Exeter Rugby Club, also known as the Exter Chiefs, have an interesting ownership structure. Many people think that the club is owned by a local businessman, Tony Rowe, but that isn’t the case.
This article clarifies how the club is owned and operated. And we also take an in-depth look at the business background of Rowe, who certainly has a major influence on the Exeter Chiefs.
Who Owns Exeter Rugby?
Exeter Rugby is owned by a limited company that operates as a membership club. Four trustees are appointed by the seven hundred members, and the trustees hold the shares.
Tony Rowe is often referred to as the owner of Exeter Chiefs, but the ownership is in the hands of the club members.
Rowe was originally a business sponsor when Exeter Rugby was an amateur club. He joined the board as Chairman after the club turned professional.
There’s no doubt that Tony Rowe has played the leading role in putting Exeter Rugby on a sound financial footing. The rest of this article examines Rowe’s business background and his significant contribution to the Chiefs.
Tony Rowe’s Business Background
Tony Rowe was born in Portsmouth, a shipping port in South East England. Although he played rugby at school, he didn’t enjoy his school days.
In 1964, he was fifteen when he joined the Royal Marines.
Boats and business
The youngster started his naval career as a Bugle Boy, playing in the military band. He also played rugby on navy teams, but Rowe says he didn’t have much interest in the sport in his youth.
With cuts to military funding in 1972, Rowe left the navy through voluntary redundancy. He set up a business repairing outboard motors. This was his first entrepreneurial venture.
Rowe also took an interest in powerboat racing and won a national championship in 1976.
In the early 1980s, Rowe set up a couple of retail computer shops in Devon that didn’t take off. He found it difficult to compete with larger competitors.
His big business break was when the UK government privatized the telecommunications industry. Rowe saw an opportunity to get an early start in this new market. He persuaded two partners to join him in setting up the first independent telephone company in the South West of England.
The original company was called South West Telecom. It has since been renamed South West Communications Group. The company has grown to a turnover of about £25 million.
Rowe is semi-retired from running the business but still keeps an office at the company’s headquarters.
Other business interests
Tony Rowe has invested in other businesses in the South West.
This includes investment in commercial property like Exeter Estates, a new business park in the town.
Rowe has also invested in hotel real estate such as Lympstone Manor, a luxurious country house with a Michelin star.
Tony Rowe And Exeter Rugby
As a successful local businessman, Rowe was approached by Exeter Rugby Club in 1993 for sponsorship.
This was a few years before the introduction of professionalism in the sport. Exeter was not considered to be one of the major English amateur clubs. They played in an outdated home ground in Exeter’s city center.
Rowe’s telecom company sponsored the club jersey for a few thousand pounds a year.
Tony Rowe becomes Chairman of Exeter Rugby Club
The sport of Rugby Union went professional in 1995, leading to big upheaval across English clubs.
Exeter Rugby’s committee decided to form a limited company in 1997. The following year, they asked Tony Rowe to take the role of Chairman.
Rowe had always left rugby matters to the senior coaches in the club. But he took the business reins and has run the commercial side of the club to this day.
Securing Exeter Chief’s Financial Future
One of Tony Rowe’s biggest decisions was to move the Exeter Chiefs to a new stadium.
The old County Ground was full of atmosphere but in dire need of an upgrade. It was also in the center of Exeter, which made expansion very difficult (and expensive).
But the UK was going through a property boom through the 2000s. Rowe saw the opportunity and sold the prime city-center real estate at the height of the boom. The site was since developed for private housing.
Here’s a quick aside about rugby history. In 1905, the New Zealand rugby team embarked on their first ever playing tour through Britain. The opening match was against Devon County, and it was played in the County Ground (now gone).
Rowe moved the Chiefs to a new stadium in 2006 on the edge of the city. More importantly for the future of the club, this wasn’t just a rugby ground.
The facility, known as Sandy Park, has a conference center and restaurants. Revenue from the conference business covers a lot of the day-to-day running of the rugby club.
No sane businessman invests in a rugby club with a view to making a quick buck.
The Exeter Chiefs needed good coaches and players and a bigger stadium. This requires injections of cash into the club.
It’s generally assumed that Rowe made substantial business loans to the club to fund the new and upgraded facilities.
Other Premiership Owners
There are parallels between Tony Rowe and Duncan Saville, one of the Harlequins owners. Saville made his fortune from the privatization of UK water, while Rowe took advantage of the Telecoms sell-off.
You can read more about Saville in our article on the owners of Harlequins Rugby Club.
Exeter’s most natural local rivalry is with fellow West Country clubs Bath and Gloucester. Check out our article on who owns Bath rugby club.