Millionaire businessman Barrie Wells spent £2m funding Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Jessica Ennis-Hill and others to reach their potential and his Box4Kids scheme is also going from strength to strength
In 2008 Barrie Wells was sitting in the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing watching the Olympic Games and had an idea. After making millions selling insurance businesses, the money was burning a hole in his pocket. Donating it to international charities was a possibility. Yet what really excited him was the idea of bolstering the chances of British Olympic hopes in the run-up to London 2012.
“I told my son, who I was sitting next to, that I was going to give a lot of his inheritance away to athletes,” says Wells, “and he thought it was a great idea!”
After Beijing, Wells set about identifying people from various Olympic sports to help, which included, among others, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill. In total he spent about £2 million helping them realise their ambitions, effectively turning him into one of the biggest unsung heroes in British athletics as the athletes won global titles.
I meet Wells at the offices of his Barrie Wells Trust in Lancaster. I have bumped into him a few times briefly on the athletics circuit over the years and we had exchanged emails a few times but I was keen to get to know a man who has surely been the sport’s biggest benefactor in the last decade or so.
Social distancing is only just starting to kick in across the country, although soon after my visit Wells’ office will, like many others, temporarily close. So I am lucky to get my interview with him in before the shutdown begins.
On one side of his office are framed photographs of the many athletes he has helped, such as KJT, Ennis-Hill, Jenny Meadows, Dai Greene, Holly Bradshaw, Steph Twell, Mike Rimmer and Jodie Williams, plus those from other sports such as gymnast Beth Tweddle. On the other side of the room are photos of his brilliant Box4Kids scheme, where seriously ill or, in some cases, terminally ill children enjoy VIP treatment in a special box at sporting events like the Anniversary Games in London or football matches at Anfield – the home of his beloved Liverpool FC.
In total I spend a fascinating four or five hours with him and it could easily have been twice as long. As I discover, he knows his athletics history and statistics better than I do, whereas the story of how he came to fund athletes is a remarkable tale of generosity and philanthropy.
Before the Beijing Games he had toyed with the idea of sponsoring athletes but says of the moment in the Bird’s Nest: “That was when it came together for me. I thought I am going to give this to athletes as it is the sport I understand. In that stadium in Beijing, I thought ‘London is in 2012, I love athletics and I can get involved and if I sponsor athletes I can go and watch them train and be on their journey.”
Having a couple of million pounds to give to athletes is not an everyday occurrence, though, and initially he had trouble actually trying to give it away. “I found it hard to engage at the time with UK Athletics,” he says. “When I wrote to explain what I was going to do there was no real enthusiasm for it.”
He jokes: “I thought they might have sent a car to my house and picked me up straight away to talk about it. But they didn’t. So I then wondered ‘what do I do next?’”
He continues: “I still wanted to do it, though, so I went to see Baroness Sue Campbell, who was the chair at UK Sport, the organisation that did the (official) funding for all the sport. And she saw me right away with no messing.
“She recommended different sports to me like swimming, triathlon, etc., although British Cycling didn’t really need my money and it was an idea which was foreign to their culture, although my discussions with them were all very amicable.
“I then saw Niels de Vos (UKA chief executive at the time) and went in with my list of athletes and showed him the ones I wanted to sponsor and he asked if I wanted any input but I told him I knew who I wanted. He was a bit surprised that I had Katarina (Johnson-Thompson) as she was only 15 at the time and hadn’t come across his radar much. But he was happy to write what was a very good letter to Jessica Ennis, Katarina’s mum and about eight athletes in total to ask if they wanted to meet up to talk to me about it. They all said yes although one asked if they wanted me to meet their agent instead and I thought ‘er, no, I’m not interested in doing it that way’.”
Wells did not simply want to write blind cheques for the athletes, though. He needed them to convince him how they were going to spend the money and how it would help them. With Ennis-Hill, for example, she was keen for her trusted physiotherapist Alison Rose to accompany her to competitions or camps, whereas Greene needed help to relocate from Wales to Bath to team up with coach Malcolm Arnold and Meadows found winter training camps in South Africa valuable.
Yet Wells was intrigued by one athlete in particular – Johnson-Thompson. He had a passion for combined events himself and was inspired by the exploits of Jim Thorpe and Bob Matthias and had read avidly about Johnson-Thompson’s teenage exploits in AW. “I thought she was incredible but she could have had completely the wrong attitude,” he says. “So I went to see her with her coach and mum.
“I went along with these expectations of an unbelievable talent for someone that age but I wondered what she’d be like as a person and as soon as she started talking to me she knew all about Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carolina Klüft and that her ambitions were to go right to the top – but it was not said in any boastful way.”
Wells (pictured above with KJT at the 2019 BBC Sports Personality Awards) continues: “I asked what else had influenced her and she quoted Steve Prefontaine, who once said, ‘The best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die’. I told her he died in 1975 but she said that she knew that but that she could relate to it. So when she went on to the start line in the final event in Doha last year, I could imagine her thinking ‘today is a good day to die’.”
Wells adds: “The relationship absolutely clicked despite her being 15 years old and me being so much older.” Among other things, Wells partly bought Johnson-Thompson’s first car and paid for driving lessons so she wouldn’t have to walk and get buses to training while carrying her equipment on wet winter nights.
Wells chose wisely with his sponsored athletes, too. Johnson-Thompson made the team for London 2012 while Ennis-Hill took gold. In total, out of 18 sports men and women that he chose to sponsor, 11 made the top six at London – an extraordinary achievement.
A lifetime in athletics
Track and field runs in Wells’ blood. His grandfather was Ernest Latimer Stones, a world record-holder for the pole vault in the 1880s. He never knew Stones but says athletics was very much part of the family life and one of his uncles was a Northern Counties sprints champion.
As an athlete himself he ran 50 seconds for 440 yards on a cinder track, although he might have run quicker if he had trained harder. “Sadly I didn’t have the same talent as my grandfather,” he says. “Also, Liverpool in the 1960s was a pretty sociable place with the pop groups and Beatles etc so I enjoyed the life there and didn’t train very hard.”
As a sprinter, though, he ran 4x400m at the AAA Championships and competed at the famous White City stadium. Later, he made a comeback as an over-40 veteran athlete while living and working in Singapore from 1979-86. “It was beautifully warm with a great climate and ideal for training,” he remembers. “Someone suggested that I took up athletics again and come back as a master. So I did and despite weighing 19kg more and being so many years older I only ran two seconds slower and clocked 52 seconds as a 42-year-old.”
Now 79, Wells still looks in good shape. Not just physically but mentally too. He proves it as well with a party trick that illustrates something that I didn’t know about him. He is a maths genius with an uncanny knack of being able to multiply and divide large numbers in a flash off the top of his head. Such ability, he says, proved an enormous help to him during his business career in insurance.
As a youngster the athletics action in 1954 really captured his imagination. He was only 14 at the time as the sports world was dominated by the news of Roger Bannister running the world’s first sub-four-minute mile. Soon after, Chris Chataway paced John Landy to a world record of 3:58.00. Then came the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver with Bannister beating Landy in the ‘miracle mile’, while Chataway took three miles gold. At the European Championships the 1500m was won by Bannister, with Vladimir Kuts of the Soviet Union beating Chataway in the 5000m. Finally, in October, Chataway got revenge on Kuts with a spectacular 5000m victory and world record at the White City.
Now, as we sit in Wells office, he shows me a framed letter that Bannister gave him after he had been privileged enough to enjoy a small lunch to celebrate one of the sub-four anniversaries with Bannister, Chataway, Clive Bannister (Sir Roger’s son) and Ron Dennis, the founder of McLaren. “It was absolutely surreal discussing lap times and personalities from 1952 to 1956 with them some 55 years later,” says Wells. “Wonderful moments for an athletics fanatic like me!”
What next for Wells?
With his athlete sponsorship days largely behind him, he now puts his energy into Box4Kids and wants to take it abroad. He also gives talks on ‘disruptive entrepreneurship’ – a method he used to create and sell businesses, most notably selling an insurance firm to Allianz for £30m in 2006.
As Wells has become more known throughout sporting circles, he has gained more recognition too. He was recently awarded an MBE for services to charity and, among other things, sits on the England Athletics hall of fame judging panel.
Most of all, though, he appears to cherish the friendships he has formed with athletes whose sponsorship deals have long since run out. The financial backing ends at some stage, he has discovered, but it often turns into emotional support and, subsequently, a long-time and genuine friendship.
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The Müller Anniversary Games are taking place this weekend at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and a group of #Box4Kids guests will be there to see all the action! This event is a world-leading athletics meeting which attracts the biggest names in the sport! The day will include 100m hurdles, javelin, triple jump, pole vaulting, the 100m finals and so many more spectacular events! Below is a picture of Barrie, our patron @johnsonthompson and a group of guests taken at the 2016 games!
He is particularly close to Johnson-Thompson and Meadows, for example, and delighted that athletes like Goldie Sayers, Adam Gemili, Laura Muir, Guy Learmonth, Andy Pozzi and many others get involved as Box4Kids hosts.
Given his knowledge of the history of the sport and his involvement in recent years, Wells is well placed to give some views on the sport’s various issues too. “There are loads. How long have we got?” he smiles, before adding: “At UKA it seems obvious to me that it’s important we get the right people in place. So many people lately have just not been right for the roles.”
Wells adds, disappointingly, that he has written to some recent high-ranking administrators but sometimes not even had a reply. Some recognise the important part he has played, though.
Johnson-Thompson, for example, showed him how much he meant to her in 2014 when she came to his honorary doctorate presentation at Edge Hill University despite the fact she was being pursued by the media for having just withdrawn from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow due to injury. “She just turned up and sat on the front row,” he recalls. “She said ‘you’ve supported me so I wanted to support you’.”
What began as a purely financial arrangement has turned into far more for most of the athletes.
» Find out more about Box4Kids here
» This is an edited version of a feature that first appeared in the March 26 issue of AW magazine