the exeter chief


What do you keep in your garage? Hedge-trimmers? The Christmas decorations? Next Thursday’s kerb-side recycling? Yes, well, of course you do. So do I. Tony Rowe, however, has room for none of these things given his garage is a museum of vintage fire engines; fully taxed, fully watered, a blinding sparkle of buffed chrome and Venetian red paintwork and each lovingly restored to the last nut and bolt.

‘This one’s probably my favourite,’ he says, pausing beside a monster of a machine that’s about the size of a detached house. ‘Rolls-Royce engine, straight eight, it does one mile to every litre of petrol. It was the fastest commercial vehicle in the land when it first came out in 1952. This feller would do 50mph and a commercial vehicle doing that speed back then was unheard of.‘

In all there’s fifteen of them, many he’s restored himself – horse-drawn, hand-drawn, Merryweathers, Shand Masons – and some he’s babysitting for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue; for heaven’s sake, the oldest dates back two hundred and fifty years. We could’ve stayed there all day.

‘I went to the car auctions in Exeter to buy a van and came back with this one,’ he says, pausing for a moment in front of another, twinkling, mechanical masterpiece. ‘The guy was going to put the hammer down at something like £390 and I just stuck my hand up. Mind you, it was a hell of a wreck; no kit on it or anything, so I got it home and then found out it’d come from Ottery St Mary, which is the next village on. Took me about two years to restore it but, then again, I didn’t have so much on in them days.

The measure of just how perfect they all are is that if his kitchen caught fire tomorrow, he could use any of them to hose down his house. He’s not entirely sure why he bought the first one – impulse, probably – but it’s a bit like eating a packet of ‘Maltesers’; once you start it’s impossible to stop.

‘The origins of fire engines – I sound like a real anorak but I’m not – was that they belonged to insurance companies,’ he says. ‘So the deal was, you insured your building with them and you had a plaque on the outside of your house and if you caught fire, your insurance company would come and put it out. Hand drawn, they were. So that one in the corner’s from back then – 250 years old based in Exeter – and the one next to it dates to 1763. It’s heritage, isn’t it? And if I don’t look after them, who else will?

You wonder what Mrs. Rowe makes of her husband’s minor obsession but he says he’s never asked her. He pops in here from time to time to turn over the engines and once a year he and a mate drive them all out into the yard to test all the pumps and hoses and check the ladders for woodworm. Other than they, though, they never see the light of day.

‘We do make exceptions,’ he says. ‘My former bank manager’s daughter got married a couple of weeks ago, special request because she was marrying a fireman but otherwise they stay in here. Air-conditioned, you see. Besides if you take them out they get dirty and they’re a bugger to clean.’

Tony Rowe OBE, you will gather, is a one–off. He left school at fifteen, joined the Royal Marines as a bandsman, fixed engines on powerboats, set a water-speed record on Windermere and became British champion in 1976 – single-seater catamarans – after which he made an indecent pile in business telecommunications before taking custody of the Exeter Chiefs. It’s been a hectic sixty-five years and he’s not finished yet.

‘I get a lot of enjoyment out of proving people wrong,’ he says. ‘We say, right, we’re off down this track and we’re going to get there and people don’t believe us but I’m not one for wasting my time going down an avenue if I don’t think I can get anywhere. Take the Heineken Cup. I’d hope we’d have won that in the next five to ten years. That’s the aim.’

Certainly he’s a force of nature, still with his hand firmly on the tiller of his business empire and with an office just down the corridor from the dressing room at Sandy Park. ‘Technically, I’m Chairman and Chief Executive here,’ he explains. But I’ll give up the CEO bit once the business has moved on a bit further and I can step back. I do it at the moment because it saves a salary.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Plus I’m quite bossy.’

It’s twenty years since John Baxter – Rob’s Dad – asked Tony Rowe to dip into his wallet and sponsor the club shirts. Back then Exeter shared a soggy pasture with racing dogs and dirt bikes. Two decades have felt like two minutes.

‘My first cheque to John was for four thousand quid,’ says Tony. He smiles and shakes his head. ‘And look how much it’s cost me since, eh? I don’t know. Tens of millions? No, maybe not tens of millions but a few.’

The plans for the future will doubtless cost a few millions more but they are astounding; a spanking 22,000 seat stadium with extended conferencing, banqueting and exhibition halls which’ll ensure that – as now – Sandy Park doesn’t just sweat on a Saturday. Scheduled completion is in seven years and work on Phase One starts in January.

‘I’ve got the money we need for this next phase but the one after that, the conference centre and the south stand, that’s about twenty million. We’re still rattling the bucket on that one but that’s my next target for a few years down the line. But you’ve got to be patient. I’m driving a business here that isn’t really my business, in a sense. It feels as though it’s not mine to mess up. I can’t risk anything.’

As the club prospers off the pitch – they make an operating profit every year – so too on it; barely promoted, they’re now sitting astride Pool Two in the Heineken Cup and already they’re the top points scorers in this season’s competition. What Tony Rowe has achieved in the boardroom, Rob Baxter has matched in the dressing-room; they are the Romulus and Remus of the club and hopefully from Exeter’s point of view inextricably entwined.

‘It is a bit of a marriage, I suppose,’ says Tony Rowe, ‘although we’re totally different characters. He’s from farming stock, Rob, so if you sent him down to the shops with twenty quid, he’d come back with some change, whereas if you sent most other head coaches, they’d come back and ask for twenty quid more. I have the greatest respect for him and I think we really understand each other, as you’d expect after twenty years. We just get on with it. We don’t speak every day but, when we need to, we sit down and chat. He’s a good man. You break him in half and there’s Exeter running right through him like a stick of rock. I suppose I’m the same, except I’m harder to snap. I’m a bit fatter than him. And a lot noisier.’

The trouble is of course that plenty of other people have a lot of respect for Rob Baxter and with good reason. So what happens if and when, for example, England come calling after the World Cup? Tony Rowe’s pause is a pregnant six seconds. ‘Rob’s allegiance is with Exeter,’ he says, almost warily. ‘I know what his ambitions are. He’s got security here. He has his future here. He knows who is boss is. I’m fairly confident we’d still be together.’

This weekend and next Exeter measure themselves against the European Champions – brash, big-spending, box-office Toulon – a raging success story in their own right, but – intriguingly – the very antithesis of every principle that sustains the Exeter Chiefs.

‘Nah, it’s got to be sustainable, hasn’t it?’ says Tony Rowe. ‘And it’s only sustainable in Toulon because they keep throwing money at it and that’s not the way to do it. You know, I can never see the value in their side. You see what they spend on their players and you think, yeah, he’s four hundred thousand or three hundred thousand but are they that much better than my players who cost me a hundred or a hundred and fifty? I can’t see four hundred thousand in some of them. But it’s good to have them here. I wouldn’t say I’m excited, more apprehensive. And of course everyone here wants to come and see Jonny, so that’s good. Every season there’s something extra we seem to write for the history books.’

Crusades in far-flung lands – such as the mythical Heineken Cup – are nothing new. Down the years, Rowe and his mates have done some hairy motor-bike rides round South America and Africa raising money for Devon charities; indeed they were once chased out of Kenya at spear-point.

‘I’m not joking, they were throwing javelins at us,’ he says. ‘And I wasn’t looking back to see how close they were. I don’t know whether they thought we were threatening them or what but they weren’t very happy and we didn’t hang around to ask why.’

But clearly the continent that preoccupies him is Europe. Like Ted Heath or Napoleon Bonaparte, it’s his aspiration, his pursuit; although quite what he does when he’s won the Heineken Cup and built his spanking new stadium, not even he seems sure.‘I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll retire,’ he says. ‘No, hang on a minute; I’ve done that already. Maybe I’ll just have a day off. ‘

It’s now fifty years since the drummer boy left Grove Road Secondary Modern in Gosport for the Royal Marines Band and – frankly – there’s not much left on Tony Rowe’s Bucket List bar one trophy. Will he land his Holy Grail? Put it this way, given what he’s achieved so far, who exactly would bet against the Exeter Chief?

05 DECEMBER 2012


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