UP CLOSE with England Rugby Chair Tom Ilube

  Posted: 30.12.21 at 14:53 by Stuart Higgins

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The new Chair of the England Rugby Football Union, Tom Ilube, is making history in his important role within the governing body but his long journey began locally, when he first played rugby at Teddington School.

Tom, 58, has a CBE (for services to Technology and Philanthropy) is a father of two, and a successful entrepreneur.

He still lives locally in Petersham and here, in a revealing and candid UP CLOSE question and answer session with Nub News Tom talks frankly about the challenges he faces as well as the opportunities for England rugby in the future.

Tom, you were a former pupil of Teddington School. Can you tell us a bit about your time at the school and what it was like then. Did you live in Teddington? If so, what do you remember about Teddington?

Tom: "We lived in Richmond back in the early 70s and I went to Teddington School from The Vineyard Primary School in Richmond.

"Back then, Teddington School was a big, tough, all boys school commonly known as 'Broom Road'. Lots of lads came by train, arriving at Hampton Wick. I am not sure the local residents were overly delighted as this lively bunch of boys walked noisily along Broom Road every morning!

Tom (with the ball) while playing in Under 14s at Teddington School (Image: Courtesy of Tom Ilube).

Do you have enduring memories of a particular teacher or a favourite subject? Did you do well at the school and were you involved in sport at school?

"My favourite subject at school was maths. It was my strongest subject and I was generally at or near the top of the class.

"I actually enjoyed most subjects, particularly the sciences, although I fell out with one of the science masters and this made for a difficult relationship, more so when he publicly administered 'the slipper' on my backside in front of the whole class!

"In my first year, I performed as Young Johnny Jones in the school play 'Oh What A lovely War'. It was a big production, led by a charismatic American (I think) drama teacher. I remember him being very frustrated a couple of days before opening night when he spotted me tap dancing on the stage and shouted across the hall "Ilube, for goodness sake, why didn’t you tell me you could dance? We would have put that in the play!". The play clearly had an impact on me as my wife still has to stop me belting out songs from the play nearly 50 years later.

"My favourite teacher was definitely the great Mr John McSorley, Head of PE and our rugby coach. I was a very keen rugby player at school (I played number 10, wing and sometimes full-back). McSorley was a huge atheletic chap and former Commonwealth Silver medal javelin champion. I remember him once throwing a rugby ball, American football style, from the halfway line straight through the uprights!

Tom in the stands of Twickenham Rugby Stadium.

"Whenever there were fights in the playground, which was fairly often, and all the boys clustered round shouting "fight, fight", McSorley would appear at the head of a group of teachers, barge his way through the crowd and put a stop to it. You’d not want to get the slipper from McSorley, I can tell you from personal experience!

"John McSorley has also gone down in legend at the chap who built a big wooden box to air freight his Aussie mate, Reg Spiers, back to Australia so that Reg could save paying the air fare! When I was appointed Chair of the RFU one of the first things I did was track Mr McSorley down, through his son, and thank him for starting me off on the rugby path. He sent a message back saying he was very proud to hear that one of his Broom Road lads had done well in the sports world and I felt like an eleven year old all over again."

You were named as Britain’s most influential black person in 2017. Can I ask what that means to you personally and professionally and how you think you best use your influence as a black person?

"When I was rang up in 2017 by Michael Eboda, Founder of the annual Powerlist to say that they were going to announce me as Britain’s most influential person of African & Caribbean Descent, I said "why, are you running low on black people?" Even my wife said "hold on, you’re not even the most powerful black person in this house!".

"So, I don’t get too carried away. But I was very proud that my business and charity achievements had been recognised by my peer group. There are not many black people at the top of public life (although things are improving) and certainly when I was growing up, there were almost none ahead of me to inspire and show what is possible. So, if my presence and profile helps encourage other people to follow their dreams and aspirations then I am delighted to play that role."

Your business experience is wide ranging in terms of technology and the financial sector – is it possible for you to describe what gets you excited about business?

"I studied physics at university and have always had a love of science and technology. When I graduated in 1984, the IT world was really opening up and I jumped in, with my first tech job at British Airways, programming huge mainframe computers at Heathrow.

"After ten years in corporate life, at the likes of the London Stock Exchange, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Goldman Sachs amongst others, I was bitten by the start up bug and have spent the past 30 plus years as a technology entrepreneur. I enjoy creating new things - new companies, new schools. I love starting with an idea, thinking ‘how do I turn that into something real?’ and then having the satisfaction of seeing it come into being."

Was there a moment in your career when you suddenly recognised that you had leadership skills and could inspire others and do you think the foundations for that were laid in school?

"At school I wasn’t really a leader. I was a key member of the team (whatever that team was) but I didn’t push myself to the front. I think I knew I was capable but I held myself back a bit. As a black kid in the 70s you had to be a little bit careful of making yourself an easier target than you were going to be anyway. But as I found my feet in the world of work, I became more comfortable with taking the lead and bringing my own style of leadership to the fore."

Can you explain a little more about your educational journey after Teddington School in that you then went to Nigeria to attend Secondary School and the University of Benin and the returning to business school. Did you have specific ambitions at this stage?

"My father was originally from Nigeria in West Africa. He came to England in 1957 with the Army and was trained as an electrical engineer at the Army Apprentice School up in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. After the army he worked at the BBC and at the Post Office in their research department (interestingly on very early attempts at video conferencing back in the 1960s. They had this crazy idea of people being able to see each other over telephone lines - can you imagine such a thing!).

"Anyway, eventually he decided to return to Nigeria to build his career there and he took me and my younger brother, Roland, with him. So, sadly I left Teddington and went to finish my secondary education there and went on to the University of Benin, in Nigeria.

"As it happens just recently I returned to the university for the first time in nearly 40 years to receive an Honorary Doctorate. I returned to start my career back in London and after a few years I decided to do a full time Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at City University of London’s Bayes Business School.

"At that stage, my ambitions were to establish a blue chip technology career and see how far I could get. It was only later that I decided to explore the start up world, although I had a go at a couple of entrepreneurial activities back at university. Who can forget the flared trousers designed, produced and sold by the legendary “ACE: Fashion For Men”?!"

As well as your principal career, education has played a significant part in your life with the founding of the Hammersmith Academy as well as the African Gifted Foundation, how did that come about and what inspired that? Can you say a bit more about the education projects you are involved in now?

|When I had achieved enough in my career to think about giving back in the meaningful way, I went about it very methodically and decided to focus, rather than give a bit of money here and a bit of help there.

"I chose education because my mother was a teacher for many years, and I had seen the impact that educational opportunities had on my father’s life. Within education, I decided to focus on secondary school education and in particular on STEM (science, technology, maths). I had become a Freeman of the City of London and a member of one of the livery companies, the Information Technologists Company.

"So, when in 2005 the opportunity arose to propose a big project, I put forward the idea of creating a brand new Livery-backed school. I went on to lead the project and was the founding Chair of Governors when in 2011 we opened the doors to Hammersmith Academy, now a thriving secondary school with close to a thousand students.

"Given my African heritage, I was keen to extend my educational philanthropy and that eventually became the African Gifted Foundation, a charity for exceptionally gifted young people from under privileged backgrounds.

"We launched the African Science Academy in Ghana for young women scientists from across the continent. It is the only school if its type on the entire continent and so far over a hundred students have studied maths, further maths and physics A levels and gone on to universities on full scholarships all over the world. It’s the thing I am most proud of having created."

You were also a non-executive director of the BBC which must have been a completely new experience – what did that teach you or did it make you think differently about anything? What do you think of the BBC in terms of representing value for money and its future.

"I spent four and a half years on the Board of the BBC. I was incredibly proud to be asked to serve, given that fifty years earlier my father worked there as one of the first, if not the first, black engineer at the BBC (sadly he didn’t live long enough to see me join the Board).

"Seeing the BBC from the Board perspective, a global media giant with around 20,000 staff, broadcasting to half a billion people around the world was incredible. It made me really appreciate the value of public service broadcasting and the importance of Britain having a huge, trusted and authoritative voice on the global stage.

"I sometimes wonder whether you have to have had my experience of being in a far away country in the middle of a dangerous coup where the only information you can trust is what you hear on BBC World Service, to truly appreciate what we have. We should cherish and support it."

You have only been Chair of the RFU for a short while and we have been in the midst of lockdown or reduced crowds, do you feel you are having an impact yet?

"I have only been RFU Chair for four months (I started on 1st August), so I really am at the start of my journey.

"Whenever I start something new, I take the time to understand what is going on, talk to as many people as possible and really get a feel for the place. I am not one of those opinionated people who jumps in feet first and starts demanding changes. I am developing my priorities and will be focusing on winning, player welfare and women’s rugby.

"I am very excited about the potential for women’s rugby and the role that England Rugby is playing in that. As soon as I joined, I got behind the RFU’s bid for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2025 and was delighted when we were confirmed as the preferred bidder recently. We aim to fill Twickenham to its 82,000 capacity for a women’s international over the next few years."

Tell us about your links with rugby over the years. You have been playing since the age of 10 and your son plays too? Is it your favourite sport or do you support a football team too?

"My elder brother Jim (who sadly died nearly ten years ago) was a keen rugby player and was three years older than me. I looked up to him in every way, so I was more than happy for him to practice using me as a tackle bag at home (even though it was slightly painful!).

"So, as soon as I could, I was out on the rugby pitch playing my heart out, at school and at the local club with a good youth set up, which was London Welsh (well, it was the early 70s after all). My rugby ‘claim to fame’ was scoring a try on BBC’s Rugby Special, when they showed about 30 seconds of our London Welsh vs Llanelli youth game before the big match!

"Inevitably, my son was practically born with a rugby ball in his hand and we got down to the minis as soon as we could. I have spent the last 17 years standing on touch lines all over the country watching him play at London Irish RFC, St Benedict’s School, Newcastle Unviersity and the Wasps Academy. He still doesn’t give me credit for showing him my wicked sidestep!"

Recently there have been well-covered issues about safety in the sport and as Chair do you feel you and the game have a responsibility to make the game safer in the future to encourage youngsters to carry on playing, especially with the growth of the girls’ game too?

"Since joining the RFU, I have been impressed at how open the game is about the player welfare challenges. The sport is being driven by the data and the science and is working hard at all levels to ensure that everyone involved can gain the physical and mental health benefits of playing and being involved in rugby, whilst managing the risks. Rugby is a contact sport and we want it to remain so, although I do enjoy the variations from Touch Union to Walking Rugby. So long as people have an oval ball in their hands, I’m happy.

There has been much talk about diversity in the Boardroom and it’s an issue for many companies and sports governing bodies especially which tend to have a very traditional and ageing membership. How are you tackling this at the RFU?

"We are engaging with diversity in a very rugby-like way, that is, by looking at the challenges straight in the eye and dealing with them head on. It is not a surprise to me that rugby is the first major national sport to appoint a black Chair.

"We will see more diversity in our Boardroom over the coming year and our Council has also taken a major step in co-opting four new members onto Council, three of whom are black."

When you appeared on Desert Island discs recently you selected Swing Low as one of your record choices, which was the subject of controversy at the time because of its associations with slavery. Tell us why you felt comfortable with that choice?

"Swing Low means a lot of things to a lot of people and I know that it makes some people feel uncomfortable when it’s sung at Twickenham and I respect and understand that view.

"It means a lot to me personally. I mentioned that my big brother, Jim, died suddenly in 2012. It broke me and I was so depressed for over a year that I nearly didn’t pull out of it. But it was powerful memories of us playing rugby together, and standing side by side at Twickenham singing Swing Low that helped me pull through. So, when Desert Island Discs asked me to choose my songs, it had to be one of them, for him and for me.

"Also, with so many of these things, the important thing, in my view, is the opportunity to learn from them. For example, many people know that Swing Low was composed by an enslaved man, Wallace Willis but hardly anyone remembers that it was Wallace and his wife, Miverna Willis who composed and sung that song. So often women in general and black women in particular get written out of history. I love the idea that over 150 years later 80,000 people right at the heart of British society are belting out Minerva and Wallace’s song to inspire the England rugby team and we are still talking about them today. I don’t want them forgotten.

"Someone once told me that people die twice. The first time when they die physically. The second time, when their name is spoken for the very last time ever. Well, by that measure, my brother Jim and Minerva and Wallace Willis are not gone yet, thanks to Swing Low!

As the first black Chair of a sporting governing body, is that a responsibility which weighs heavily with you in terms of trail-blazing change and innovation. What would you hope to achieve, after say, five years as Chair and how will the Board look then?

"I never feel any weight or pressure from being the first black anything. I have often been in that position, of being the first or the only black person in the room, so it is something that I am very used to.

"My aim is to do a really good job as RFU Chair over the three years of my initial term such that people say "he was alright, wasn’t he?" Sometimes just by being in a position and performing well, it can open up opportunities for others, or inspire others to go for positions that they previously thought were beyond them. As for the Board, it will definitively be more diverse in all respects than it was before I joined and with that wide range of experiences it will be stronger for it."

Obviously as Chair you don’t have any say about Eddie’s selection but what’s your personal assessment of the current England squad? Can we win the World Cup in 2024?

"I have loved watching the matches through the summer and the Autumn Internationals. It is fascinating to see the team evolving as we head towards the 2023 World Cup and I am confident that England will be one of the strongest contenders. We are not afraid of anyone!"

You still live locally, a couple of miles from the Twickenham Stadium, and your wife Caron works locally too, tell us why you like living in the area and some of your favourite spots, walks, restaurants, cafes etc.

"We live in Petersham now, a lovely, quiet spot. My family has lived in this area for five generations. My mother still lives locally, my brother, who at one point was on the Board of The Lensbury, lives in Twickenham and my sister is nearby too. We have cousins locally.

"One of my Grand Uncles was a Richmond Councillor and Mayor of Barnes. So we are a family with deep roots around here. I grew up roaming around Richmond Park, riding my bike along the river towpath from Richmond to Teddington, skating at Richmond ice rink and of course playing rugby all around Teddington, Twickenham and Richmond. Caron and I often walk from Petersham down past the Polo Club and Ham House, along the river and end up walking across Teddington Lock for lunch at the Anglers or tapas at Bar Estilo."

Cricket is dealing with its own race issues now which are making big headlines, yet sport has so much potential to bring people together from such different backgrounds as well offering great career opportunities. How do you think we can overcome some of the issues which are causing so much damage to sport, especially through social media?

"We have to be willing to have open and honest conversations, to acknowledge when things are not right and to take brave steps to move forward. The key is listening. It’s so important to listen to different perspectives, on all sides. I learn something every time I stop and listen carefully and that helps inform the steps we can all take.

"There are challenges, but I am optimistic. I mentioned that my father arrived in England in 1957. The stuff he faced in the 50’s and 60s makes my challenges in the 70s and 80s, as ugly as they sometimes were, look like a walk in the park. The nasty issues that my children sometimes face are a lot less nasty, despite the amplification of social media, than I had to put up with. And so it will continue.

"We are not where we all want to be yet, but we are heading in the right direction. The pace can be incredibly frustrating to some, but I am a patient and determined fellow. There is another song that I chose for my Desert Island Discs - "A Change is Gonna Come.""


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