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Barry Hearn: from accountant to sports supremo

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 Feb 2022

“I like to think I’m a Jack the lad, but I’m an anorak really,” says Barry Hearn, President of global sports promotion business Matchroom, adding that his ACA training provided the springboard to his success.

There aren’t too many chartered accountants who can lay claim to being featured in BBC comedy dramas, but Barry Hearn is one. Hearn was a main character in The Rack Pack, an affectionate film about the glory days of professional snooker in the 1980s and the legendary rivalry between Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Steve Davis.

In the film, Hearn (played by Kevin Bishop) is Davis’s manager – a charismatic, larger-than-life, working-class hero, Romford born and bred and always ready with the perfect soundbite. Bishop admits playing Hearn was one of his favourite roles. Hearn, meanwhile, says the film was a good reflection of the world of snooker at the time, a world that was to become a cornerstone of his hugely successful sporting empire.

Hearn is the first to admit he doesn’t conform to the accountancy stereotype, but he’s also adamant that his ACA training provided the perfect springboard to his successful business career and the development of a sports promoting business that was to become one of the world’s largest suppliers of sports programming, with a dozen sports to its name.

From humble beginnings on an Essex council estate as the son of a bus driver and a cleaner, Hearn admits his forthright mother was responsible for his career choice. “I was 12 years old when my mum came home from her cleaning job one day and said: ‘I know what you’re going to do when you leave school. You’re going to be a chartered accountant. The man whose house I clean said you never see a poor one.’”

Hearn was given a lucky break into accountancy thanks to a family connection calling in a favour. “My grandmother’s sister had married a bloke in Southend who had a tiling business and he asked his accountant if they’d consider giving me articles,” he says. Initially earning £6 a week, he qualified aged 21.

In 1970, Hearn joined Thomson McLintock (which subsequently became KPMG). But despite coming up through the ranks to be one of the firm’s youngest ever audit managers at the age of 23, it was made clear to him that the absence of a degree meant that he wouldn’t progress any further within the firm, an “unacceptable” prospect that within six months resulted in him voting with his feet. In an ironic twist, the firm was to become his own auditor for several decades.

Fast forward 50 years and echoes of Hearn’s early career experience are all too prevalent across the profession. At a time when debates about the need to attract more people from working class backgrounds into accountancy are ramping up, a focus on socioeconomic diversity across the profession has to be a good thing, Hearn says. “I don’t believe in the class system, I believe in meritocracy. Whether you’re white or black, male or female, rich or poor, have a university degree or not – it doesn’t matter. It’s about the individual and if this person is going to be good for my business.

“If you see drive, ambition and dedication and someone who’s prepared to go that extra mile for you, where they’ve come from doesn’t matter,” Hearn adds. The broad-based opinions that a diverse workforce gives you are essential for firms to thrive, he explains.

Hearn’s frustration at not being able to progress any further in practice prompted a move over to the business side of the fence, initially with an investment company. Its purchase of Lucania Snooker Clubs piqued his interest in the sport. 

Hearn’s professional foray into snooker began in the 1970s, at a time when interest in the sport was starting to grow thanks to colour television and BBC coverage. By 1978, Hearn started to manage Steve Davis, then an aspiring snooker professional who went on to win the World Snooker Championship in 1981. 

What followed was a monumental rise in the sport’s popularity that Hearn describes as a “eureka moment”, and he formed Matchroom in 1982 to concentrate on snooker management and events. The company then began to branch out into other sports: Hearn’s first foray into boxing promotion was the Frank Bruno vs Joe Bugner heavyweight clash in 1987 in front of 35,000 people at Tottenham Hotspur Football Ground.

Over the years, Matchroom’s portfolio under Hearn has burgeoned. He took a majority stake in the Professional Darts Corporation in 2001, helping to oversee a boom in the sport that has seen record viewing figures. In the same year, Hearn formed the PGA EuroPro Tour, the UK’s leading developmental golf tour. Ten pin bowling, pool, netball, table tennis, basketball and more all followed to become part of the Matchroom stable. In December last year, Hearn collected his OBE for Services to Sport.

Now President of Matchroom, Hearn says he doesn’t have much in the way of direct dealings with accountants, but when it comes to recruiting for his own business, the ACA badge gives significant reassurance. “To my mind, that answers a lot of questions on the first interview because I know they’ve already passed that quality control test.”

He always had his sight set on the business world, he says, although the technical intricacies of accountancy were something he enjoyed. “I like to think I’m a Jack the lad, but I’m an anorak really,” Hearn jokes. “I was never a retrospective accountant; I was always progressive. I wasn’t an audit man; I was always a financial planner for the future. I enjoyed it.”

For those looking to emulate Hearn’s successful career as an entrepreneur, he says integrity is a key attribute. At the same time, technical knowledge combined with a bit of personality gives you the edge, he believes. “Accountants either make really bad entrepreneurs or really good ones – it involves flair, a bit of street understanding and knowledge of what a balance sheet looks like. Too many people are what I call ‘fur coat, no knickers merchants’.”

Looking back on his 50 years as an ICAEW member, Hearn says he’s still proud to be a chartered accountant. “I think it means something. A lot of my success has come through that nuts and bolts learning that I did all those years ago. It’s the best thing you can ever do.”

· Barry Hearn OBE will be speaking about his career, his successes and the challenges he has faced and overcome at a free ICAEW virtual event on 25 February, 12.30-1.30pm. Head over to ICAEW’s dedicated events hub to book your place

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