By ALISTAIR TAIT
NEWPORT, Wales – Five minutes into the interview and Sir Terry Matthews has taken over the conversation. He’s spinning stories, a torrent of words that leaves my head buzzing.
Later, the journalist from Welsh TV looks flustered. She has reason to be. She’s just been Matthewsed! Her rehearsed, scripted interview with the Welsh billionaire never had a chance, just as most of the questions I had prepared never did get answered. I had 25 questions for Matthews. I managed to get through just five of them in nearly an hour of talking to – make that, listening to – the richest man in Wales.
We sit on plush couches overlooking the rolling fairways of Matthews’ Celtic Manor Resort, venue for the 2010 Ryder Cup. Outside the sky is leaden and gray, a constant drizzle playing havoc with the pro-am for the Celtic Manor Wales Open.
Not that Matthews cares much about the weather, or my original question for that matter. He just keeps talking, launching into the history of Newport, where he grew up. He gives me
a geography lesson of southern Wales. Then he branches off into a discourse on the ridiculous amounts of money city fat cats are making – the same fat cats who travel the two hours from London finance houses to pamper themselves at his £100 million playground.
The man in the beard and casual brown suit, sans tie, does not look like Wales’ wealthiest man, the country’s only billionaire and allegedly the fifth-richest person in the British Isles. He looks like the sort of guy you’d meet in a pub who’s had nothing in his life but two-timing girlfriends and cars with bad transmissions, the sort who starts talking to you and you think, “Jeez, get me the *&%$ outta here!”
But it pays to listen to Matthews, especially if you hope to pick up some of his business acumen.
Matthews is a rags-to-riches story that could have been penned by Horatio Alger. He’s the local boy who made good, the one who went to the University of Wales, graduated with a degree in electronics in 1969, moved to Canada and came back with almost enough money to buy his homeland, never mind the 1,400 acres that is Celtic Manor. The land holds special significance for Matthews: It is the site of the former nursing home where he was born.
Matthews amassed his fortune in telecommunications. He started working for British Telecom after graduating, but left in 1971 to start his own company called Mitel. He sold Mitel to British Telecom in 1986 and pocketed a reported £10 million. He plowed £1.5 million of that into Newbridge Networks. By 1997 that company was worth £3.8 billion. Matthews’ 24 percent stake was worth £912 million.
That’s just the bare bones of Matthews’ moneymaking ability. During his career, he has started about 40 companies, and boasts that only two have failed.
Needless to say, when Matthews decided he wanted the Ryder Cup, there was a good chance he was going to get it.
The gentlemen of the PGA European Tour certainly didn’t mind listening to Matthews’ stories when he popped the Ryder Cup question, not when he was willing to back it with whatever money it took to make the match a success.
Billionaires and the Ryder Cup are old hat. The trend started when former Bolivian tin magnate Jimmy Patino lured the Ryder Cup to southern Spain and his Valderrama course in 1997. It continued last year when Dr. Michael Smurfit, the Irish cardboard-packaging billionaire, took Samuel Ryder’s little golden chalice to The K Club.
Unlike Patino and Smurfit, however, there is no sense of vanity in Matthews’ procurement
of what is arguably golf’s most popular tournament. Patino thinks nothing of spending millions to enhance his Valderrama, money that won’t see a return. Not Matthews.
“Anybody thinks I’m just throwing money at this because I just want to throw money around has to be nuts,” he said. “That’s not my style. I run businesses. I don’t run anything that makes a loss. I don’t like making a loss because you have to keep subsidizing, and I don’t do that.”
Matthews has pumped £100 million into Celtic Manor. This from a man who plays no more than 10 rounds per year, who only happened to get into golf because of a chance meeting in 1979 with Robert Trent Jones Sr. at Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Matthews heard him hailed as Mr. Jones and asked him if he was Welsh. When Jones replied he was of Welsh stock, Matthews pulled up a chair and started talking. The two became friends and soon Jones was designing a course for Matthews at Celtic Manor.
There now are three courses at Cletic Manor – the Roman Road, The Montgomerie and the just-opened Ryder Cup Course, a par-71 layout measuring 7,459 yards.
“Trent Jones and I met a lot of times and he would tell me stories,” Matthews recalls. “I was immersed in golf. I got golf up the gazoo.”
Matthews did not have the Ryder Cup in his mind when he invited Jones to come and see his land. He saw the golf courses as a tool in his business empire.
“Almost universally, the senior execs I met played golf,” he says. “For me, it was almost like saying, ‘If you want to play golf, come to the extension of my home in Wales called Celtic Manor and I’ve got the facilities for you.’
“I don’t think of this as a hotel. I think of it as an extension of my home. So I have a very large home, 430 bedrooms. I have superb facilities for guests – three golf courses, for example. And not many homes have 350 staff. If I want to run a party for a large guest group, I can run one f—of a party.”
Matthews intends to throw a megaparty when the match is staged at Celtic Manor in 2010. The garrulous one has spared nothing to make the match memorable.
“We sat down with the tour and said ‘What do you need?’ ” he says. “This is the first time the European Tour has had an open field where the tour has said right, what do we want? Let’s build it and that’s it. The course has been specifically designed for the Ryder Cup.”
I don’t get a chance to ask Matthews specifics about the Ryder Cup. Just as I’m about to ask my sixth question, his publicst interrupts to tell us we have run over schedule. Probably just as well, because by this time Matthews is talking about growing grapes on his land and producing Welsh wine.
He launches into a discourse on the fact the Romans grew vineyards on his land centuries before, but I manage to sneak in one more question before the publicist whisks away Matthews to frazzle the life out of the Welsh TV journalist.
“Why with all this money would you not just buy an island in the Caribbean and chill out?”
He looks at me aghast.
“That’s not me,” Matthews says. “I could have done that in 1976, but I’d have been bored. Money is not the motivator. It never was. That’s not the driver. The driver is to do things that are interesting.”
I have a different take. Matthews needs to do interesting things so he has more stuff to talk about. I have no doubt he’ll manage to produce wine on his land. I just don’t want to hear him describe the wine’s bouquet. That could take forever!
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Alistair Tait is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]