The Lee Cooper interview: “My overriding objective is to win silverware”

Lee Cooper is a Somerset fan. And he always has been. So when you walk into his office overlooking the pitch at the club’s County Ground, you would surmise that he would take great benefit from having access to arguably the best seats in the house. But not so. Well not at the moment anyway.

“I have been so busy since being named Chief Executive Officer that I have hardly seen any cricket at all”, he confesses. “I don’t think there’s ever been a season where I have watched so little cricket.

“It’s only my sixth week here yet I have held over 150 one-to-one meeting’s and met everyone; all the players, all the coaches, the paid staff, all the committee members. Some multiple times.

“I have met all at Taunton Deane Borough Council, St James Place Church –it’s been non-stop. And that has been the most insightful thing I could have done.

“I have learnt a lot; some things I already knew, some things I thought to be true have confirmed to be true, and some things I thought to be false have proved to be true too. It’s been a steep learning curve.

“Hopefully it will get a bit calmer and I can sit down and watch some cricket soon.”

Lee is doing very well for himself. Nine years ago, at the tender age of 28, he formed his own company, Cooper Associates, whose head office is a stone’s throw away from Somerset’s headquarters in St James Street. Today the company has satellite offices in Exeter, Bristol and Reading. This season is the second that his company has enjoyed the naming rights of the County Ground having supported Somerset financially in one form or other since the company’s inception.

Born in the town and educated at Taunton School, Lee had only one career aim as a youngster: “My ambition – my only ambition – was to be a professional cricketer”, he admits. “I did everything in my power to be one and I wasn’t far away.

“I played for Somerset U11s, West of England, Somerset U13s to U15s, some England representative stuff as well, then played for Somerset seconds.

“And, to cut a long story very short, I dropped more catches than runs scored”, he admits honestly. “And, in truth, you know when you are good enough or not. Some would say unfulfilled potential but I had used every ounce of my ability and I was still short.”

An early order batsman, Lee does hold some good moments to recollect. “I was solely a batsman and had some successes, just not enough”, he confesses. “At one stage I held the record for highest score for the Somerset age groups when I scored 225 against Northants.”

Although the age group was successful, winning a national trophy no less, the only player to progress was Matthew Bulbeck, whose own career was cut cruelly short by injury. Peter Trego was in the age group above and Wes Durston one year below.  But Lee progressed and, in 1999, he played in the county’s second string. “I played the first three-quarters of the season but didn’t score enough runs”, he recalls. “I scored 70-odd against Essex, 40-odd against someone else, but if you are a batter you have to score heavily, and I didn’t.”

He played with decent players though. “Marcus Trescothick was playing at the time and my career highlight was that I was batting at the other end when he got 300-odd”, he reflects. “The thing I remember is that Marcus didn’t realise he had made 300, despite there being a scoreboard and I knew he had. He was in his own bubble, the ‘zone’ if you like.

“But I batted at three in the first innings and ten in the second, so that’s what they thought of my batting.”

Having completed his A Levels, Lee opted to go to a University that played first-class cricket and chose Durham. With 19 contracted cricketers in attendance, Lee decided that 18 hours of lectures per week were not for him so joined financial services. Firstly he worked for HSBC Bank then for a rising independent company in Taunton, working his way to director level, before founding Cooper Associates. Initially he worked alone but now has a team of 55, all Taunton based.

He sees sport as a good recruitment benchmark. “There is a huge correlation between being successful in sport and then in business”, he insists. “Team player, work ethic, discipline, competitiveness – all these traits that apply. And in financial services, although you have to be qualified, competent and all those things, the bottom line is will people trust you and want to deal with you?

“How many guys do you know who are not nice guys when they have a sporting background? And not just cricket? There are exceptions to the rule but not many.

“If we (Cooper Associates) were to form a cricket team it would be a decent one”, he says. “We have Kevin Parsons, Carl Gazzard, my younger brother Jack, myself and Ben Wellington played a fair standard too.”

But at the heart of any successful company has to be a strong customer offer: “Our mission statement is clear”, he stresses, “and that is we will treat every client as our only client. So whether they have £10 million to invest or £10, we treat them all the same and that has served us well.”

Due to data protection, some names can’t be named, but the company has a large number of cricketers as clients, including some high profile sportsmen. One name in the public domain, however, is our former player and England regular Jos Buttler, who has been sponsored by Cooper Associates for several years. “It has definitely been beneficial to our brand”, Lee says, “as does any high profile individual, as it helps promotes trust. If you are choosing a new firm for financial services and you see that Jos Buttler is using them then you may think ‘if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me’.

“So that has been helpful. Definitely.”

Lee has had a membership at Somerset for longer than he can remember, and spent most of his formative years at the County Ground and there was a familiar face who formed his own boyhood idolatry: “When I was young we would come down and there would be nets in the car park”, he remembers. “So we would spend play time in those nets and lunch time on the field playing cricket.

“Did we watch much? I don’t think I watched at all, we came here to play cricket.

“When I was young it was Ian Botham who was my hero and I had the Duncan Fearnley bat. I remember my dad sending me to the dressing rooms to ask if I could meet him and I was quickly thrown out. Although I have now met him.”

But this infatuation with the game was not always useful to the now teenage Lee, who remembers a Somerset game so nearly disrupting his education: “I was due back to Taunton School to sit an A-level and my good mate Matthew Bulbeck was bowling to my hero Brian Lara here”, he recites. “I couldn’t leave while that was happening and I was half-an-hour late for my A-level. But fortunately Matt got him out.

“But they let me sit down. If it was any longer than 30 minutes then I would have missed it and that may have impacted on my grades.”

Guy Lavender hands the reins to Lee Cooper

Before the season start Somerset announced that Guy Lavender would be leaving his role as CEO to start a position with the MCC. And the process to find a suitable replacement began. In June the club announced that Lee would be the man to fill the hot seat and so began a robust handover period. So, did owning a successful company with a close association to Somerset County Cricket Club prove helpful for him? “Being the naming rights partner was an obstacle and not helpful”, he states. “There was the accusation that I bought the job. So my biggest challenge was to overcome that, or the perception of that. So if anything I had a harder interview process than some others.

“It came about because I emailed Guy congratulating him on the MCC job. He replied saying that naturally Somerset were thinking about a replacement and would I put my name in the hat. So I said ‘yes’ and followed the recruitment process.”

This process included interviews with the Recruitment Consultant, the club chairman Andy Nash, followed by a presentation to panel of five that included the President, the chairman, the current CEO, a committee member and an HR representative from the ECB. It all sounds rather complicated!

“It was quite easy actually, the question was ‘where do you see Somerset in five years’ time’”, he says. “Well that’s the easiest question in the world as the aim is to win trophies. That’s it!

“I have no interest in a career in cricket, I can categorically say that Somerset will be my only job in cricket; I never want to work for the ECB, the MCC, the ICC or any other county; this will be my only job. So I am here for absolutely the right reasons as I want Somerset County Cricket Club to do well.

“I am well paid so not here for remuneration reasons, I am not here for career reasons, I just want Somerset to win.

“So what won it for me in the interview process was that passion came forward, and how I demonstrated that in my presentation was I had a picture of the Somerset U11s with me in it, I had the tie I was wearing in that picture and the cap I was wearing in that picture all available in the meeting. And I handed them around.

“It was unlikely anyone else being interviewed would have the depth of passion to match mine. So being a supporter, being passionate and being here for the right reasons is what edged it for me I think.”

There is much talk within the ranks of Somerset supporters. It has been an indifferent season on the pitch with some improvements in the t20 format, another decent showing in 50-over cricket and a season of struggle in the Championship. Yet the fans are told Somerset are financially viable off the field. And whilst everyone that attended the t20 international back in June had an enjoyable experience, there is often the accusation that Somerset focus more on the ground and commercial aspects than the team. So what was Lee’s first impressions when starting his new role?

“Somerset are in a good place but we have some way to go”, he says. “If you look at where we are on the field this season it is factually correct to say we are some way behind Notts, but in terms of potential I don’t think we are a long way away at all. In fact you only need to go back one season to see where Notts were and where they are now. They have had a remarkable turnaround so it doesn’t take much to do that.

“I think we have a core base of talent here it is just how we move that forward and turn talent into silverware. And, to be totally clear, my overriding objective is to win silverware. That comes before everything.

“The commercial side I will do competently but always to the benefit of the cricket.”

One of Somerset’s great successes in recent years has been the development of the Academy. So many home grown players have worn the Wyvern in recent seasons with some progressing to England Developments camps and even full honours. The fans have also been treated to some high profile international talent but how does Lee view player recruitment moving forward?

“The player policy is very clear; home grown talent is the core of our squad but if we are solely reliant on that it is unlikely we are going to win trophies”, he admits. “So we have to supplement the team with high quality domestic recruits. The likes of Steve Davies, who is high quality, or a high quality overseas player.

“What we won’t do is recruit players to take the place of our own for the sake of it. There has to be a clear reason. To sign a player with a parallel skill set to one of your own, and you play that player over one of your own, that carries implications culturally.”

With Lee having played cricket to a high standard previously, he is well qualified to make his opinion heard but he won’t be doing that. Everyone will do their own job without obstacles: “Although I like to think I know cricket, the bottom line is I don’t”, he says. “I have played the game and I have a view but it is a dangerous line to cross being heavily involved in the cricket side.

“So it is my responsibility to appoint the Director of Cricket here, and the cricket becomes his responsibility and he is accountable to both me and the Board with the decisions he makes. So I will challenge but not the cross the line into interference, however tempting. Because if you do that who is accountable for the performance on the field?”

And so starts a new era for Somerset County Cricket Club. With Lee Cooper in charge the club has a Chief Executive Officer who understands the game with immaculate business acumen and a clear vision. He will not be afraid to make the big decisions if he believes they are the right decisions and does not fear change: “My theory is if you do what you have always done then you will get what you have always got. Take Notts, whatever Notts have done this year – which has been highly successful – if they do the same next year they will fall behind. You have got to keep evolving and be ahead of the game.

“So we have to take things forward.”

And he knows how he will be judged: “If we stay up then we will be in it from the start next year”, he states. “But if we go down – and that is a possibility – then we have to bounce back up. And winning Division Two doesn’t count, that is just a stepping stone to where we need to be.

“We have never won the County Championship, that’s factual. We have won some one day competitions but not since 2005. Yet we do well commercially and we do have a very healthy player’s budget; we do invest in our players, but that now has to transfer into results. And the only result is winning.

“I know we came second last year, which was a great achievement, but it was still second; we didn’t win. And we have got to change that. And that is my mission statement.”