Coach ride to Hull and back INTERVIEW: DAVID LLOYD

Tennis and football are difficult allies for an entrepreneur who refuses to entertain failure.
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The Independent Online
Goals - the setting of them and, more importantly, their successful attainment - are what propel David Lloyd. At top speed. He hurtles around the place in a new Ferrari (Reg: NU FER) and exited our lunchtime get- together at a bandy-legged trot to go and see the people who are selling tickets for the Davis Cup tie, Britain v India, in Nottingham later this month.

That occasion should see another of Lloyd's goals ticked off: Britain's return to the Davis Cup version of the Premiership, the World Group. When Lloyd took over the non-playing captaincy in May 1995 Britain were in the equivalent of the Third Division. Whistling up his brother John as coach, Lloyd vowed to see his nation back in the big-time within three years.

The timetable went slightly awry in April last year when, with Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski both injured, Britain lost at home to Zimbabwe. Now, surely, that stutter is about to be wiped out. Victory over India outdoors on the Nottingham Tennis Centre's hard courts will ensure a World Group place in 1999. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, ranked 76 and 353 in the world, would not seem to constitute an insurmountable obstacle, although they are the world's number three doubles pairing, but Lloyd urged: "We mustn't take it for granted. It's not an easy match but as long as both of the boys are fit we've got a good chance."

The "boys" - Henman and Rusedski - have been Lloyd's strike force and we saw last year the disastrous consequences of their absence. "That is again my worry," he said. "The fact is we've only got two world-class singles players. The others sort of knock on the door, then they fall back. I don't quite know why, but they aren't making that breakthrough, which is a great pity for me. But if my top two players are fit we have a chance at home against anybody."

After a deal of dithering and dickering by the Lawn Tennis Association which perplexed and annoyed Lloyd, his three-year contract was eventually extended last year and now runs until January 2000. At 50, Lloyd quite fancies carrying on after that despite the weight of his business involvements. "My whole ambition was to get us up into the World Group but I see no reason why my involvement should not extend beyond 2000. The combination of John and me works very well. I get on with the players and it has been a good experience for everybody."

Less of a good experience has been Lloyd's sporting plunge in Hull and his purchase 18 months ago of the football club and the Rugby League team, the Sharks. Plans to house both of them in a new stadium have hit a snag, with the sitting tenant, a supermarket, unwilling to move from a site which Lloyd owns and wants to develop and sell to generate stadium funding.

"I offered them pounds 5m to go, though my professional advisers told me the most it was worth was pounds 2m. Another million and a half might persuade them to shift, but that is the money I need to build the new stadium. Their attitude has cost Hull a super stadium."

It could also end up costing Lloyd a severe amount of cash. "So far I've invested about pounds 4m, I suppose, and I'll never get it back unless the new stadium deal comes off. It was a business venture which I felt could benefit Hull and benefit me and everybody would be happy. That's why I'm in sports businesses. I love sport and this deal could have made a lot of money five years down the line and could have allowed the people of Hull to see terrific sport. In a year's time we will know if we have made it or not, but I haven't given up hope."

Having gone in with what he felt was a 50-50 chance of success, Lloyd now estimates the odds at 30-70. "Basically, we have to sell one of the other stadiums to get the cash and it's not proving easy. The football will lose half a million this year and you can't carry on like that. So there is a time limit, which is basically another year.

"What hurts me is when I'm at the football club and we're losing and people shout to me `Get your cheque book out'. I'm the only guy in Hull who has ever got his cheque book out. They don't realise how much I have spent and that I have done all I can do. When the time comes that the losses can't be stemmed, I will pull out."

Last year Hull Sharks had average attendances of 5,700 as they gained promotion to the Super League, since when the crowds have perversely dwindled by a thousand. Hull City averaged 4,700 last season but for Lloyd to break even he needs 7,000. "Our wage bill is pounds 1.2m, the highest in the division, but we haven't quite got the right players, therefore the crowd is down and it's a downward spiral.

"It's not dead and buried but there are more brick walls in the way than I had imagined. People say this is all about money but that's not true. There is pride involved, too. I was very proud of all the leisure clubs I built. They started a boom in indoor tennis."

It was the David Lloyd Leisure Centres which turned this former Davis Cup doubles specialist into a millionaire. John Lloyd has said of his brother: "David had this ability at school to buy a bar of chocolate for 10p and sell it at a profit."

That ability, multiplied many times, saw Lloyd go public in 1993 and, two years later, sell his 14 clubs to Whitbread for pounds 201m and end up pounds 20m richer himself. But in selling David Lloyd Leisure Centres he sold his own name.

"I see these taxis with my name on them and I think it's great advertising. In one way it makes me proud but in another it bugs me because I think `That's me and I can't stop it.' Even my signature is trademarked. There are things I can't do with my own name."

If that sounds bizarre, what about this? David Lloyd is now chief executive of Next Generation, a company building leisure centres in direct competition with those bearing his own name.

"We have pounds 75m equity and have already started building two, one in Edinburgh and the other in Dundee. We will be starting another in Adelaide in October. Our ambition is to build four a year for five years, three here and one in Australia, and we are on course for that. It is not being done in a nasty way against the David Lloyd clubs really, because the market is still underdeveloped."

In this business with him is his 23-year-old son, Scott. "It's a tough call for him and he will be treated no differently from any other member of staff. You've got to let people run, tell them `Here are the reins, screw up and you're fired'.

"If people trip over because they are unlucky, you tell them. If they do it two or three times, make mistakes, they are obviously wrong for the job. But at least give them the chance. I would move my son if he wasn't doing the job and if he thought I was past it he would make that point to the board."

The reins at Hull City are in the hands of the player-manager, Mark Hateley. "I don't interfere there day to day, so he has to be judged by his performance. In seven or eight months' time, after he has had all this money and if we are still not winning, he should say it's not cut out for him.

"In my opinion, good honest people, if they are not doing their job, will resign. If I fail at the Davis Cup I will resign. I wouldn't have to be pushed. The failure would be bigger to me than anybody else."

For the moment, any talk of Davis Cup failure is irrelevant. Beat India, and the door is open to ties against the world's top nations. "My team know this is the chance of a lifetime. Once we get into the World Group I think we have a chance of winning the whole thing," said the man who was in the last British team to contest the Davis Cup final, 20 years ago.

"Competing in the World Group will boost interest in this country incredibly. Imagine playing the Americans on Centre Court after Wimbledon, Henman against Sampras and Rusedski taking on Agassi. To me, that's a dream we have to work for. I honestly think we could win a match like that."

Another goal, then, and if it comes to pass perhaps they'll let David Lloyd stamp his own name on the achievement.

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