The most connected man

You name them, he's got them. Mark McCormack - Mark the Shark - is so far ahead in the personal management game, rivals just stand and gape
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The Independent Online
It Is Men's semi-finals day at Wimbledon, 1997. On Centre Court, Pete Sampras is about to play Todd Woodbridge. Out at Marquee 22, Mark H McCormack has a glass of white wine in his hand, but he is unsettled. He calls one of his many smart, suited women assistants over and asks her to find out the score on Court Five. "They're 1-4 in the second set, Henin serving."

Remember the name: Justine Henin, aged 15, Belgian; winner of the French Junior Girls after gaining a wild card entry; first time at Wimbledon, first time on grass and playing for a quarter-final place in the Girls' Singles after putting out the 18-year-old number two seed; one set up, but 1-4 down in the second; and already she's a client of McCormack's company, International Management Group, or IMG, which will act as her agent, her tax adviser, and may even become her family. In the case of Tim Henman, another client, his coach and his coach's wife work for IMG, and he met his girlfriend when she worked for IMG.

"Two years from now, that girl, Justine Henin, will be on Centre Court," says McCormack. Nobody demurs. This, after all, is a man who had three of this year's Women's semi-finalists on his books. Hingis, Kournikova, Sanchez Vicario - they are all the property of McCormack's IMG.

Next weekend, at the British Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard will give interviews and endorse products, as a result of deals that have been negotiated by IMG. Jackie Stewart, the Formula One legend and owner of a new racing team, is also an IMG property. The following week, Mr McCormack's sharply-dressed staff move on to Troon in Ayrshire for the British Open golf championship. The firm's "athlete representation" specialists - agents, to you and me - will hope that Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie or Tiger Woods will lift the silver claret jug.

The McCormack bandwagon rolls on into classical music (Kiri Te Kanawa, Itzhak Perlman, Sir Neville Marriner and Jose Carreras), literature (Pat Conroy), models (Niki Taylor and Lauren Hutton), the distant fringes of royalty (Capt Mark Phillips), education (Oxford University), world affairs (the Nobel Foundation and the World Economic Forum), and religion (the Pope, no less). He also has to find the time to raise pounds 150m to help finance the millennium dome.

Last Friday, when we met, he had just come from talking to a representative of NHK, Japan's equivalent of the BBC. They spoke on a balcony outside Centre Court - Mr McCormack, the Japanese TV chief and John Curry, chairman of the All-England Club. From that vantage point, Mr McCormack could gaze over green lawns dotted with television cameras, which were there because the companies pay the club and him (he negotiates the rights) for the privilege of being there, and away to the outside courts, to his junior stars, to the marquee where his guests were gathering, and to the house his company rents where the private, bigmoney deals are discussed.

They call this the "summer of sport" but for Mr McCormack the summer never ends. Wimbledon is just one of the IMG-associated events taking place today. The football leagues of China, South Korea and Thailand, which play this afternoon, are promoted by IMG. Today's Water Ski World Cup in Lubeck, Germany, is an IMG event. In golf, the Murphy's Irish Open, which reaches its climax today, is IMG. Motor-racing in Australia and Minneapolis are also featured on 6 July in the "IMG 1997 Calendar of Events".

On every day of the year, somewhere in the world, Mr McCormack is making money from some kind of public performance: he has made it a fine art. Take golf. "He started with athlete representation, with Arnold Palmer, then he moved to control the events in which his golfers participated, then the production of television coverage for those events. Now he even owns some of the courses where those events are held," said an awestruck rival.

Rival is the wrong word. Nobody comes close. ProServ, another sports management agency, grabbed headlines last week by merging with Marquee, a new publicly quoted US company, to create a group with estimated annual billings of $400m (pounds 240m). "Sports agency merger creates rival for IMG" was the headline in the Financial Times . Forget it, says Mr McCormack. His company does not disclose any figures, but rest assured, "ProServ is a grain of sand on the beach compared with us; we are 100 times bigger than ProServ."

Raising money for the Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich is something new. If IMG raises pounds 150m for the celebration, Mr McCormack's agency pockets pounds 9m. He does not like to read that he will make a tidy pounds 9m; it's his company that will make the money, not him. But since he owns every share in it, what is the difference?

The difference, as he never stops preaching in the mountain of management textbooks and newsletters he produces, is in the detail. For $147 a year, subscribers to the monthly magazine Success Secrets receive pearls of wisdom such as "A crisis doesn't end until you learn from it", "Are your anecdotes stuck in a time warp?" and "More than anything, your language reveals where your head is". (Mr McCormack does not speak as he writes, which begs the question whether he uses a ghost writer.) Anybody meeting him for the first time might expect to be preached at, as in the books. Not a bit of it.

He is affable, well turned-out, with blond hair that sits unnaturally with his 66 years. He holds court and a succession of visitors pay homage. Slaps on the back, cheery handshakes - everyone is his friend. Fred Stolle, the tennis player. "Fred, meet Chris." The brother of Akio Morita, the founder of Sony. "Mr Morita, great to see you, meet Chris." An old man comes across. "Lew, say hello to Chris."

Lew is Lord Grade, the cigar-smoking 91-year-old former television and film mogul. Lew wants to tell Mark two things. He cannot make their traditional Wimbledon picture the following day. Every Wimbledon for years the pair have posed for a photo. Lord Grade also wants to berate his pal for not making enough money out of the millennium. "I just wanted to say, Mark, you're an idiot! You should have stuck out for 10 per cent." Mark smiles. He does not disagree. Lord Grade continues: "You've got huge overheads - who's going to pay all those people involved? They don't understand what you do."

Mr McCormack keeps his counsel. Lord Grade's tirade complete, he asks after Mr McCormack's wife, Betsy Nagelsen, the former US pro-tennis player. "She is feeling a little sleepy but otherwise she is fine," says her husband, beaming. Even Lord Grade, a great survivor himself, shakes his head in admiration. In his mid-sixties Mr McCormack is to become a father again. He has three children from a previous marriage; all of them work in the business.

Amid this blokeish badinage, blazers, wine and Pimm's, and posing for family snaps, it is easy to forget that this is serious business. When his powerful guests enter the marquee they are handed drinks by his female assistants, but their Centre Court tickets are handed to them personally by Mr McCormack. The message is understood. "He is the most connected man in the world," said his competitor. "He knows everyone there is to know and he can open doors that nobody else can open."

He is known as Mark the Shark. He says this is because it rhymes. He is really called Mark the Shark because it rhymes and because he gobbles up everything that moves. No target is too big, no event too impossible.

When the Government ran into crisis over the Greenwich celebration, Peter Mandelson turned to a global "Mr Can Do", to someone who can sell anything. Terry Mansfield, the head of National Magazines in Britain and a McCormack admirer, recalls an invitation to a meeting at IMG in the early 1980s. "He said we had the possibility of buying 'brand extension' for the Pope's visit to Britain in 1982. I could not believe it. He was in charge of promotion and publicity for the tour and we could have the official book rights. It was amazing to hear someone offering us the Pope."

For An intensely public man he runs a very private company. He will not disclose how much he makes from managing some of the most public people and events in the world. "The affairs of our clients are between us and our clients. I don't care if it is Tim Henman or Tiger Woods or the millennium. If they want to say what they pay us, that is for them to say. We like to be known as people who keep our confidences, who perform discreetly and efficiently."

Part of the reason for that reluctance to tell all is that his company does not just sell patches for stars to wear on their sleeves or agree which brand of watch they should display. IMG manages their finances as well. That involves investments and personal tax planning, and secrecy.

According to its corporate brochure, IMG has one office in Switzerland, in Neuchatel in the north of the country. However, the official register of Swiss companies reveals another IMG office, in Geneva. This Geneva branch has the same address as Molard, a Swiss firm of accountants.

Also registered at that address is Marksmen Investment which has one director, Julian Jakobi, manager of the late Ayrton Senna (the racing driver) at IMG. In official papers, Marksmen (note the pun) is decribed as conseil fiscal or a tax adviser. When he is asked about Marksmen and the service that it provides for his clients, Mr McCormack is uncharacteristically vague: "It is an investment, insurance company, I think."

He exhibits the same reluctance to discuss the millennium. Others in his business are baffled by his appointment to secure the funding for Greenwich. It is, they say, a high-tariff gamble and he may have under- estimated the capacity for sponsorship in this country. He will not be drawn on what we can expect. "The package is being developed," is all he will say.

But, with "700 headliners from sports, the concert stage, business, broadcasting and the best-seller list" at his disposal, to quote his blurb, you can imagine the sales pitch: stars flown in from America and around the world, huge significance, biggest event in history, wall-to-wall television coverage, a branding opportunity like no other. While his team prepares the package, he has other deals to strike. He's in a hurry and he's got to go.

For the record, young Henin won her match, but then lost in the quarter- finals.