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The satisfying thwack of leather against willow is captured on a YouTube clip of Welsh cricketer Gareth Rees sweeping a six high out of the ground at Chelmsford, Essex. His shot sends the ball glancing off a slate roof and bouncing off a car bonnet before it comes to rest.
It is one of those little high points that professional sportsmen live for, but there have been low points, too.
“You can suffer a loss of form,” says Mr Rees, 29, who plays for Glamorgan. “Early last season I got dropped down to the second team and had to work my way back – I got back-to-back hundreds when I returned.”
There is always the risk of injury, too. Mr Rees knows half-a-dozen players from the Glamorgan squad alone, mainly bowlers, whose careers have ended early. But even before leaving school, the ups and downs – and relative brevity – of the professional cricketer’s career persuaded him to develop a “plan B”.
“There were boys in the squad who were always destined to be playing first-class cricket, but I was never completely sure it would happen,” he says.
Mr Rees, who also played rugby for Wales at under-17 level, has a head start over many fellow sportspeople – his first-class debut for Glamorgan eight years ago coincided with another first, in his maths and physics undergraduate degree at the University of Bath.
This strong academic background – along with the professional sportsman’s dedication to acquiring the right skills and ability to be a team player – is an attractive package for a career in finance. But Mr Rees, who has long had this in mind for a post-cricket career, suspected he would need more than that.
So about five years ago he contacted Bath university again and asked about joining the School of Management’s Executive MBA programme – an MBA for working executives.
“They said I was too young and didn’t have the right experience,” he recalls. “They suggested I should do CIMA [the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants’ finance qualification for business].
“That proved to be very good advice. I did two years of CIMA, completing the first stage and learnt the basics about business – for example, understanding a financial statement.”
This period of study helped Mr Rees secure winter work placements at several banks and broadened his work experience beyond cricket. When he reapplied last year for a place on the Bath EMBA programme, he was accepted.
Apart from being just an hour away from Glamorgan’s home ground in Cardiff, the Bath course suited him because it organises its full-time and part-time MBA courses in week-long units, delivered twice a year. “In theory, if you miss your full-time unit, you may be able to catch it when it comes up for part-timers and vice versa,” says Rachel Foster-Borman, MBA marketing and recruitment manager.
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This flexibility helps accountants on the EMBA avoid units in April, when the financial year ends, but as a cricketer Mr Rees needed to keep the summer clear.
Ms Foster-Borman adds: “It took a bit of scratching of heads to figure out how to put the units together in the right sequence, because some naturally fall after others, to build on the learning, but we were able to construct something, based on some units from one side and some from the other.”
Mr Rees will take three years to complete his EMBA and has completed seven modules, working around his winter training commitments. Further units follow this winter, then a dissertation.
He is still keen on a career in finance when he finally hangs up his boots, but the EMBA has created other opportunities, such as working in insurance.
Support from Glamorgan has been important, he says. “Doing something like this can be harder if your manager does not support you”.
Hugh Morris, the club’s chief executive and director of cricket and one of its most successful batsmen, also did an EMBA at Henley Business School from 2005-07. He describes it as “the most important learning experience of my business career”. Mr Morris held several posts at the England and Wales Cricket Board, rising to become chief executive, before returning to the county.
Mr Rees’s teammates have other plans for post-cricket careers and are not always sure what he is doing at Bath.
“When I say I’m doing an MBA, they ask: ‘What’s that in?’” says Mr Rees. He then has to explain what the initials stand for.
Sporting success as a springboard
Gareth Rees joins a long line of sportsmen who have found their way on to management programmes.
In France, athlete Stéphane Diagana, a gold medallist at world and European championships, began a Masters in Management at ESCP Europe, Paris, at the age of 29. Mr Diagana remains in the public eye, but his big project, developed with his partner, former heptathlete Odile Lesage, is the Campus Diagana Sport Santé, an ambitious sports/health complex to be built on the Côte d’Azur.
The athlete always had entrepreneurial ambitions, but the MiM and in particular a final-year course about starting a business, convinced him he had the credibility and network to make a difference in the sports/health field.
Sports stars enrol at business school for the same reasons as other participants, says Bruce Rayton, Bath’s director of MBA programmes. “They have realised they have risen as high in their sporting profession as they are likely to do, so they are looking to change industry, function or country.”
Business schools – and employers – like sportspeople because of their ability to work with and contribute to a team. They may not have experience of hierarchical organisations such as multinational companies, says Dr Rayton, but sportspeople have leadership strengths and a feel for organisational politics or power dynamics. “They have personal experience – admittedly in a sporting context – of talent-management issues, how you lead a team of diverse personalities to unify around a single goal, and the dynamics among high-performing individuals with high expectations.”
An alternative to mixing sportspeople with an MBA cohort has been introduced at the George Washington University School of Business in the US. Its Star EMBA programme is aimed at people with strong personal brands such as professional athletes, artists and musicians – the name stands for special talent, access and responsibility. The two-year programme aims to teach them how to turn their career success into business and social achievement.
Participants in the 2011 inaugural course included Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former linebacker and Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens.
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