Lansdown’s Legacy: in conversation with Stephen Lansdown CBE

Stephen Lansdown CBE – co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown and owner of Bristol Sport – has built an ever-lasting legacy in Bristol and beyond. Simon Horsford meets the businessman and delves into his mission to use sport to help change people’s lives for the better…

The former poet laureate John Betjeman famously suggested that Bristol was “the most beautiful, interesting and distinguished city in England”. It’s a sentiment that strikes a chord with Stephen Lansdown CBE, the owner of Bristol City, Bristol Bears and the Bristol Flyers basketball team, who believes it’s “one of the best places in the UK without a shadow of a doubt.” And yet there is qualifying note to his love of the place where he was born and lived for 57 years until moving to Guernsey 13 years ago.

“It’s a great city,” says, Lansdown, “it just doesn’t know it”. He reckons it’s all about self-belief. After pointing out Bristol’s high points – its university status, location in the south west, transport links and general quality of life, Lansdown adds the kicker. “Bristol should be really booming as one of the most vibrant, economically growing cities in the UK, but then it just mulls along and doesn’t realise its potential.”

Using a football analogy, Lansdown adds: “If I am honest that’s reflected by its sports clubs. When we look at it, we might ask why, for instance, have Blackburn or Wigan had their time in the Premier League? Why have they been more successful than us at times? It’s because they’ve got chimney pots around them – it’s a strong working class environment, whereas Bristol is more of a white collar area,” with too many people “sitting back and taking it easy.”

“It is a bit of an enigma really,” says Lansdown, referring to the fact that Bristol has got more deprived areas than many other cities in the UK. “There are a number of areas which represent the poorer end of society that need help and jobs and I suppose part of my criticism is that it comes down to the council. If the council focused on bringing in new businesses and jobs into these areas rather than social matters, then I think the city would be far more vibrant and wealthy than it already is and this would help the deprived areas because those people would have better pay and the area would rise in status accordingly.”

We need to do as much as we can to give something back – that’s my philosophy…

Above: Stephen Lansdown CBE

Lansdown also thinks the decision to scrap the mayoral system last May was a “massive backward step.” “Whether you like the person or the policies or not, you’ve got someone making decisions and driving the city forward. Marvin Rees has done a pretty good job. I don’t like everything he has come up with but he has come up with ideas. George Ferguson [the previous mayor] was a different kettle of fish, but again he was the leader and it’s a fact of life if you try and run something by committee everyone has got a different view and vested interests and nothing gets decided. Trying to come to a conclusion is nigh impossible. Having someone to make the decision allows that to happen.”

Lansdown cites the way Bristol City football club is run: “People might criticise me for lack of success at the club but the point is decisions have to be taken. Committees can just fob them off. [With the referendum about the mayor] that process has been taken away. You look at Bristol and what the future is and I can’t see anything apart from it going along in the same old way.”

I wonder then what changes he’d make to improve the city. Aside from trying to bring back an elected mayor, he says: “I’d work on a campaign to get Bristolians to believe in themselves. It’s got everything going for it apart from its attitude.”

He has been equally critical of the government and once claimed that all politicians should be sacked. “I’m not sure if they go into politics because they are not very good at business, or just want to seek power. It’s a mess at the moment and the situation is hard and uncomfortable. But I personally think it will be short-lived and it will ease in the middle of this year. Many are faced with the same problem and people are thinking twice about what they spend their money on.”

He suggests employers have a responsibility to make sure they look after their employees, whether that’s through salary increases, or benefits and ensure they are not suffering, adding: “I think the government should work more closely with the private sector. They come to see them as the enemy, rather than something that can help. From my point, I’ve invested a lot into the Bristol infrastructure and I’ve done it off my own bat and without any funding. I’m happy to do that and a lot of people in my position are happy to do the same as long as the money is spent wisely.”

Lansdown is a big believer in local community, of which Ashton Gate, in this area of south Bristol, is the hub – a fact illustrated when the pandemic lockdown was announced in March 2020. As the news broke, Lansdown called a directors meeting and asked what the stadium could do to help the local community and people who might be struggling. To that end, Ashton Gate worked with FareShare, the charitable food network, which helps feed needy schoolchildren and adults, by providing a warehousing facility to store food and help distribute it. “Our chefs and everyone at the stadium produced food packages to go out to the community.” Ashton Gate was also used as a mass vaccination centre for the NHS, the first one to open in the country. “It showed what the stadium could be used for and everybody appreciated that,” says Lansdown.

His understanding of the importance of community may well be traced back to own his working class background – his father was a carpenter. “There were many years when we didn’t have much money, so now I do have money, I want to put it to good use.” His own route to success – one that has made him one of the richest men in Britain – stems from co-founding the financial advisory firm Hargreaves Lansdown in 1981 with Peter Hargreaves. Begun in the spare bedroom of a house in Bristol, it is Britain’s biggest independent private client brokerage.

Above: “Last October, the council green-lit plans for the Ashton Gate Sporting Quarter to build a 3,626-seat sports and convention centre next to Ashton Gate. The plans also include a hotel and flats, while 500 new homes, some designated as affordable, are set to be built nearby at Longmoor.”

It is around the sports teams in his stable, which numbers an impressive five with Bristol City men and women, Bristol Bears men and women and the Flyers men’s basketball team, that further work in the community is seen via various foundations: the Robins Foundation, the Bristol Bears Community Foundation and the Flyers Community Foundation. With a mission to use the power of sport to create “active, healthy and happy communities”, working with the central Bristol Sport Foundation, which acts as a conduit between the various group’s charities.

“We need to do as much as we can to give something back, so that’s my philosophy,” says Lansdown, “but the people that make it work are the individuals [at the various foundations]. I can’t speak highly enough for any of them and the players who give their support. That is my biggest source of pride.”

Lansdown, who started watching City in the 1980s with his son Jon (“football was my first love but I’ve grown to like rugby and basketball too.”) is also aware of the importance of the club to its supporters. “When I became chairman of Bristol City in 2002 [a role now held by his son], I went to an open day and as my wife and I arrived, a young girl with a baby was getting out of her car and the first thing she did was put the baby in my arms and took a photo. It took me a little by surprise but it made me realise how important Bristol City Football Club was to her and her family. It was part of her life, it was like a place of worship if you like. So I always felt ever since that moment that whatever we do as a football club, or with the rugby or basketball that we must be central to the communities we exist within.” In an age of foreign ownership when so many clubs in the Premier League and the EFL Championship, having a local owner is almost a throwback to the past.

Lansdown describes himself as a “controlled watcher” when he attends City games, something which wasn’t necessarily always the case, but he had reason to be ecstatic when we met at the home game against Birmingham City in January. A sparkling performance saw Bristol City win 4-2. Being involved with five clubs does ensure that there is room for enjoying some success: “It’s sport isn’t it, but I do work on the principle that I’ve got so many sports clubs now that at least one of them should do well. It doesn’t always happen,” he jokes.

Above: Stephen Lansdown speaking alongside the ‘Lansdown Stand’ – the largest stand at Ashton Gate stadium, with a capacity of 11,000

Lansdown’s desire to further invest in the area was confirmed when the council green-lit plans last October for the Ashton Gate Sporting Quarter to build a 3,626-seat sports and convention centre next to Ashton Gate, which will be the home of the Flyers. The plans also include a hotel and flats, while 500 new homes, some designated as affordable, are set to be built nearby at Longmoor. The idea stems from the redevelopment of the stadium, completed at a cost of £45 million in 2016, and to have people coming to Ashton Gate on a regular basis – creating a destination – thus generating revenue and footfall and boosting the local economy. He hopes it should all come on stream by 2025/26.

In the background, though, there has been talk that Lansdown might be willing to sell Bristol City and his other sporting assets for the right deal – he has, after all, been involved in the club for more than 25 years. “I would sell yes. I’ve got to an age now where I’ve got to look at succession but what I’ve done is to have look at the overall package and if someone wants to come in and invest in all of it, or part of it, we can look at that. There is nothing imminent but we have talked to a number of people over the past year and we are always looking at how things can be better and how we can improve things.

“We have a Championship club, which is well respected and well run. It can be very expensive at times but effectively is debt-free. We have the Bears and the Ashton Gate development, the hotel and the sports and convention centre and the community aspects. There’s a significant asset there, or group of assets. But, he adds, whoever comes in has to look after the clubs and the community. It’s not about going for the highest bidder but “the right people to take it forward.”

Away from sport, Lansdown is involved in a handful of safari lodges in Africa with four in Botswana and one in Mozambique and he travels there three or four times a year. “I got involved in Botswana because I saw an advert in 2007 for a share in a safari lodge, which I ended up buying – now run under the name Mashatu – and I’ve grown to love the area and the people. Since then my passion for conservation has grown because of my involvement in protecting the habitat and wildlife and looking after the local communities.”

With his various clubs, the developments around the Ashton Gate Sporting Quarter and the lodges in Africa there is still much to occupy Lansdown, who turned 70 last year. It’s been quite a journey from that spare bedroom in Bristol, but then again Lansdown has never been one to just “mull along”.