Nigel Travis: Rebuilding Leyton Orient
Written by Simon Austin — September 28, 2018
AFTER decades running some of the biggest brands in corporate America, Nigel Travis could scarcely believe what he encountered when he arrived at Leyton Orient.
“There was no bank account, no credit card processing, no fitness coach, no physio and only 10 players, all under the age of 20,” the Orient chairman tells TGG.
In fact the club - which had just been relegated out of the Football League for the first time in 112 years when Travis's consortium took over - couldn’t even post a letter, because there was no credit left on its franking machine.
London’s second-oldest club (after Fulham) had been brought to its knees by the three-year tenure of Francesco Becchetti. The Italian, one of Italy’s richest men, was billed a saviour when he bought the Os in July 2014, but the details of his reign make for surreal and painful reading.
Eleven managers, two relegations, a six-match ban for kicking assistant manager Andy Hessenthaler up the backside, a winding-up petition and mass sit-down protest by the home fans against Colchester were the highlights of a disastrous stewardship.
Travis, a lifelong Orient fan who was born in nearby Woodford, watched on with horror from the United States and decided something had to be done.
“Although I’ve always loved Leyton Orient, I never really had any vision of buying the club,” the 68-year-old admits. “When we got into such trouble I felt I had to do it though.
“I had actually been contemplating retirement and had just found my successor at Dunkin, but once we decided to do it I was all in. And I haven't regretted that decision for a second.”
In June 2017, his Eagle Investments consortium, which included Texan multi-millionaire Kent Teague as principle investor, bought the club from Becchetti.
This was an excellent learning opportunity for our students and audience to hear about his leadership experiences and challenges across a range of multi-national companies and now Leyton Orient.
With our diverse range of backgrounds, roles and sports on MSD, we are always pushing to invite distinguished leaders from around the world to share their experiences with our future sport leaders."
Dr Sara Ward is Head of Executive Education - Master of Sport Directorship & MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Gradually they’ve managed to get back on track and re-engage the fanbase. Orient are currently unbeaten at the top of the National League and have sold almost 4,000 season tickets - not bad in a league where some teams struggle for attendances of 600.
I caught up with Travis at the Master of Sporting Directorship Convention at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he was keynote speaker.
The 68-year-old, who was CEO and president of Blockbuster and Papa John’s before taking the helm at Dunkin in 2008, told TGG how he has applied the principles of his business career to lift Leyton Orient out of the abyss:
1. PERSONAL PASSION
Orient had been within a penalty kick of the Championship just weeks before Becchetti took over.
When the Italian arrived, there were claims that the club would soon be “shopping at Harrod’s instead of Primark.” Travis says he had the wrong reasons for buying the club.
“The Italians had a view that if they spent some money and got some good players in then they could take it to the next level,” he says. "In my view, that’s not what it’s all about.
“In business, or in sport, it’s about creating the right culture, the right organisation and getting the right people in."
The fact Travis was a lifelong fan helped him to quickly win the supporters over - and convinced them he wasn’t in it for personal glory or short-term gain.
“The fans didn’t really know me, because I was living in the States," says Travis, "but they did know my mum and dad, who were season ticket holders. My dad was still coming to games when he was 90.
“Because of this, I understand the club, its history, its fans, and that has to be at the forefront of what we do.”
2. PLAN BACKWARDS
Travis is a big believer in planning.
“You need to look forward and plan backwards. If you’re doing a big presentation, many people will start preparing three days before. I often start as much as three months before.
“I hate a last-minute rush. It really helps your creativity to do it when you’re not under pressure.”
He applied this principle at Orient.
“A lot of people buy football clubs and then think what they’re going to do, but we had done so much thinking that it all naturally came together.
“Our consortium, which was made up of six people, worked incredibly hard before we even bought the club. Every morning we met at 5.30am US time and had a conversation averaging an hour. That happened every day, seven days a week."
3. CHALLENGE CULTURE
“At Dunkin and Papa John’s I applied this same principle - the challenge culture,” Travis explains. "There are a lot of organisations where challenge is a dirty word, but not where I work. It’s crucial.
"Challenge sounds a bit aggressive, but it isn't. It just means asking the right questions all of the time. As a leader, you have to be prepared to be challenged, otherwise it’s too comfortable and too status quo and things won’t be as good as they can be. I don’t believe in top-down hierarchical management.”
He has just published a book on this very subject, called “The Challenge Culture: Why the Best Organisations Run On Pushback”.
Travis says the challenge culture has been applied at every level of the club, not least on the football side, with Director of Football Martin Ling, manager Justin Edinburgh and the players asking and answering challenging questions.
“On the board, we all know football, but not in the detail that Justin and Martin do. We know enough to ask some good questions though and they ask questions of us. The players ask very good questions too."
4. MEANINGFUL TAGLINES
“Taglines are important because they unify people,” Travis explains. “One that’s been phenomenally successful for us in America is ‘America runs on Dunkin’.”
After being appointed in October 2017, chief executive Danny Macklin developed a new tagline at Orient: 'Real football in the capital'.
“We’re starting to do a really good job of saying to fans in London, ‘hey, if you want to have a good afternoon out, then come and see real football in the capital at Leyton Orient,” Travis says.
"Unlike some taglines, ours really means something.
“You can turn up at quarter to three - you don’t have to line up like you do at some Premier League grounds - and after the game there’s the chance to connect with the players.
“Fans can come to our gallery bar and hang out with the players. A journalist came up to me after one game and said, ‘this is the friendliest club I’ve ever been to,’ which I'm very proud of.
“We also have a story that people can connect with - we were in the abyss and now we’re moving up."
5. SPORTING DIRECTOR
Within 24 hours of buying the club, Travis's consortium installed former player and manager Martin Ling as Director of Football.
This is a very unusual role outside the Football League (Salford do have Chris Casper as Sporting Director) but Travis insists it’s crucial.
“We did it for two reasons,” he explains, “one, because half the board is in America and we’ve also got other things we are doing; two, because we wanted the head coach to focus on coaching, analysis, all the things that are team-orientated.
“There are a lot of things that aren’t as in the moment though. Martin meets a lot of people, he deals with contracts, he deals with the scouting and he deals with us.
“We felt it was better to put that extra layer in. It’s unusual for our level and some people might say it’s an expense we don’t need, but we totally disagree - Martin adds fantastic value.”
6. VALUING YOUTH
Travis says the club's big target is to be promoted back to League One (they finished 13th in the National League last season), but a more pressing need is to work out how to fund the club's fabled Academy.
Orient placed 27th in our Academy productivity rankings for 2016/17 - a fairly remarkable achievement when you consider that the club was in the 4th tier with a Category 3 Academy.
Because they’re no longer in the Football League, this is the last season they will get Premier League funding for the Academy though.
“Youth has been a key part of our philosophy all through our history and will continue to be so long as we are here,” Travis says. "Unfortunately, this is the last year we get any funding for it, so we have to think how we’re going to fund the Academy and the development of younger players.
“That’s something that will be very much on the agenda over the next few months."
7. MOVING FORWARD
I finish our interview by asking Travis - who lives in Boston and has a box at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox - what English football might learn from US sport. After thinking for a moment, he highlights three main areas.
“There is an opportunity for football to have a better feeder system of players coming through,” he says. “For example, baseball has a feeder system that works well.
"There are an awful lot of football clubs in England - eight tiers below even the national leagues - and I think stronger affiliations between clubs could be beneficial. I don’t think this should be compulsory but an opportunity.
"American sports also work very hard at analysis and I think that’s something that could help British sports more.
“And streaming of matches is absolutely critical for us. The huge thing with sport is that people don’t time shift – they want to see it live. This is probably the only sector where that’s the case, because people will watch films, drama, documentaries - even the news - on catch-up, but not sport. They want that live.
“The future for sports globally is spectacular, because it’s the content everyone wants to see.”