Dorset Lives: Poole Pirates owner Matt Ford
Poole Pirates speedway owner, Matt Ford, talks to Paul Burbidge. Pictures by Jay Eastwood Photofinish.
Published in May ’12
Credit cards are used to fund many purchases – a new television, holidays, car insurance, but surely no-one would use their flexible friend to buy a speedway club?
The sheer notion of this today is absolutely unthinkable as the nation lies deep in the midst of a crippling recession. But in late 1998, the owner of Poole Coastal Aluminium Pirates, Matt Ford, literally risked everything by borrowing the cash with which to purchase his boyhood team.
It was a gamble Ford is delighted he took. Since taking over at Wimborne Road with then business partner Mike Golding, who sold his stake to Ford in 2008, the club has lifted four British Elite League titles, four Knockout Cups, three Craven Shields, three Elite League Pairs trophies and one British League Cup. Off the track, Pirates are a rare breed in modern sport and have an income which exceeds their outgoings – something a few Premier League football sides could learn from.
Ford is the first to admit he took a major chance to make his dream of leading Poole a reality, and failure was not an option. ‘In those days, 12 or 13 years ago, it was far easier to obtain cash on your credit cards and it was one thing I had to do,’ he said. ‘I effectively borrowed the money to buy the club on my credit cards until the bank loan came through, which was a few weeks later. Having become a father a few years beforehand, the will to succeed was immense. I had no option but to succeed. When I say my house was on it, it truly was. If I had failed like the many before me who have lost money on the sport, it would have threatened my very existence. It would have threatened my house, which I had owned for 10 years at that point. It wasn’t just a plaything or a toy. It was a business I wanted and one I had to make a success.’
After sponsoring the Pirates during 1998, Ford took over the club from millionaire property developer Mervyn Stewkesbury, who had fallen out of love with the sport and ended his time as promoter with the club second from bottom of the Elite League.
Ford clearly had determination, having left Seldown School at 15 and moved out of the family home, he started work as a shelf stacker for tobacco and confectionery wholesaler Palmer and Harvey. ‘Nine years later when I left them,’ he recalls, ‘I was their top salesman in the country out of 300. Then I went on to do the same thing in hairdressing.’
Ford sold products for Schwartzkopf and Wella, before going it alone and building up his own hairdressing salon empire. He said: ‘I was involved in up to four salons at any point and the main one was in Wimborne Road, not far from the stadium, which used to be called the Hair Arena. I’ve never cut hair, though. People have this misconception that I was a hairdresser.’
It’s an easy mistake to make. Ford’s hairstyles have changed more often than the British weather during his years in speedway. But one thing which hasn’t changed from his Palmer and Harvey days is his desire to sell, sell, sell. Whether it’s selling Pirates to potential sponsors or fans, it’s an attribute which has given the 46-year-old an edge over rival promoters. ‘The last thing I’d want to do is go to my advertisers and sponsors and sell them a story about how I could enhance their business by getting them involved with the Pirates, but not put money back into promoting my own club. I know I spend more money than anybody in speedway in promoting Poole, but it’s money well spent.’
Only the Coventry Bees, with ten trophies since the turn of the millennium, come anywhere close to Poole’s mark of fifteen. This has led to Pirates being dubbed ‘the Manchester United of speedway.’ Despite being a keen United fan, Ford is reluctant to make such comparisons.
‘I’ve tried not to use that same view,’ he said. ‘The success United have had has been incredible. We’ve just been the best speedway club in Britain for the last ten years or so. But I know everyone in our league now wants to beat us. That’s the biggest similarity. I know that when Man United play any game, it can be another team’s cup final. People just want to beat us because we are the champions and have been more so than the other clubs in the last ten years. We are a scalp.’
Having followed the Pirates since the age of five when he first visited Wimborne Road with family friends Sue and Dudley Barnett, Ford has enjoyed his forty years as a fan, sponsor and promoter at Poole. Speedway is now very much his livelihood, particularly since he sold his last salon in 2005. But Ford’s business empire stretches beyond Wimborne Road: he started up Nemo’s Nursery and Pre-school in Branksome Park along with Poole co-promoter Giles Hartwell and ex-Bournemouth and England footballer Darren Anderton. He also has a small catering business. When he gets some spare time in his busy schedule, Ford likes to spend it in the Spanish sunshine. He said: ‘I’ve had a place in Spain since 2007 and use that as often as running Poole Speedway will let me.
‘I spend about two months of the year out there, but obviously at different intervals. It’s normally four or five-day breaks. Eventually one day, when I’m in the position to retire, it could be that I’d spend a bit more time there, along with keeping my base in Poole.’
Ford has no intention of handing over the reins at Wimborne Road and retiring just yet. But when he does, there is a chance he could keep the club in the family. His sons Daniel, 17, and Sam, 15, are both approaching that crucial moment in their lives where they have to choose between crippling university debts or searching for a job they may not find for some time in credit-crunch Britain: ‘Dan has had talks with me already to ask “Is uni right for me or should I come and learn about the club?”,’ revealed Ford. ‘I find that encouraging. I’m pleased to hear it. But I don’t know for sure exactly which way we’ll take that.’ Whoever Ford hands the Pirates over to, this Poole-born and bred success story will be a tough act to follow.