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Josh Lewsey’s journey from Rugby World Cup winner to businessman

While winning the game’s most prestigious trophy in 2003 probably ranks pretty highly on former professional rugby player Josh Lewsey’s CV, he’s also got a stint in the army, a post-grad in law and positions at Citi Group and PwC to impress with.
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When most sports men and women begin to think about the end of their top-flight careers, they weigh up coaching roles, pundit work or a little bit of public speaking to pay the bills.

For Lewsey, however, it provided an opportunity to further dabble in the world of business – one he’d long believed he had the right set of skills to make a success in.

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Looking back, he was part of a fortunate generation of rugby players who benefited first from the game going professional in the mid-1990s. The success of the 1995 Rugby World Cup acted as the catalyst, and suddenly a big group of talented players could finally rely on solely playing the game to earn a living.

And it is through being part of a number of different teams, whether it was in the army, playing for club and country or mixing it in the finance world, that led Lewsey to think more about which ones were successful, and which ones weren’t.

“The contrast between one and the other, sometimes with the same people in the room, posted in me the thought ’what makes one environment successful and the other not’ – and I call that organisational performance,” he explained.

Believing he is very lucky to have been involved with some great teams, spanning everything from leadership and cultural aspects right through to strategic structural issues as well as core motivations, it is now about doing something with that.

“With that in mind, I took that onwards, working in that field while at PwC on various projects. I then did that similarly at Citi Group, but it was always my aim to return to sport to try and make a difference and use some of those learnings to do so.”

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Lewsey’s return to sport has come in the form of first a six-month stint as CEO of Championship rugby team the Cornish Pirates, and now as head of rugby at the Welsh Rugby Union.

Looking at the industry that is sport, Lewsey commented that while people are quick to look at lessons the sports world can provide business, it is actually a two-way street.

“Sport has lessons to teach business on a practical, cultural basis – the high performance environment and culture that exists. However, without a shadow of a doubt, business has a lot to teach sport from a strategic point of view.

“That becomes quite relevant when the underlying element of a sports organisation isn’t just to make profit. When you have ambiguity in ownership models as to what the purpose of the organisation is, the strategy becomes a bit less clear.”

Lewsey explained he is particularly impressed by what a club like the Exeter Chiefs have done, developing a 10-15 year plan to develop both the on-field and off-field offerings. The increasingly popularity of the game has meant clubs, and the management teams at the helm of each, are able to take a longer-term view.

The 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, statistically the third largest sporting event in the world after the football World Cup and Olympics, has further thrust the game into the limelight. While England made a tame exit after two defeats in the group stages, Lewsey still has a vested interest in the competition through his role at the Welsh Rugby Union – one of the victors over England after a bruising encounter at Twickenham on 26 September.

Lewsey is currently working as a brand representative for Toshiba, official sponsor of Rugby World Cup 2015. Toshiba’s partnership with Rugby World Cup 2015 spans the breadth of its business domains and the Rugby World Cup 2003 winner, and current Welsh Rugby Union head of rugby, possesses expertise which extends across both sport and business which makes him a strong fit for Toshiba’s primarily business-focused activity.

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His Welsh heritage means that he could have actually selected to play for Wales over England before winning his first cap in 1998. However, having decided to wear the red rose rather than the yellow daffodil, Lewsey’s work at the Welsh Rugby Union could bring about a profound change to the way in which the game flows from local communities right up to professional levels.

For a country that has rugby woven into the very fabric of society, Lewsey believes more can be done to put in a long-term foundation to link sport and community. And against a backdrop of negative headlines associated with athletics and FIFA, it is a chance for rugby to prove it is built on a solid footing with the right culture and ethics present.

Perhaps channelling a little bit of Sebastian Coe, Lewsey’s new role is part of a growing trend of former pros taking up positions in the higher echelons of the game. His unique ability to fuse the the skills needed to be at the top of sport and business means he can straddle both sides of the agenda.

So, does Lewsey miss pulling on a rugby jersey and strolling onto the pitch in front of 80,000 fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot? Unsurprisingly, he has a fairly pragmatic answer to the question.

“Perhaps I left sport earlier than I needed to, but I had my own motivations around that. Rugby is only small part of big world and everyone takes their own path. I didn’t want to just be known in 20-30 years for something we did in 2003. I wanted to keep moving on and keep developing,”

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About Author

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Real Business. He is also the editor of Business Advice, a title focused solely on a section of the business community currently underserved – micro companies. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative.

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