Giles Morgan as HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship is the man who decided on an annual US$7 million prize fund for the WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai and who drove the hard bargain with the LPGA to keep the HSBC Women’s Champions tournament in Singapore alive with a US$1.3 million purse.
Yet, when he sits down to discuss what the world’s local bank gets for its dollars, he is distracted by a little girl; no more than three years old, she’s wearing a pink skirt, an oversized T-shirt emblazoned with the words “it’s delicious” and an ear-to-ear smile like a ray of sunshine.
“You do feel a bit like a proud parent; the infancy is the hardest time, because you’re helping something learn to stand on its own two feet, and as any parent knows those are the nerve-wracking years as you’re trying to make sure things work out,” he says as the little girl beams at the carp swimming elegantly around the pools that decorate the tournament venue, the Tanah Merah Country Club’s Garden Course.
“There comes a point where the child walks on its own, and I think we’ve now achieved that with the HSBC Women’s Champions; it’s up and running. We have exactly the same in China; for those that saw the 2009 HSBC Champions on TV or were lucky enough to be there, that event became a very major golf tournament last year for lots of reasons, not just the world number one and number two walking down the 18th of the final round together.”
That finale was described as the best finish of the year - and possibly of the entire decade - by one American golf writer; Ernie Els’ miraculous victory charge upended by a five-wood dumped in water around the 18th green just as Phil Mickelson, the world’s greatest short-game exponent, slid a wedge under his ball, dropping it into the newly-made divot, only to miraculously save par on the treacherous 16th.
The HSBC Women’s Champions, two years younger than its brother event, isn’t lagging far behind. This year Ai Miyazato leaped into third place in the Rolex Rankings after becoming the first player for 44 years to start an LPGA season with back-to-back wins. The young Japanese superstar added her name to that of world number one Lorena Ochoa (2008, genius putting display) and world number two Shin Ji-Yai (2009, faultless ball striking during weekend rounds of 66).
In that context one would expect Morgan to focus on the financials of these investments. Instead, the conversation inevitably returns time and again to the intangible – feelings.
“We talk about being the world’s local bank and you see it written and we tell people about it through advertising and media, but we also have to be it. Sponsorship, if done properly, is a wonderful way of being what you say you are,” Morgan explains.
“What I’m proud of is that the tournaments do represent how we at HSBC go about our business; we’re not just sponsoring a golf tournament, we’re creating a whole new platform in a whole new continent, and that’s just what HSBC would do. It feels like we’re living our brand. I genuinely believe that. One of the things that sponsors need to do is differentiate, because otherwise everybody’s doing it and you get clutter. I don’t think we’re cluttered. I think that people know exactly what we do in Asia and that’s how it should be because people can interact with that and, when it comes down to business generation, which is what it’s all about, the people we are targeting will have a relationship through golf because they know what we’re doing.”
The emotional connection becomes clear when one stands in the Hexagon Suite, the three-story temporary construction that routinely hovers over the 18th greens at the HSBC tournaments housing the hospitality that is the cornerstone of any modern sponsorship engagement. Eyes are wide open, faces positively glow with excitement; Michelle Wie is visiting, chaperoned by HSBC Singapore CEO Guy Harvey-Samuel, whose role during the event is to play the perfect host.
“Emotionally, everyone is on a high when players like Michelle come into the suite. It’s tremendous!” says Harvey-Samuel, who like all his staff is clad in a casual HSBC-red golf shirt.
“A lot of it is very emotional, intuitive and subjective rather than objective. We need to repay, we need to reward and we need to recognize our customers, particularly the customers that are at the top of the value chain. It is an event that builds up to a wonderful Sunday, and the litmus test for the success of the tournament is the number of people on the veranda outside and the number of spectators around the last green. They will go away from this tournament thinking - positively of HSBC, because not only will they associate it with all the great values of golf but also associate HSBC as having brought something really tangibly valuable to Singapore and arranged it and organised it in a very complete way.”
Covering the bases is what HSBC seem to specialize in when it comes to running their tournaments. One quickly loses count of the number of players who, in between adding their voices to those who refer to the events as Asia’s Majors, mention the dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s when they try to explain what justifies such lavish praise.
The LPGA themselves are not immune to this. The HSBC Women’s Champions features at the top of almost every category on an intranet site designed to share best practices with other tournaments and sponsors. New commissioner Mike Whan, making his first trip to Asia in a role he assumed at the start of the year, described the Singapore event as the best-branded tournament he’d ever seen.
“We don’t sponsor that much,” says Morgan, “but when we do, we do it properly. We want to own it, to create a message. It’s not an arrogant message, it’s a message that we are here to nurture and develop. We did it in Rugby with the (British and Irish) Lions in South Africa last year. We do it in golf in Asia, aggressively, and people seem to respond to it. You can’t be a bit pregnant; you’ve got to go for it.”
Morgan himself could be forgiven for being a little arrogant, given that his decision to move the two HSBC World Match Play Championships out of golf’s “Old World” – Wentworth in England for the men, and New York state for the women – and into Asia, looks like a move of sheer genius now that HSBC’s business focus has switched to developing Asia’s rapidly emerging markets. He deflects that suggestion, however, saying it was plain logic that drove the change.
“I think that’s been a reflection of things that have happened in the world economy that no-one could have predicted, but I always knew it would be a major part of our business and our DNA. Asia has always been the heartland for HSBC, it’s just more pronounced now,” he says.
“We’re a very pragmatic organization. All sponsorship needs to be an investment, to reflect the business you’re in and the business that you’re trying to be and trying to grow. Therefore it’s not rocket science to say we’re after a particular business demographic around Asia-Pacific. There is one sport that is head and shoulders above others in terms of attracting at a playing, interactive and watching level and that’s golf. We’re a big business in Asia, golf is growing in Asia, and we’re not having to compete with America, with all the fantastic tournaments out there. Everybody’s doing it and outdoing each other there, and here we are in this part of the world; it’s growing faster than anywhere else and we’ve got the biggest tournaments. Like a lot of good decisions, when you look at it, it looks very simple so it’s probably right,” Morgan adds.
“If sponsorship needs to be a mirror of your own business – both in terms of your business objectives but also what you believe your vision and values are – golf attracts the right people. We are trying to focus a lot in Asia. Golf as a sport has wonderful values and it appeals to both genders and the young and old. When you write it down, it’s so obvious. It doesn’t mean it’s obvious to get there.”
If all of this suggests that HSBC’s sponsorships hark back to the old days of CEO’s supporting whatever sports are closest to their hearts, Morgan puts that idea to rest by explaining his suit-wearing alter ego who makes the cold analytical decisions of what he refers to as the first and third parts of his sponsor’s mantra. The first is why you do it and what you think you’re going to get out of it. The third is comparing the statistics, the metrics, from the engagement and establishing whether they met the targets set out in advance.
“The bit in the middle, which is the answer to part one and the bit that allows part three to happen, is the warmth and emotion and putting your heart and soul into it, putting a smile into it and ensuring that people are having the most brilliant, brilliant time. And that is when sponsorship is warm, because if you’re cold about the sponsorship in the activation then, by definition, part three will be even colder and it won’t be successful. You need the warmth in order to be successful. Ultimately, the best thing about golf is it is a wonderful way of spending time with people, and all business and banking comes down to earning trust by spending time with people. Personal relationships are what it comes down to. What you want to do is get some commonality, get some friendship, get some respect, and from there business evolves because business is about people.”
photos Janos Schmidt