Few chief executives would be pleased to have 20,000 screaming fans as their neighbours but Udit Sheth, 40, is delighted. The founder of the sports infrastructure company, SE TransStadia Pvt. Ltd, looks around him and says, “I have a playground for my office." The “playground" is the Arena, a football stadium in Ahmedabad.
Next to us, groups of children are having football lessons. Sheth strides onto the grass in his sports shoes and has a walking meeting with a colleague.
“The Arena is a pioneering public-private partnership. The government brings in the land, we bring in the investments and then we operate the stadium for “ x" number of years. We do a revenue share with the government, and agree on programs for sports development," says Sheth.
Sheth’s actual office is a windowless space in the basement parking lot. He deliberately chose to carve out this space—rather than one with a better view—to establish a compact, functional headquarters. “My office for this company is not a revenue-earning piece of real estate, so it doesn’t need to be on the other floors," he states.
Sheth’s office has basic furniture and some personal sports related posters, books and a sculpture of two footballers in action. This is textbook garage entrepreneurship—a visual metaphor representing aspirational dreams and frugal means. Put together, Sheth’s workspaces, working style and business model mirror each other.
Sheth actually has four workplaces— three in the stadium complex—but they occupy minimum real estate. In addition to the parking lot office and the football pitch, Sheth often meets business associates in a hospitality suite within the sports complex, with a ringside view of the pitch. The suite is one of the 15 such space available for guests to stay or conduct meetings. Finally, he works out of his family’s auto components business, Setco Automotive Ltd, in Mumbai, describing that space as “personalized and functional". The choice of location depends on meeting type. “I spent 65% of my time in TransStadia and the rest in Setco," he clarifies.
This operational efficiency—maximizing number of work-setting with minimum real estate impact—is directly reflected in his business model. Turns out, the football stadium—or a part of it—can morph into an indoor enclosed arena for a range of indoor sports and events, ranging from robotics competitions to musical concerts.
Patented technologies licensed from the UK allow a sizable section of the stadium to be separated from the grassy pitch at the press of a button, turning it into a large indoor arena. A modular, retractable seating system allows the venue’s seating layout to be customized according to event’s needs.
“The exciting part is that normally sports facilities don’t have revenue models. The average utilization of facilities globally is as low as 2% per annum. And our utilization is 70% per annum. That’s because of the technology that we’ve used and the planning that we’ve done. I don’t think you’re going to come across an ergonomically better planned facility," explains Sheth. While football is the mainstay, there are other competitive sports including kabaddi and badminton that can be held here.
A lifelong sports enthusiast, Sheth founded TransStadia after a business associate introduced him to Paul Fletcher, a former footballer, stadium consultant and author of The Seven Golden Secrets of a Successful Stadium. Fletcher convinced Sheth that a multi-use sports facility makes good business sense.
His spaces are built-to-suit or, in other words, this is design thinking at work. The stadium has been designed keeping the needs of the three main stakeholders in the sports business: Broadcasters, athletes and fans. “No 1 is the fan, whose line of sight should never be obstructed. We have to think of entry and exit safety, sanitation and fibre optics for Wi-Fi. The broadcaster is an important piece because if he’s comfortable he is going to bring many events here. We took Star TV on board to plan the broadcasting facilities even before we went into commercial operations. Then you have to think about players—are the locker rooms great, what about the fitness facilities?" says Sheth.
Finally, passion that has been translated into focus. A poster in Sheth’s room, showing basketball legend Michael Jordan dunking a ball, passionately advocates, “Focus is everything. Focus 100% on something and you will be 100% efficient at something."
Making room for sports
Sheth is clear what that “something" is: Being the backbone of Indian sports. “We are an indispensable part of the ecosystem. We want to make sure global sports events from anywhere can come here. Nobody will come to India and play in one city; they will come if there is a standard format and if they can go to eight cities," he says, adding that he is in talks with several state governments and international governments in Asia and Africa to construct similar sporting infrastructure. “If this happens, you get a network of standardized facilities with great coaches, sports scientists and hospitality," says Sheth.
Despite the project size, viability is not in question, he claims. “The whole thought process is that if facilities are viable on their own, then you don’t have to worry about investment coming into the sector," he says.
How many children dream of pursuing a sports-related career only to swap their passions for practical realities? Sheth’s stadium says it all—we built it, and they have come.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.