Monday Interview: Keith Rogers, Goals Soccer Centres

Growing up in Grangemouth, Keith Rogers had his mind set on running his own business, although he admits he didn’t have any particular sector in mind.
Keith Rogers found his business footing in the growing popularity of five-a-side football. Picture: ContributedKeith Rogers found his business footing in the growing popularity of five-a-side football. Picture: Contributed
Keith Rogers found his business footing in the growing popularity of five-a-side football. Picture: Contributed

He ended up running a fleet of ice-cream vans to help fund his studies in environmental engineering at the University of Strathclyde, before finding his niche in the world of five-a-side football and co-founding Pitz.

That business, which opened its first centre in 1987, was sold to venture capital firm 3i in 1999 for £28 million and, the following year, Rogers was part of a management buy-in at Goals Soccer Centres, which is approaching the tenth anniversary of its flotation on London’s Alternative Investment Market.

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“We came to the market as quite a small company with big ambitions,” says Rogers, who last week kicked off an expansion drive that will see the firm open two sites in the UK this year, with three on the cards for the US by 2016.

Goals, which began life as a listed company in 2004 with 11 centres, now has 43 across the UK and one in Los Angeles, California, where Rogers believes football – or “soccer” in the local parlance – is about to break into the big league.

The East Kilbride-based company launched its LA site almost four years ago, with former US defender turned broadcaster Alexi Lalas performing the opening ceremony, which coincided with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Although American dreams of progressing to the quarter-finals were thwarted by a 2-1 defeat to Ghana, the popularity of the game Stateside shows no signs of abating.

Helped in no small part by David Beckham’s six-season stint at LA Galaxy, Rogers says there are now 22.5 million soccer players in the US, of whom two million are in California.

“With 18 million people, LA is a huge conurbation and soccer has been the most popular participation sport in Californian schools for over ten years.

“If you look at Beckham talking about taking on a Major League Soccer franchise in Miami, it’s a sport that’s come of age. Even the most anti-soccer sports experts are predicting that the day will come when soccer really is vying for that one number slot in terms of participation.”

Closer to home, Goals believes there is the potential to grow its UK presence by at least 100 centres, although one of its biggest challenges will be finding the right locations to deliver enough players without cannibalising custom from its existing sites.

Rogers says: “We are extremely picky about where we build our centres – we enter into long leaseholds on the sites and getting a location wrong would be a longstanding annoyance to the business. Thankfully, every one of our 43 centres is highly profitable.

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“The sites we go into tend to be quite sensitive locations because we take on large areas of land, but we’ve been very successful in getting planning permission on what have been seen as quite difficult sites.”

The company, which employs about 750 people, is not “anti-acquisition”, but Rogers says it prefers to focus on organic growth and develop its own sites from scratch. All of its new venues will be built using a prefabricated system, trialled in Chester, which cuts construction time and costs by about a third.

While opportunities for acquisitions may be limited, Goals itself caught the eye of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2012. The company’s management backed the £73.1m approach from the owner of National Lottery operator Camelot, but the 144p-a-share deal was narrowly rejected by shareholders.

Patron Capital, the private equity firm behind rival Powerleague – which had evolved from Rogers’ former Pitz business – also expressed an interest, but no bid was forthcoming.

Shares in Goals closed at 232.5p on Friday, valuing the business at more than £135m, and Rogers says: “The outcome of the Teachers’ bid showed that the existing shareholders – many of whom have been with us for the past ten years – believe in this company and see real value in this business. It was like a vote of approval.”

Rogers no longer plays football, instead opting to cycle and run to keep fit, and is an avid reader, with “two or three books on the go at any one time”.

“I love going into bookshops, with the smell of coffee mixing with that of the physical books,” he says, although he fears that the rising popularity of downloadable e-books will spell the end of the traditional bookstore.

But he is keen to adopt new technology, having recently succumbed to the allure of a Nook e-reader, and Goals is working on a smartphone app that will enable customers to book pitches, check results and find potential teammates. He also enthuses about the firm’s IT systems, which let him monitor all areas of the company without resorting to too many transatlantic flights.

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At the end of the day though, the beautiful game is at heart of the business, and Rogers says sales continue to grow despite the squeeze on consumer spending, with only the heavy snowfall of 2010 giving revenues a short-term knock.

“When you’re only paying about £6 a head, and it’s ticking the fitness and socialising boxes, it’s going to take a lot for people to give that up. It’s a lot cheaper than going to a health club getting bored out of your mind on a treadmill.”

30-second CV

Job: Managing director, Goals Soccer Centres.

Born: Falkirk, 1961.

Education: Grangemouth High School, University of Strathclyde.

First job: Driving ice-cream vans.

Ambition while at school: I always wanted to run my own business.

Car: BMW.

Music: Vocal jazz – my current favourite artist is Stacey Kent.

Can’t live without: Books – I’m an avid reader of fiction and recently bought a Nook electronic book, which I said I’d never do.

Favourite holiday destination: Naples in Florida.

What makes you angry? Getting tickets for driving in a bus lane you wouldn’t know was there.

Best thing about your job: Working with people who are passionate about what they do.