Braving choppy waters: World Cup bids and marketing in a downturn

ENTREPRENEUR extraordinaire Sir Keith Mills does seem to relish a stiff challenge. Having led the successful bid to bring the Olympic Games to London in 2012, the business brains behind Air Miles and Nectar&rsquo;s latest goal is to see his sailing team win the America&rsquo;s Cup &ndash; something no British crew has managed. And if that is not enough, he plans to do it while saving the planet, with a pioneering sponsorship scheme.<br /><br />But his sporting interests do not end there: Essex-born Mills is also a non-executive director of Tottenham Hotspur and heavily involved in England&rsquo;s attempts to stage the 2018 football World Cup. And it is this labyrinthine quest that has stolen the most headlines in recent weeks. First England&rsquo;s efforts were roundly mocked by one of the most powerful men in the world game, Jack Warner. Then earlier this month the bid team underwent a major shake-up, with Mills and Karren Brady among several to leave the board and join an advisory panel.<br /><br />The latest twists came last week when one of its most high-profile figures, the Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards, dramatically resigned, and ex-Birmingham chief executive Brady admitted infighting had made the bid seem &ldquo;a shambles&rdquo;. It has all left the campaign looking a touch forlorn.<br /><br />Mills met City A.M. just before the board reshuffle, but even then his decidedly cautious tone seemed at odds with a far more positive public perception. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re not favourites at all,&rdquo; he insisted. So who is? &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t think there are any.&rdquo; He checks himself: &ldquo;I&rsquo;m not being obtuse. There&rsquo;s a view within football it should probably come to Europe in 2018. Probably. And then you&rsquo;ve got three or four strong bids in Europe: Russia, Spain/Portugal, England. And it could be any one of those.&rdquo;<br /><br />Recalling hurdles overcome during the Olympic bid, Mills, 59, adds: &ldquo;There will be lots of things that happen in the next 12 months as we lead up to the vote and the most important thing for 2018 is not to be derailed.&rdquo; If those words could hardly seem more apt now, they also refer to the Warner episode, in which the outspoken Trinidadian accused the 2018 bid of &ldquo;creeping along when you should be running along&rdquo;.&nbsp; &ldquo;It wasn&rsquo;t helpful. I think it was pretty unfortunate,&rdquo; Mills said of Warner&rsquo;s remarks. &ldquo;He is entitled to his opinion and obviously said what he thought. But we were at a very early stage.&rdquo;<br /><br />Mills stressed drastic changes would not be made as a result of the criticism &ndash; &ldquo;he&rsquo;s one of 24 members who vote&rdquo; &ndash; although, undeniably, the bid has since had a turbulent spell. The much-welcomed appointment of Geoff Thompson, the former Football Association chairman well known in global circles, coincided with the board reshuffle and was said to have been orchestrated by Mills &ndash; a notion he gave credence to:&nbsp; &ldquo;A smaller more focused board, including Geoff Thompson, will, in my view, be much more effective now that the bid moves into the international phase.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>HIGH-STAKES NATURE<br /></strong>If project 2018 sounds riddled with bureaucracy, it is matched all the way by the America&rsquo;s Cup. A bitter legal dispute means his Team Origin, which includes British sailing&rsquo;s poster boy Ben Ainslie, will not compete in next year&rsquo;s competition. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, and they will be kept busy until the next one, likely to be in 2012 or 2013, by the Louis Vuitton World Series &ndash; a clutch of elite competitions which passed through Nice this month, where Team Origin came fourth.<br /><br />A keen amateur sailor who helped win the 1999 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, he rates the sport his primary passion and bringing the America&rsquo;s Cup to these islands remains his chief ambition. He is also attracted by the event&rsquo;s unique high-stakes nature: the winners get the rights to the next competition; everyone else, nothing. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s the ultimate entrepreneurial business,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;I have probably established or bought 20-odd companies so I&rsquo;m perfectly used to taking risks.&rdquo;<br /><br />Mills is committed to two America&rsquo;s Cup campaigns, so sees Team Origin as a five-year project, but will give up if they prove fruitless. Not that he thinks along those lines: he gushes about how winning would match the exhilaration of 2012 bid success, even if the wrangling since he formed the team in 2007 has &ldquo;tested&rdquo; his enthusiasm and upset his domestic bliss.<br /><br />&ldquo;My wife nags me about it all the time,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;She can&rsquo;t understand why I&rsquo;d want to be involved in a sport that has spent the last two years in court. But if I didn&rsquo;t believe we had a team who could win it, I&rsquo;d have jacked it in.&rdquo;<br /><br />He is equally determined to succeed with his innovative sponsorship strategy. Mills has joined forces with the government-backed Carbon Trust, under the banner of Race For Change, to encourage companies and consumers to cut their carbon footprint. Team Origin will display Race For Change as their primary brand, and Mills, who made his name in marketing, is optimistic a sustainability agenda, as well as the glamour of a prestigious sport, will attract four major sponsors and handful of smaller backers in a post-economic meltdown climate.<br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s the first really concrete way in which sport and the environment have been brought together,&rdquo; says Mills. &ldquo;Doing something like this, with Ben Ainslie and a host of sports stars bringing it to life, suddenly makes that whole proposition much more exciting and viable.&rdquo;<br /><br />Mills says response has been &ldquo;better than my wildest dreams&rdquo; and dismisses critics who find it incongruous that the founder of Air Miles is fronting a green agenda. &ldquo;Air Miles puts people on unsold seats &ndash; it doesn&rsquo;t increase the number of flights, it simply increases the number of people on a flight,&rdquo; he argues. &ldquo;So I don&rsquo;t think it&rsquo;s at odds with what we do at all.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>ARGUMENT<br /></strong>His inspiration for Race For Change came during his work as deputy chairman of London 2012 organising committee LOCOG, which makes all companies in its supply chain agree to certain standards, and they likewise with their suppliers. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s just a sport event, that&rsquo;s all it is, but it is literally having an impact on hundreds of thousands of companies.&rdquo;<br /><br />Excitement about the capital hosting the Games for the first time since 1948 has been tempered by rows over cost, which Mills believes has been misunderstood. The &pound;2bn needed to host the events will all be raised commercially, he says, while 75 per cent of taxpayers&rsquo; funds will be used for non-Olympics-specific measures to improve east London infrastructure. The cost argument is, he says, &ldquo;evaporating&rdquo;, adding: &ldquo;If anyone objects to us investing money in the second poorest part of the country, then I&rsquo;ll have an argument with them, because I think that&rsquo;s exactly where it should be invested.&rdquo;<br /><br />Having made his fortune in business Mills is now dedicating &ldquo;80 to 90 per cent&rdquo; of his time to sporting projects, until 2012 at least. After agreeing to his wife&rsquo;s demands they take a holiday in the Caribbean, he suggested they might charter a boat. &ldquo;She wasn&rsquo;t very interested,&rdquo; he notes. She would be advised not to tell him it is impossible, however, or he might just try and prove her wrong.<br /><strong><br />FACT FILE SIR KEITH MILLS<br />Date of birth:&nbsp;</strong> 15 May 1950<br /><strong>Place of birth:</strong> Brentwood<br /><strong>Current jobs:</strong> Deputy Chairman of LOCOG, team principal of Team Origin, non-executive director of Tottenham Hotspur,&nbsp; chairman of Inspired Sport Foundation, chairman of International Inspiration<br /><strong>Interests:</strong> All sports but sailing in particular<br /><strong>Children:</strong> Alex, 25, Abigail, 22