September 4, 2017
Paul Foster is the CEO of The Great Run Company, organiser of the Great North Run (founded by father Brendan in 1981) and Britain’s biggest mass participation sports business. There are over 40 Great events each year in which 300,000 people take part. Paul leads a team of 70 staff in Newcastle and London who develop, market, commercialise, organise and provide television coverage of these events. Before becoming CEO, Paul was the managing director of FilmNova, the Great Run Company’s in-house TV production business, and prior to that was a producer at BBC Sport
What was your first break in business?
Being hired by Roger Tames and Ken Pollard as a trainee in the Sport team at Tyne Tees in the late ’90s. I spent a year there, developing the skills that got me into BBC Sport and Match of the Day. It was a great team in a dynamic newsroom, and a brilliant time to be involved at Tyne Tees, when the ITV regions made a lot more TV than they do today.
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to make movies. I haven’t completely ruled it out, but it’s starting to look unlikely at this stage.
What attracted you to your current role?
After almost ten years with Great Run, growing our TV business into one of the UK’s top sport production companies, the opportunity to take over as CEO came up. We’re a company full of brilliant people who deliver one of the world’s best events right here in the North East, and are by far the biggest in our sector in the UK. I knew it inside out, and given the opportunity to lead it, the decision was a no brainer.
What is your company’s mission?
We want to inspire people to be active. 300,000 people took part in our events last year but there’s more to do – each of those events is one day a year; we want to engage with more people year round, to help them train, keep them motivated and keep them going after the event.
How do you get the best out of your team?
It’s such a committed, tight-knit team that we tend to keep each other motivated and working at a high level. What we do is very visible, and if things go wrong it’s very hard to hide – from customers, stakeholders and especially each other. Many of us have worked together for years; we’ve always kept high standards, and people joining the team learn that quickly.
What has been your career highlight?
It’s hard to pick one. Having watched the show since I was a kid, directing Match of the Day for the first time – cueing Gary Lineker off the opening titles was a really big moment for me. The Simplyhealth Great North Run is an annual highlight, but in 2014 we had our millionth finisher cross the line. We were the first event in the world to reach that particular landmark. Running the Mini Great Newham London Run this year with my three-year-old daughter reminded me how much fun running is, and why we do what we do.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Coordinating television coverage of the Millionth Finish ceremony. On Newcastle Quayside we had Sting, Mark Knopfler, Ant and Dec, dozens of boats, hundreds of dancers, thousands of fireworks and a 20 metre-high burning runner floating down the Tyne. We were working with a few partners who didn’t appreciate the scale of the thing. At one point someone laughed and said: “This sounds like the Olympics opening ceremony.” I replied: “Yes, but it’s harder, because there’s no stadium, no rehearsal, and a fraction of the budget.” But we got there in the end.
Who or what inspires you?
Our runners. For many of them a Great Run will be a huge personal challenge, or a massive emotional investment. Everybody’s got some reason to run and a story to tell. We invite them to share their stories, and we listen to the most amazing tales of resilience and strength. Just watching people crossing the finish line is a huge source of inspiration for anyone.
What are your company’s short and long-term goals?
Short term, we want to make the next event better than the one before. Long term, we want to see millions of people taking part in Great Run events across the world.
How do you achieve a good work/life balance?
It’s hard. Our work involves lots of travelling and weekends away. I do try and turn the phone and email off when I’m not working, and make sure that being off means being off. But it doesn’t always work out that way.