Paddy has put his business on ice

North-East ice hockey franchise Mobilx Vipers rose Phoenix-like last year to clinch top spot in the national league after a decade in the doldrums.

North-East ice hockey franchise Mobilx Vipers rose Phoenix-like last year to clinch top spot in the national league after a decade in the doldrums. Nigel Stirling talks to club chairman Paddy O'Connor about his life in business and sport and the club's miraculous turnaround.

Paddy O'Connor maintains he could never have commanded a place in the highest profile ice hockey competition in the world.

But with some 350 caps for England and Great Britain, the 30-year old chairman of North-East ice hockey franchise Mobilx Vipers has scaled the heights of the game in this country.

And after a successful rescue of the Newcastle-based club from liquidation last year to go alongside a £5m utilities company built up after a career-ending injury in the mid-1990s, he is on track to repeat the feat in the world of business.

"The standard of play over [in America's National Hockey League] is considerably higher than in the UK. Their guys might come over here to play at the end of their careers but you did not necessarily go over there from here," O'Connor notes ruefully.

Although a training injury in 1995 was to lead to his eventual departure from full-time professional sport in 1997, O'Connor has not let his physique slip since his playing days.

It is lucky because the muscular-looking O'Connor's broad shoulders must have come in handy reviving an ice hockey franchise in a region which until the early 1990s had traditionally been a power base of the sport in the UK.

The demise of ice hockey in the North-East can be traced back to the mid-1990s with Sir John Hall's ill-fated attempt to set up the Newcastle Sports Club involving football, rugby, basketball.

Inspired by Barcelona, Sir John acquired the successful Durham Wasps ice hockey club as part of ambitious plans to turn Newcastle into the sporting capital of Europe by 2001.

By the late 1990s the vision was falling apart and the Newcastle Cobras, as the Durham club was re-branded, was sold to Finnish club Jokerit.

As a result, ice hockey in the region was thrown into a decade-long turmoil, with ownership of the club changing hands again before O'Connor and fellow directors Paul Ferone and manager and former player Rob Wilson bought the indebted club last February.

O'Connor brings to the club the perspective of a player bought up in the North-East who cut his teeth in the junior leagues with Durham Wasps before moving to top club the Sheffield Steelers in 1997, coupled with business acumen.

He says: "When we took over the club in February 2005 I was not actually involved in hockey at the club. I was basically assisting the club with some sponsorship from my main business.

"I had friends at the club who I had know for 20 years and it became obvious from them that the club was in a very grave situation.

"There were potential buyers for the club but they were businessmen and did not necessarily have the connections in the game that I was able to bring to make it work."

The club was in the British National League, which in football terms O'Connor describes as the Championship compared to the Premiership-equivalent of British hockey's Elite League, where it had languished since the end of the ice hockey Super League in 2002.

"Historically Durham had been the number one club in the UK. It had supplied some of the best players in the country.

"Once the Super League dissolved in 2002 the competition split into the British National League and the Elite League. There was no promotion or relegation matches for the Elite League and it was by invitation only.

"For the first time the North-East was not involved in the top flight of hockey in the UK. And suddenly you were going from a situation where you were asking people who had been steeped in 20 or 30 years of watching play in the top league to watch a much lower standard of hockey that they were not used to."

While crowds at the Vipers' 28 home games at the Metro Radio Arena in the 2005/06 season failed to reach the heady 4,000 to 5,000 fans that would turn up to watch Durham Wasps' home games in the 1990s, they had recovered to nearly 3,000 on the way to clinching top spot in the club's first season back in the top-flight Elite League.

O'Connor, however, has sympathy for Sir John's role in the decade-long hiatus the game in the North-East went into until last year's hugely successful return to the top flight of the game in the UK.

"It was a very good vision," he believes.

"When Sir John Hall took over the Durham Wasps its ice rink was in a very poor state of repair and home games were moved to Sunderland which had a capacity for about 700 fans.

"Sir John wanted to move the home games to the Arena but the Whitley Bay club basically beat him to the draw which is about the point it all started to go wrong.

"Durham had been a very successful team and here he was taking the Durham Wasps, gave them the name Newcastle and asked them to play in Sunderland. It was never going to work.

"At the moment ice hockey clubs get their primary revenues from gates, what the club needed was a North-East team based in a proper arena. It was talked about but never happened."

The club moved to the Metro Radio Arena in the 1996/97 season by which time it was on the verge of being sold to Jokerit which used its new acquisition as a feeder club for its senior teams in the European competition. The brief dalliance with the ill-fated Super League followed a couple of years later.

When O'Connor took over the club from local businessman Daryl Illingworth, it was straining under £200,000 of debt and with two months of the 2004/05 season left to run.

"The Elite League is by invitation only. And within a matter or weeks I had been approached by the Elite League, who knew me because of my record in the game and knew of my business success, and asked to put the club back into the top flight."

O'Connor and Canadians Wilson and Ferone set about re-building the team for its re-entry into the top league which was to result in the Vipers coming second in last year's competition before triumphing in the subsequent play-offs.

By the time he had taken over the Vipers last year, O'Connor had already built a successful overhead and underground utilities maintenance firm, which employs 80 staff as sub contractors to British Telecom.

The former player now aims to increase revenue at the Mobilx Vipers by a third in the 2006/07 season.

He said: "We took quite heavy losses in the first year, although they were projected and about what we expected when we took over. Our three-year plan is to again perform in the arena and build attendance numbers as well as looking at other opportunities and break even in the current season and make a return on our investment in the third season."

The club currently takes in about £600,000 a year and O'Connor is looking for more income to supplement its gate takings, which are restrained by the Metro Radio Arena's maximum crowd capacity for a ice hockey game of around 5,500.

The club has renewed a sponsorship deal with Newcastle-based IT entrepreneur Steven Bell's Mobilx, giving the company naming rights as the Mobilx Vipers for the next two years.

And this year it launched a weekly half-hour web TV programme - Viper TV - dissecting developments in the region's ice hockey scene.

O'Connor says: "We are getting thousands of hits a day from all around the world not just the United Kingdom and Newcastle. We would hope there are some opportunities for advertising revenue from the channel longer term."

By virtue of the club's placings last season it was also invited to join the European-wide competition but the new owners considered it too much of a gamble so soon after stepping up to the top flight UK competition.

O'Connor explains: "The European league is a good level of competition and the game is very popular in countries like Finland, Germany and Sweden, but we decided that it is a high-risk strategy so soon after stabilising the club.

"It is not like the Champions League in football and the early stages of the competition are very much a gamble.

"As well it would add an extra 10 games which are spread over our season which lasts from September to April and could create problems with injuries during the UK season.

"As the competition grows in Europe we would consider becoming involved and expanding the squad to do that. But people have got to understand that the UK clubs that have been involved in Europe have been stable for 10 or 15 years. We are only one year into a three-year recovery plan."

The father-of-two's prudent approach to his latest venture is against the backdrop of otherwise precocious success in both his sporting and business life.

After leaving St Leonard's Comprehensive School as a 16-year old in 1993, O'Connor started his working life as a professional hockey player for Durham Wasps, before moving to the Sheffield Steelers in 1994 and Telford Tigers a year later.

"You got a free house, car and £250 net, which 10 years ago was enough when you were single and while it was not enough to retire on it was a pretty good life."

In the 1994/95 season, he injured his shoulder near the end of a training session in an incident with now fellow Viper director and coach Rob Wilson.

"At the end of the sessions we were encouraged to wrestle each other. I was 18, not exactly the sharpest knife in the box, and decided to pick on Rob Wilson, the Canadian defence man.

"Rob had actually had a successful career as a fighter in his junior days in Canada, and there I was goading him on `Come on, come on and whack me' and he did. In a few seconds I was on the floor with a dislocated shoulder.

"The following season I was playing in Telford with Rob where we flatted together. We were wrestling for the TV remote when out it pops again.

"It came out and was put back in again seven times during the season. At the end of it I went for surgery at Washington Hospital up here.

"The surgeon asked me if I had anything to fall back on because of the damage done because I might not be able to play hockey again."

In 1996, O'Connor trained as an overhead wires operative for utilities company Skanska Networks which was contracted to maintain power poles for British Telecom in Yorkshire and Humberside.

"I decided that I would look out for work in industries that were going to be privatised. That was where I saw the opportunity to get into an industry where there were going to be major efficiencies to be made.

"Very shortly BT started contracting out large amounts of work and the contractor I worked for ended up sub-contracting out a large amount of that work of which I was one of the first to step forward and put up my hand. Everybody said it couldn't be done but I had a different vision and the company I was working for recognised that early on."

O'Connor, still in his early 20s, immediately hired three employees to handle the £200,000-a-year contract to replace and repair telephone poles in Yorkshire and Humberside for BT contractor ARM Utilities, working 12 hours a day, seven-days-a-week for two years.

In a competitive industry, with up to 25 sub-contractors competing for the work from the big firms contracted directly to BT, O'Connor ploughed the profits from the two-year contract back into vehicles and equipment to keep down his own business's costs.

Since then, O'Connor's company Utility Services has continued to grow, last year employing up to 80 staff and generating £4.8m of sales and is now expanding further.

Spennymoor-based Utility Services has contracted to BT to respond to storm damage to poles in Scotland and the south of England and is exploring similar work in Europe.

CV

St Michael's Junior School, Esh Village, County Durham, 1981-1987

St Leonard's Comprehensive School, 1987-1993

Durham Junior Ice Hockey Programme, 1985-1993

Sheffield Steelers, 1993-1994

Telford Tigers, 1995

Solihull Blaze (semi-professional), 1996-1998

Trainee, Skanska Networks, 1996

Managing director Utility Services, 1997-present

Vipers Ice Hockey chairman February, 2005-present

Elite Ice Hockey League, March 2005-present

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

BMW/Range Rover.

Who or what makes you laugh?

My partner Louise, my daughters and spending five minutes in the Vipers' dressing room, it is hilarious.

What's your favourite book?

Bartley Gorman - King of Gypsies.

Favourite film?

Braveheart.

What was the last album you bought?

One by Stereophonics.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

Professional motorcross rider.

If you had a talking parrot, what would you teach it to say?

I'll have a pint of Fosters, please.

What's your greatest fear?

Losing my family or close friends to ill health.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Never run before you can walk.

And the worst?

Too many to mention.

What's your poison?

Vodka Red Bull.

What newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?

Daily Mail.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£75 as a trainee hockey player with Sheffield Steelers.

How do you keep fit?

Boxing, weights, and quad biking.

What's your most irritating habit?

Snoring. My partner Louise tells me so.

What's your biggest extravagance?

I have a bad habit of buying Porsches and my Yamaha racing quad.

With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?

William Wallace. I feel I know him well as he came back to life in the form of a wannabe Scottish warrior in Vipers director and coach, Rob Wilson.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Sir Alan Sugar, Mike Tyson, Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair.

How would you like to be remembered?

An honest, kind, hard-working person who showed respect. That people would think I was fun to be around and stood up for what he believed in and for the people close to him.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer