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Entrepreneurs: Benchmark’s Nick Keller on using sport’s power to heal society

Daniel Hambury

If you needed a moment to sum up Nick Keller, it would probably have been the eve of the ­Olympics in 2012. The entrepreneur, who has made a career from philanthropic sports ventures, was carrying the Olympic torch. “By sheer coincidence I was running past the flat I’d lived in for 10 years in Chalk Farm. I’d left the family home that April and having my kids on the route there was such a moment. You have security around you saying, ‘You do not stop, you do not stop,’ but I hugged the boys, got grabbed and moved on.”

Rugby-mad Keller actually got ready for that run with Sir Clive Woodward in a school changing-room, and the England World Cup-winning coach is one of the many sports stars who nestle in his contact book. For example, the 2012 Games also saw Keller organise an event in which Muhammad Ali and David Beckham presented an award to a young Afghan refugee.

Today Keller runs Benchmark, a holding company devised to create and invest in what he describes as ­“purpose-driven businesses”. The idea is to use sport to improve society (think what American football player Colin Kaepernick and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling have done for the fight against racism either side of the Pond).

Keller’s group aims to tackle issues such as racism, inequality and knife crime through a series of ventures. There’s a networking arm with its flagship Beyond Sport awards division; a ­marketing consultancy, Think Beyond; a talent agency for sportspeople; a ­burgeoning esports division; and the Square Mile relay.

The latter will be familiar to City suits. The 20-year-old event sees colleagues compete in teams and is now in 12 financial districts globally. The group is run as a limited company, with a charity foundation alongside it. Benchmark has run events for corporates such as L&G, and increasingly works in the US teaming up with its major sports leagues on outreach programmes.

Keller appears buoyant when we meet at his airy offices which look down upon buzzing Holborn. His hair carries grey flecks, while his bulky shoulders and cauliflower ears jar with his boyish good looks, offering a clue to his former life. His parents escaped Vienna at the onset of the Second World War by hiding in the baggage compartment of a train and settled in north London.

Keller readily admits school was a struggle, but he found solace in rugby, eventually playing for Durham University alongside former England star Will Greenwood. He earned the nickname the “Ferocious Ferret”.

A bad neck injury, and a career in property followed for want of better inspiration, but that spark came when Nelson Mandela handed Francois ­Pienaar the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy and the game went professional. Keller jacked in real estate and became a rugby agent, representing his former team-mates who would go on to lift that same trophy. “But my creative mind started working a little bit I started realising that I had ideas and I had a sense that there was something more to be done,” he said.

In 2000, Benchmark was born. It centred on a sports industry awards, and a marketing agency running promotions at events like Wimbledon, Ascot and Twickenham. Blue-chip clients such as HSBC, Barclays and Icap followed, but eventually Keller slimmed the sprawling operation down.

Events arm Beyond Sport launched in style in 2008 with heavyweight support: newly former prime minister Tony Blair (its chairman), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (patron) and Sir Martin Sorrell all attended its debut. “Tony Blair said, ‘These guys are so far ahead of the wave I hope they catch it’ — it’s still one of our key phrases,” recalls Keller.

The wave of optimism didn’t last long — as the credit crisis ramped up, ­corporates’ ethical spending dried up, and a Big Four consultancy pulled funding for a Chicago event at the last minute. “I remember where I was when I took the call — I was badly riding a scooter by the Black Cat building in Camden. I thought I’d lost my business. I gave myself 24 hours to wallow in it, then picked myself up and slowly rebuilt the business.”

Since then there’s been some standout moments, notably bringing white and black communities together in South Africa to play rugby in an event sponsored by Barclays. “It showed sport at its absolute best,” he says.

A less uplifting moment came in a Kenyan slum where Keller witnessed a small girl leading her mother to a rape clinic with blood-stained legs. “It was a hard-hitting sight that, as a north London boy, was bewildering. It started a day of seeing kids living off a rubbish dump and ducking to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped. To see that and then to see a project that was about female empowerment through boxing was inspiring.”

As some certainty returns to the City around Brexit, Keller will hope Britain’s corporates turn on the spending taps to fund the next wave of conscious sports programmes.