating their grounds, and I believe Redcar will too. At the moment, the course is too close to the centre of town, but by moving it out we can do much more. It will be the catalyst to creating a leading racecourse and leisure company in the North and North-east.”
Racing has another lure – interactive betting on the Net – which is likely to be highly attractive to the 35-year-old Web aristocrat. And, with a &£200m TV and interactive betting deal currently on the table for Britain’s “Super 12” racecourses, it is easy to see why.
Redcar is not part of these talks and, as such, can negotiate its own rights, although it may well be bound into an agreement reached by the smaller courses, currently looking for a &£70m deal. Whether the Seahorse Group will be able to get out of this, remains to be seen. Akers says: “I hope they don’t sell their birth rights down the river for the sake of short-term financial gain.”
Yet Akers, who has the sort of money at his disposal that the British Horseracing Board (BHB) can only dream about, could find himself on the wrong side of the sport’s governing body when it comes to winning approval for the Redcar redevelopment.
As the organisation which runs the racing calendar, the BHB has to approve the building of any new racecourses and has only recently given the green light to two long-running proposals – one in the City of London and the other at Pembroke in Wales.
It is an area Akers is not entirely unfamiliar with. His reign as chief executive of Leeds Sporting – the company which owns Leeds United FC – is said to have been hampered by Leeds Council’s planning department.
But there is no disputing his meteoric rise. Born in Eastbourne, Akers moved to London when he was 19 and got his first job at Saatchi & Saatchi in the media department. He spent three years there and then moved to CIBC as a rather flamboyant agency and media analyst, eventually ending up at Citicorp, now Citibank. It was about this time that he featured as a regular columnist in the pages of this magazine.
Later, he joined Swiss Bank Corporation, as an investment banker. It was here that he gained his expertise in raising funds for flotations. “It was invaluable experience,” he says, “it taught me how City institutions think.” Which is probably just as well. There is a tale that, earlier, he was once forced to sell his own furniture to support a deal that went horribly wrong.
By April 1995, then in his early 30s, Akers set up his own consultancy, much to the annoyance of some of his peers, it seems. As one City observer says: “Analysts are always rather envious if one of their number gets a proper job and becomes highly successful.”
It was at this time that Akers became involved in buildings group Blagg, which became Freepages (now Scoot), and within a year he was chairman of Caspian, the company which eventually became Leeds Sporting.
When Akers – an avid Leeds fan since he was young – led a &£16.5m takeover of the club in 1996, he pledged to build a new arena and set up an ice hockey franchise, although by the time he had stepped down, two years later, the ambitious development programme was no closer to fruition.
However, he has been credited with turning the club into the force it is today. One analyst says: “He had a bruising time at Leeds, but he turned it from a club languishing in mid-table, which had little financial backing, into a huge business that now rivals Manchester United off and on the field.”
At the time, insiders said Akers never intended to run the business and he was soon to re-emerge as non-executive chairman of another AIM-listed shell company, Charriol. He says: “I see myself as a person who sets up companies, I’m a strategist, but I wouldn’t pretend to be a good day-to-day operator – I leave that to the experts.”
This is a classic trait of many entrepreneurs who, according to corporate adviser Dr Stasiu Labuc, are “very energetic and enjoy risk, but they tend to be impatient, hate routine and only work well in small groups”.
Akers has spent the past two years specialising in raising funds for public flotations, culminating in the &£300m sale of Sports Internet.
A City analyst says: “Akers has a reputation for being a very smart operator. He was the first to spot a gap in the market for sports websites and managed to sign up all the Premier League football clubs. He then got statisticians Otpa on board and completed the set with the Surrey Group betting chain.”
He now lives in Holland Park with his wife and two children, and makes sure he always takes his holidays. “I don’t subscribe to the City ethos of not taking breaks. I make sure I have 12 to 14 weeks a year. But I work like a dog the rest of the time.”
Akers, who is said to be worth about &£52m, spends what leisure time he has either travelling or watching sport. “I’ve given up on cricket. I still follow football when I can but I am finding myself going to more and more horseracing meetings.”
Now all he’s got to do is convince the rest of the nation.