Profile – A firm hand on the reins

Stephen Atkin, finance director of the British Horseracing Board, the sport of kings. Chris Quick meets the FD of the British Horseracing Board. considers himself to be a lucky man.

This is not because his position gives him access to lucrative racing tips which supposedly come straight from the horse’s mouth. Atkin is firmly of the view that there is no such thing as a ‘dead cert’ in horseracing and bets only modestly.

He does, however, have a passion for the sport, which he feels gets a raw deal from the government, especially when compared to other sports. Nevertheless, he is delighted to have landed a top job in an industry which has been a life-long hobby. He sees it as part of his job to try to make the British horseracing industry richer, more independent and less constrained by government legislation.

Atkin, now 40, has been interested in racing since his teenage days, when he was a regular at Kempton, Sandown and Windsor racetracks. He says: ‘There are very few people who are lucky enough to work at something they really enjoy.’

His fondness for the sport stems from his love of horses rather than an interest in gambling. ‘The thoroughbred horse is one of the most beautiful living works of art you are likely to see. It’s really quite stunning and it’s a creation of man.’

Mixing work and leisure all year round

Nowadays, Atkin attends race meetings all over the country sporting an official’s badge. In the year after he joined BHB as its first ever finance director in 1995, he attended 50 events, but this total has dropped to around 20 over the last year. ‘The borderline between work and leisure gets a bit blurred in a job like this,’ he jokes.

Not that his role is a picnic.

Atkin says 60 and even 80-hour working weeks are normal, which is perhaps understandable when you consider the range of activities his job encompasses.

The British Horseracing Board describes itself as the governing authority for British racing. Its responsibilities include providing fixture lists for race meetings, liaison with the betting industry, representing racing in dealings with the government and negotiation with the media over its coverage of racing.

Atkin’s role, therefore, extends well beyond that of an FD in a commercial organisation. One of his tasks is to negotiate with media and betting organisations over the right to use the racecard; the list of runners entering each race.

‘It’s not like selling a product which you can nail down and say “this is the price”. The price really depends on what you are going to do with it. It’s an intellectual exercise. The only way to negotiate intellectual property properly is to sit down at a table and be honest with each other. We have to know what they are going to get out of it, so we ask very pertinent questions,’ he says.

Atkin sees this part of his job as particularly important, since the more revenue the BHB can raise from its intellectual property, the less it will have to charge industry players.

‘We have an awful lot of terrestrial coverage generating a substantial amount of income, although this is small when compared to the scale of football coverage,’ he says.

Atkin says the Internet offers both opportunities and threats to the industry. ‘Combined with television, it provides a betting medium for people who do not want to go into betting shops.’

Atkin is also involved in developing strategy for the horseracing industry, and was a member of the committee which in January last year produced a major report on the future of British racing.

‘The Financial Plan for British Racing’ calls for a significant increase in the percentage of horserace betting turnover that flows back into racing. It also calls on the government to relax laws on horserace gambling so it can be extended beyond licensed betting offices.

He says: ‘There are some 100,000 people employed in some shape or form in the horseracing and betting industries. The livelihood of some towns, such as Newmarket, is closely linked to the industry. It is also a very large taxpayer. If you include tax on horsebetting, the Exchequer gets around #500m a year. In taxation terms it is one of the key sports, whereas many other sports get money back from the government.

‘Part of the plan looks at international comparisons to show that Britain’s horseracing industry comes off very badly when compared to other countries, particularly France, the US and Japan. It is a long learning curve. The government moves very slowly on gambling issues.’

Atkin is also secretary of the BHB’s taxation group, which aims to provide easy-to-understand tax guidance for the industry and negotiate with tax authorities on its behalf. A key victory in 1997 was the renewal of a special VAT scheme for racehorse owners, worth around #20m a year.

The group is chaired by Ian Barlow, head of tax for Big Five firm KPMG – which this year became the board’s auditor following Price-waterhouseCoopers’ sacking over an embarrassing debacle where PwC consultants, unaware the BHB was an audit client, wrote a critical report of its financial plans.

Positive criticism within audit process

Atkin says: ‘The team we worked with at PwC were very professional and we have no criticism of the services we received. What we found unacceptable was the breakdown in their internal communications. They were writing a document which was criticising something which was a fundamental part of our strategy. We didn’t find the criticism positive. In our view, the authors didn’t really understand the horseracing industry.’

Atkin also has the usual accountant responsibilities of overseeing the BHB’s financial systems, and ensuring that it is tightly run in a manner which keeps down costs and maximises income.

The BHB is an organisation which is accountable to the racing industry and therefore has a consultative structure with a series of committees feeding into the board.

Atkin says: ‘Because of the BHB’s structure and its wish to be accountable and open, there is an added tier of administration and consultation. My job is almost a hybrid of a typical finance director’s role and that of a senior civil servant.’

Atkin got the job after reading in a newspaper that the BHB was planning to appoint its first FD. ‘I can honestly say that I had no doubt I wanted to do it without having much idea about what it would entail at the time, so I set off down that path.’

At the time, he already had some experience of the business side of horseracing after working as finance director for REA Bott, a refrigeration contractor, during the early 1990s. The Bott family, which owned the business, also owned a string of up to 40 racehorses, and Atkin found himself getting involved in their management and breeding.

Before this, he was group FD of King-William, a contractor in the oil, gas and chemical sectors.

His earlier career included a stint with Hampton Gold Mining in group finance, where he was on the team which defended the company from Alan Bond’s ultimately successful takeover attempts. He trained at Finnie Ross Wild, qualifying with the English ICA in 1981 and moving to Coopers & Lybrand for 18 months before going into industry.

Apart from racing, Atkin also enjoys music and says that, had he not got his present job, he would have liked to have been an accountant working in the music industry.

He adds: ‘If you are not blessed with any particular talents, then accountancy helps you get involved in genuinely interesting areas.’

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