Profile: A truly passionate sport: Chris Wright of Chrysalis outplayed BSkyB in football with his Italian job and is now revving up a car racing deal. Jason Nisse on a music man with perfect pitch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DO NOT try to catch Chris Wright out on sporting facts. Whether it is the number of non-British goalkeepers in the FA Premier League (nine), the shape of IndyCar circuits (not always oval) or ticket prices at the San Siro stadium in Milan (between pounds 25 and pounds 250), the chairman and 50 per cent shareholder in Chrysalis Group has an amazing reservoir of sporting trivia stored in the back of his mind.

For the man who discovered Jethro Tull and Genesis, launched the career of Spandau Ballet and Debbie Harry and inflicted Billy Idol and Sinead O'Connor on an unsuspecting world, sport is as great a passion as music.

He is remembered in his home town of Louth, Lincolnshire, for his prowess at table tennis - he started a table tennis school in a shed in his parents' garden and took the local team from the third division of the Lincolnshire league to the first. He is a keen supporter of Queen's Park Rangers and harbours an ambition to sponsor a British-born tennis player who will reach the top of the world rankings. He is also obsessive about horse racing. He owns a half stake in a stud farm and a string of thoroughbreds, including Culture Vulture, the winner of the French 1,000 Guineas, and La Dama Bonita, a recent 30-1 winner at Lingfield.

Having sold his record company to Thorn EMI when Chrysalis Group was teetering on the brink of financial oblivion, Wright has turned to sport to provide his route back to success. Music is still likely to play an important role, however, following the hiring of Steve Lewis, the former head of Virgin Music Publishing, who aims to launch a new rock label this spring.

Chrysalis Television's live coverage of Italian league football has transformed the Sunday lunchtimes of nearly a million football fans, given a much- needed fillip to Channel 4's viewing figures and, at a cost of only pounds 750,000, has made the pounds 350m invested by British Sky Broadcasting to sign up the TV rights to the Premier League look rather expensive.

Wright's decisiveness secured the Italian football deal. Chrysalis had worked with Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne, the England star now playing for Lazio, on two programmes about his injury problems. Through this connection, Neil Duncanson, Chrysalis's head of sport, had heard that the rights to Italian football, which had been shown on BSkyB, were on offer.

He contacted the Italian league, which referred him to RAI, the state TV company. Italian bureaucracy being what it is, he learned of all the details only on the day bids for the coverage closed.

Duncanson then ran straight into Wright's office. 'We can have the Italian footy, but it will cost us pounds 750,000 and they need to know by 5pm today,' said Duncanson.

Wright looked at his watch. It was 3.55pm in London - 4.55pm in Rome.

'I thought for, oh, all of 10 seconds, and said, 'Go for it',' he recounts. 'After he left, I started working out who we'd sell it to.'

It was here that Wright's sporting knowledge paid dividends. Chrysalis sold the coverage to Channel 4 on the back of Gazzamania, but Wright decided that if he could get Michael Grade, the head of Channel 4, to come to watch AC Milan, the star-studded leaders of the Italian league, he might be won over to broadening the coverage.

The match he chose was Milan v Lazio, a thrilling 5-3 victory for Milan at the club's impressive San Siro stadium. Seeing the likes of Marco van Basten, European footballer of the year, Jean-Pierre Papin, the impish French striker, and Franco Baresi, one of the finest defenders ever to play for Italy, convinced Grade that there was a wider audience for Italian football, and the deal was struck.

His latest venture is to bring IndyCar racing, the US equivalent of Formula One, to British screens. Chrysalis signed an exclusive agreement with Nigel Mansell, the British Formula One champion who will drive for the Newman-Hass IndyCar team next season. But the rights to the IndyCar coverage were turned down by ITV sport and were then sold to Screensport, a European satellite channel. Undeterred, Chrysalis made the ITV companies an offer they could not refuse, edited highlights of the racing paid for by the programme's sponsors, Texaco.

'IndyCars is far more exciting than Formula One,' he enthuses. 'There is much more overtaking and less reliance on the superiority of any one team. It is also tailor-made for Britain, with the races running on Sunday afternoons in the US, which is the evening over here. The Mansell name will draw people in, but the coverage can build a much wider audience beyond Mansell.'

Wright, aged 48, looks neither like a sports fanatic nor a music mogul. Tall, with a receding hairline and a modest beard, his demeanour is more that of a geography teacher or maybe a senior social worker. He allegedly spends a fortune on designer clothes from France and Italy but looks as if he has been shopping at C&A.

His massive office in the penthouse of Chrysalis's west London headquarters is littered with strange statues of characters such as Billy Bunter and Charlie Chaplin, and a large print of Chairman Mao. Music CDs and sports videos lie everywhere. If something is in the way, Wright puts it on the floor.

Though married for more than 20 years to Chelle, who is from California, Wright admits to spending little time at home. His three children are usually at boarding school or university and he needs to travel constantly on business. He is not a great socialiser and has a a reputation for being abrupt with people he does not take to.

Although affability is regarded as a prerequisite for media people, he admits he often cannot be bothered to be friendly with people he does not particularly like. However, he is not a recluse and is often seen out and about in his distinctive Bentley Turbo.

Wright proudly admits to failing to attain a business studies degree at the Manchester Business School, which he attended in the mid-1960s after gaining a degree in history at Manchester University. He paid most attention there, however, to his role as social secretary of the students' union, a position that launched his career in music.

Wright's first full-time job was as the manager of a group called Dr Crock and the Crackpots, a blues band that sank without trace. However, it brought him to the attention of a more successful group, the psychedelic blues band Ten Years After, which hired Wright as manager.

In 1967, he joined Terry Ellis, who had promoted bands at Newcastle University. The two started a management agency from a bed-sitter in Shepherd's Bush, London, and signed up two standard bearers of the 1960s psychedelic scene, Jethro Tull and Procol Harum. The name Chrysalis was used as the telegraphic address - Chris (Wright) (Terry) Ellis.

By all accounts, Wright did not fit in with the archetypal picture of a rock music entrepreneur. He wore tweed jackets, talked obsessively about cricket and took little interest in the infamous recreational activities of the era. Friends say that he was like an innocent abroad, watching the events going on around him with amazement.

As the group grew through the 1970s, Ellis became more interested in the US, and in film-making. Wright wanted to concentrate on building up the record company, and he bought out his partner in 1984. A year later Chrysalis, which also had interests in music for pubs and gaming machines, went public by reversing into the quoted Management Agency and Music, a company that looked after middle-of-the-road stars such as Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones.

Life as a public company has not been happy. Wright has often expressed exasperation at the market's emphasis on short-term results. The group's shares have swooped and soared on little trading, and last year Wright attempted to take the company private. He was blocked by a large institutional shareholder, which was morally opposed to the move.

Wright shrugs off the failure as 'one of those things'. That is characteristic of his approach to business. He hardly fits the typical image of what a company chairman should be like. His voice retains a Lincolnshire accent, and when talking about business he has a refreshing candour.

For instance, how many company chairman would say this about a disposal? 'We sold the first half (of Chrysalis Records) to EMI for what we thought was a lot of money. Circumstances later proved that it was not a lot of money . . . We'd have been better off selling our fruit machines.'

Or how many chairman would candidly admit to the strategic error in trying to build up a record company in the US without the depth of recording talent to sustain a decent promotional structure.

Wright says he has learnt from his mistakes. But he has also learned a great deal from his successes. Chrysalis always had a reputation for nurturing talented artists rather than buying in established acts for large advances.

His latest obsession is computer games. Wright believes that if the 'kids' are playing computer games on their Nintendo or Sega machines, and listening to music on their Walkmans, there must be some way of marrying the two.

'I could see us releasing our first record on the new label in a format other than CD or tape,' says Wright.

It is an interesting concept. There are others around him who will probably divert the idea into something more practical. But as long as he keeps coming up with the ideas, Chrysalis will remain a force.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments