• Name: Duncan Kerr
    • Business: Wave Leisure Ltd.
    • Role(s): CEO
    • Business function: Management of Leisure Facilities
    • Sector: Leisure
    • Hub member for: 9 years

Duncan’s story

“Taking everything into consideration, if there was one biggest single influencing factor that supports me in my thinking as a CEO, it’s sport and my experiences as a player and performance coach.  I started playing squash at the age of 10 on a court with my father just hitting the ball back and forth.  From that, it quickly progressed to become an absolute passion and I ended up playing in the world championships in Australia where our team finished fifth in the world.

There is no doubt that Sport offers moments where you can excel and get instant gratification, but the real satisfaction comes from knowing that success has been achieved through hard work and determination, and there is a simple honesty about that which has always appealed to me.  Not only do these moments stay with your forever in terms of the result, but the resilience that they give you re-defines your capability.  If you work harder than everybody else, then there’s a good chance that you will last longer than everyone else, however, you’ve got to understand that pretty early on and be prepared to commit.

I’ve always wanted to be good at what I do.  I think winning is an instinct as much as a reward – you want to win.  I don’t even want one month’s set of accounts to come back showing an unexpected picture, I want them to report what I expected.  That might not always be positive, but at the end of the day, you want to be in control of it and that’s how professional athletes deal with progressing through the ranks to become world class.

In relation to what I do now as a profession, I had absolutely no intention to be a CEO of a leisure trust.  I completed a degree in Sports Management but whilst that’s clearly helped to get me into roles that allowed me to then progress, I would still say that squash and performance coaching are the key factors that have led me to where I am now.  The degree was great but, for me, it’s more about attitude, approach, commitment and sacrifice gathered on life’s journey that has helped me on a day to day basis. I found to excel, it’s not just about skill development, it’s about learning how you learn and how you apply those ‘learning’ skills to improve, along with the absolute commitment to make every learning moment count, i.e. walk off the court a better player than when you walked on.

My lucky break was just before 2000 when I applied for the Director of Sport job at the University of Reading which was a significant step up for me.  I then moved to become Managing Director of Gosling Sports Park in Welwyn Garden City, a true independent charitable trust with no formal relationship with the local authority, no service fee, a really cash-strapped business but a phenomenal facility well and truly embedded in the community.

This may sound strange but the place had a heartbeat of its own and my approach to the challenge wasn’t so much about imposing my way on it to make it thrive, it was more about observing and listening to understand what that facility had to offer and mould the approach around the key influencing factors.  It was a phenomenal challenge but a fantastic grounding within a cash strapped business, learning how to grow and develop it with limited resources.  It’s probably there that I learnt that being close to your customer, understanding them and doing whatever you can to supply what they would like is fundamentally key.

I think that listening is a fine art. There is so much noise within Industry now, especially with the impact of social media – it can be deafening and focusing on the relevant and impactful stuff can be quite a challenge.  If you think about performance, listening is essential, not just about your own thoughts but also the thoughts of colleagues, those who share in your mission and the customer.  When I started coaching, I quickly learnt that understanding the person, listening to them, learning how they learn and adapting my skill to support them to improve and perform was key.  It’s exactly the same with a customer, listening intently to what they have to say and then doing everything you can to make it right for them and that’s what I try to do every day.

My father has been a huge influence in my life, there’s a lot of similar characteristics between us.  We’re really determined but we’re also worriers and those two things don’t always make the best partnership. Back in my squash playing days, I was advised to read a book by Timothy Gallway called “The Inner Game of Tennis”.  I won’t go into the detail but it offers strategies on how to approach negative thinking and thoughts and that’s really important and I’m glad I’ve got strategies to deal with it.

I’ve been at Wave Leisure Trust for nearly 4 years now and I genuinely feel that here, more than anywhere else, I’m able to put into the business the culmination of collected skills, experiences and resilience that I have gathered on my journey so far.

The leisure trust sector is really competitive and is going through a lot of change at the moment – the days of ‘service fees’ from local government are coming to an end.  Therefore, services that are non-statutory, like leisure, are at risk and one of the things that we’ve got to do is to achieve growth in revenue and reductions in cost in order that we continue to grow as a business.  Having said that, we have a great relationship with our local authority and we have a medium term financial plan to take us to the end of our contract with them and we’re on track to achieve it.

Our Purpose is “Inspiring Active Lifestyles” and we have a Vision “to be at the heart of the improvement of health and wellbeing in our communities”.  We also have five core business objectives, one of which is delivering to our community and we have invested heavily in that area in an attempt to achieve our Vision.  The approach also links to my previous comments about getting closer to our customer, listening to those who perhaps don’t currently access our facilities but want to be more active.  For example, we now have over 4,200 attendances on our “Active Schools” Programme which offers breakfast, lunch and after school clubs in local schools and that’s growing into a core part of our outreach work in the community.  On the back of this outreach work we try to create pathway opportunities to ensure children can continue to lead active lives.

Another thing we can’t ignore is that we are now operating Newhaven Fort on behalf of the Council.  We are focused on three things – Education, Experience and Events – and we’ve done a lot of work in an attempt to improve the customer experience.  We are also looking at running more and more events during the course of the entire year as opposed to just during the opening season.  A great example was our Christmas Market where we had over 2,000 visitors during a time when the Fort would traditionally be closed.  There’s a real community asset there that we would like to see become more attractive, to draw more people into Newhaven.

Why mdhub?

The previous MD who was here suggested to me that I should go along to a group he’d belonged to and I found it quite interesting but it didn’t quite work for me and then I received an email that came through from mdhub and I thought, I’ll give that a go.  It’s been a great sounding board and for me, more about a consistent group of people coming together, listening and sometimes offering some guidance on way forward actions.  Sometimes it’s circular in the sense that you ask a question and eventually, you provide yourself with the answer just by talking about it to a group of peers who have no agenda other than to help.  It’s that type of experience that you get from being part of the mdhub.  Sometimes it can be motivational… you get someone else saying, yes, why not, give it a go.  Other people get other things out of it, what works for some doesn’t for others and it’s down to the skill of the mdhub facilitator to manage that.

What I have found interesting is that, although I don’t know their business, there is an awful lot that you can contribute to somebody else’s challenges without necessarily knowing the fine detail.

If you think about the journey that I’ve been on as a player, a coach, a sports development coordinator to a CEO, Board Member and Trustee, there’s a lot of experience there which others may find useful.  You can listen to someone who’s talking about something positively or something that’s causing them frustration and there’s moments when you can say, I know exactly how you feel and this is how I dealt with it and people get quite a bit out of that.

Having that sounding board along with a bit of time on a one to one level has been really beneficial. The latter really helped me to continue my learning skills on people management.

mdhub provides an environment to learn, grow and develop through reflection of professional and sometimes, personal challenges. Genuinely I have felt supported by a group of people who I feel care about my business and how they can help me make it more successful.”