Saturday, 31 October 2020

Ex-soldier and Olympian takes charge of Leander

AFTER a career spent serving in Bosnia and Iraq with the army, winning an Olympic silver medal and running his own chain of pubs and cocktail bars, Al Heathcote’s latest job might seem a little ordinary.

But the new general manager of Leander Club in Henley says he is excited about the challenge of running the world’s most successful sporting club and wants to maintain its reputation for excellence both on and off the water.

The 42-year-old, who has come from Soho House, a private members’ club in London, has replaced Paul Budd, who retired earlier this year after 12 years in the role.

With extensive experience in both rowing and hospitality, the move was a natural fit for Mr Heathcote.

He was born in Greece to Mark Heathcote, a diplomat who served at the British High Commission in Pakistan and then became head of security at BP, and Susan, a beautician to the Queen Mother.

During his early childhood, the family lived in Argentina and Pakistan, then when he was 12 Al attended Eton College.

It was here that he discovered rowing and became the independent school’s captain of boats.

In 1994 he was part of Eton’s second VIII that competed in the Temple Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta and a year later was in the crew that won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup.

After leaving Eton, he moved to New Zealand to work on a farm shearing sheep for a year.

Mr Heathcote says: “I wanted to do something completely different and I’ve always liked the outdoors. Every holiday I had at school and university I worked on farms.”

Upon his return to the UK, he went to Newcastle University to study environmental science.

He joined the university boat club but had little success.

He recalls: “Newcastle wasn’t great at rowing — they were second fiddle to Durham and I didn’t row in my last year.

“Because I wasn’t that successful I didn’t think there was much to it. It was about having a good time and rowing took a bit of a back seat.”

Mr Heathcote then took a postgraduate degree in international hospitality and tourism management at Oxford Brookes University where he did what he calls his “first proper bit of good rowing”. “We got to the final of the Temple Challenge Cup at Henley, losing to Harvard,” he says.

“In the summer I went as a spare to the British training camp in Austria with another of the Brookes students. We rowed with [Matthew] Pinsent and [James] Cracknell during that training camp. When they went in a four, we went with them.

“It makes you think ‘maybe I can try for the British team for the future’.”

However, instead of trying to become an international rower, Mr Heathcote decided he wanted to be a helicopter pilot in the Army Air Corps and started taking flying courses.

Unfortunately for him, this was a mistake.

“I wasn’t any good,” he says. “It turned out I didn’t have the aptitude for it, which is kind of one of the essentials.

“I failed the course but they said I could still join the army.”

He applied to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and was accepted but first had to undertake a three-month course, known as Rowallan Company. Mr Heathcote explains: “It’s a really tough course and it’s very ‘out there’ in what they do. It’s for the applicants they feel don’t have quite enough to get into Sandhurst and they felt I was a bit too laid back.

“You were stripped of everything, all your personal belongings, when you got there. You would have to wear plus fours.

“You wouldn’t know what was going on from one day to the next. In the middle of the night they’d wake you up, put you on a truck and you would end up on some mountainside.

“I remember 10 of us being given a live rabbit and chicken and they said, ‘there’s your food for the next two days’. That was it.”

In another four-day exercise he was dropped off wearing only a suit with a letter that contained a list of unusual tasks he had to complete before returning to Sandhurst at a specified time and date.

It also explained that he was a cadet on the course so that he could ask members of the public to help him as he wasn’t allowed any money.

Mr Heathcote recalls: “I had to be present at a birth, dance on stage in a West End musical and fly in a hot air balloon.

“I was present at the birth of a llama at London Zoo, I was on a hospital radio station and I danced on stage in My Fair Lady dressed as an urchin.”

It worked as he was accepted by Sandhurst in 2002 and spent a year there before becoming a second-lieutenant with the Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons, a cavalry regiment better known as the Blues and Royals.

His first army tour was six months in Bosnia in the winter of 2006, attached to the Gurkhas.

Mr Heathcote says: “We were there to support the police but we did a lot of weapons searches with explosive ordnance dogs. It’s a beautiful area but it was very, very cold and we spent a lot of time out in the middle of nowhere with the Gurkhas.

“There was no conflict going on, so it was very safe. You were living in what were effectively shipping containers.”

His next tour was in Iraq as a platoon commander with the Welsh Guards in Basra.

Mr Heathcote says: “I must have gone in the summer because it was very, very hot. It must have been 45 degrees.

“We stayed in the old state buildings in the middle of the city. We spent a lot of time with the Iraqi police training them.

“There was a lot of logistical support for other British troops around southern Iraq. It was convoy protection and we did a lot of local security.”

During his time there he trained on an ergometer and rowed for the Army Rowing Club. Every time he was back in the UK he would go out in a boat.

In 2005 he was in the Army Rowing Club coxless four that won the Wyfold Challenge Cup at Henley.

By the end of his six months in Iraq he had been promoted to captain and when he returned to the UK he took an instructor’s job as a regimental gunnery officer training people on a 30mm cannon in Lulworth, Dorset.

During his year there, he trained Robin Bourne-Taylor, who had won the Boat Race with Oxford three times and been part of the British rowing team at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Mr Heathcote recalls: “He knew I used to row and asked, ‘Do you want to try to get into the British team? I need someone to row in the pair to get selected’.”

He agreed and the pair were coached by Jonny Singfield, who said he wanted to get them to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.

“I didn’t think for a minute I could do it,” admits Mr Heathcote. “I just thought, ‘let’s give it a go’. It was a good way to stay fit and I wanted to do a bit more rowing.

“It was really hard. I must have said I was going to retire about 50 times. Robin kept me going.”

The hard work paid off when the pair were asked to train full-time with the British team at the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake in Caversham. The army said they wouldn’t be given any duties while they were training.

In 2007 Mr Heathcote won a bronze medal at a world cup regatta in Amsterdam and another at the world championships in Munich as part of the Team GB VIII. The following year the crew won two world cup medals — a bronze at the Lucerne regatta and a gold in Poznan.

Mr Heathcote found himself getting injured quite easily.

“My back started to play up and my wrist was really bad as well,” he says. “I was worrying because I wanted to get to the Olympics.”

Despite this, the crew were quietly confident.

Mr Heathcote says: “We did think from our times in training that we should be vying for a gold medal. We were getting really fast times.

“Although it was amazing getting silver, there was still the disappointment of not achieving gold.”

After China, he went straight back to the Blues and Royals before leaving the army two months later to teach geography at the Latymer School in north London, where he was also head of rowing. He said he enjoyed a year there but didn’t feel teaching was his “thing”, adding: “I always wanted to go into hospitality and catering,”

Mr Heathcote cut his teeth working for the restaurant group Bodean’s BBQ and in the evenings and at weekends was head coach at Thames Rowing Club in Putney.

He then became operations manager for the Shoreditch Bar Group and had to quit coaching because of the demands of the job.

He and his brother Nicholas, also an accomplished rower, then started their own group of bars and restaurants in London.

It consisted of the Imperial Durbar in Tooting, La Cabina in Shoreditch, the Hill Station in Tooting Broadway and a pop-up pizza bar called Guerilla Pizza.

A South American tapas restaurant called Pirana in Balham followed but this didn’t work and was sold. They then opened another bar called the Taproom at Brixton Village.

Mr Heathcote spent about four years working with his brother before leaving. He describes the experience as “topsy turvy”, adding: “It was great — we cut our teeth in entrepreneurship and business.

“We made money, we lost money; some things were a great success, some things were a failure. It was a very good learning experience for business but I’m so glad it’s all over.”

Today, his brother is still running the Taproom and La Cabina.

Mr Heathcote joined Soho House in January 2018 as its operations manager and helped launch its largest site, called White City House, which is inside Helios, the former BBC television centre.

He says: “I got handed the building with another manager and we put it into operation. We opened two swimming pools — one on the rooftop — and the biggest gym in Europe.”

He says he was attracted to Leander Club because it is both a rowing and members’ club.

“It’s a pretty unique mix and I had both on my CV so it seemed like a natural thing to do,” he says. “It’s an exciting project, being the most successful sports club in the world. The job is about keeping its reputation going, serving the members and giving them value for money and reasons for being at the club.

“It’s working with the ethos of what the club is all about and enhancing it. I think you have got to put your stamp on it.”

Mr Heathcote, who has a four-year-old daughter called Maddie, is currently staying at the club during the week and returning home to London at the weekends.

The move has reunited him with Mark Banks, Leander’s director of rowing, who was a Team GB coach in Beijing, and he hopes to help with some coaching too.

Mr Heathcote says: “We have got a great working relationship and I think he knows that I understand the rowing side.

“My job is primarily the club side of it but it’s very much looking after the athletes and keeping track of what they are up to.”

It’s also another string in the bow of this experienced achiever.

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