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Jon Smith
Jon Smith
Jon Smith, 57, is the Chief Executive of First Artist Corporation PLC, a leading media, marketing and sports representation business. Previously known as ‘Mr Football’, he was one of the people responsible for bringing Premier League to the television screens of one-fifth of the world’s population in 180 different countries. But the path his life has taken has been unexpected, as he explains to Victoria Schofield.
You are acclaimed as an extremely successful businessman, an entrepreneur in the field of communications and entertainment, what was your life ambition when you were a young boy?  
When I was young I couldn’t speak. I had the worst stammer. In fact, the reason I am called ‘Jon’, is because it took so long for me to get out the name Jonathan, that all people heard was ‘Jon‘ But I was a very quick runner, and, aged 16, I ran for Great Britain in the 100 yards race in Siegen, West Germany. This experience made me feel that self expression was very important and that you had to feel good about yourself to achieve anything in this world. Being respectful of yourself meant that you wanted to achieve. And if you like and respect yourself you have a very good chance of succeeding.
Tell me more about the stammer, that must have been a huge challenge. How did you get over it?  
I was angry with myself so much of the time because I couldn’t communicate. But when I was 17, my mother died and my father realized I needed professional help to lose my stammer. I saw a specialist in Jersey called Bill Kerr and he had a unique technique. Stammering, he said, was a fear of words; the brain was afraid of talking, so he made me so afraid of stammering that my fear of communication became a fear of stammering. There were eight people on the course, the oldest I remember was 65 and basically Bill Kerr beat us up; we got punched, slapped and generally made so frightened of being hit if we stammered. This course ran for two weeks, from 7 in the morning until 7 at night. We then went back to the boarding house and the person who ran it used the same technique. If you stammered when you ordered your chicken noodle soup, he would push your head in the soup. As a result, I was cured in three days. Such treatment would never be allowed today, but it worked and I am eternally grateful to Bill Kerr. I am now patron of the British Stammering Association and we are trying to lobby the British government – through Schools secretary, Ed Balls, who has also had to overcome disfluency – to put forward a programme to test children when they are young; your brain waves are different when you stammer from when you speak fluently. You can identify this as early as aged two, even though the children may not yet be stammering.
Obviously Bill Kerr had a huge impact on your life, has anyone else had a similar impact?  
My two wives: My first wife, Lee died of leukaemia aged 29. In 1982, I set up the Lee Smith Research Foundation in her name because it was her dying wish that others should not suffer as she did. My second wife Janine has also been an anchor in my life. And we have our two children, now aged 21 and 18, and so my family is very important.
Once you were cured from stammering, what did you plan to do with your life?  
Well, I came back from Jersey and I thought I really had got a new toy called speech. And I decided I wanted to become an actor. So I went to the Kingsway Drama School in Holborn. I loved that world, but I was not a good actor and ended up not being in drama at all. A friend and I started a record production business, Greenlight Productions. That was in 1969 which was an extraordinary time to be in the music business. We began by selling football records outside the grounds. Then I stumbled across Northern Soul and we introduced it into Britain, with several hits in the top twenty. We sold that company in 1981 but at the time my wife died. It was a really bizarre part of my life; I thought ‘that is it’ and , with a big hairy dog called Scruff, I lived at the bottom of a whisky bottle for a while. But then I did what people call a ‘geographical’ – I moved to Los Angeles and that was where I got the inspiration for my current business.
Which became First Artist Corporation?  
Yes, in the US I loved what they were doing with sport. I loved the way they marketed sport which they viewed as entertainment. Sportsmen were superstars not like in the UK. And so, after Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman dumped the name of their movie company, First Artists, I took it for the name of a new company which I started back in Britain in 1986. At that time, football was the big entertainment platform in the UK. I went into partnership with Paul Mariner, who had just left the England team and we managed to negotiate the commercial account for the whole England team. I also became an event promoter and brought in other sports, like American football, basketball, ice hockey.
You also had an interesting interlude when you promoted Mikhail Gorbachev, former Secretary-General of the Communist party in the former Soviet Union?  
Yes, I wanted to promote Gorbachev because I really thought he had made the world a lot safer (little did i know what the future would hold) he had re-designed the world map.
Are you yourself religious?  
I was raised in an orthodox Jewish family in north London and so I have brought the children up as Jewish to see Judaism for what it is as our heritage, but for me the most important thing is to deliver something for the greater good. I am a great believer in God and in life after death, but religion leaves me cold. In my view, religion is the controlling of the masses by the few. I do not believe sitting in a place of worship adds another dimension to life. Some of the Scriptures are wonderful, others aren’t. But yes, I believe there is a divinity way beyond us, perhaps the embodiment of all of us in a greater form. There is definitely more to life than living.
You speak as someone who still has a mission, something you still want to accomplish in life?  
I feel I haven’t made a difference at all. I really want to make a difference. I have made people money; I have helped people who have a stammer. I have a good charity in Lee’s name, raising money for people with leukaemia. But to answer the $64 million dollar question, what more would I like to achieve? I haven’t yet found it. I think I have done ok, but I have a lot more to do. My talent is putting you with him and devising a plan to make money. All my talents are abstract. God didn’t give me anything that wasn’t an abstract, I can’t draw, or paint, I play the guitar averagely well, but I couldn’t re-design my house. I know a lot – I could tell you, for example, when the battle of Hastings was – but I still don’t have a particular talent. By the age of 60, I would like to be somewhere else in mental space doing something a bit special, whatever that means, that makes you feel you have made a difference.
I think you are being very modest about your achievements?  
Perhaps! I am very pleased with the charity work. I think we are giving back a lot. And I am pleased that in First Artist we have built a brand that will survive and be a shining light in the industry sector and that I was in the forefront of changing the way people viewed football in the Premier League, which is now one of the biggest entertainments in the world.
What about politics?  
Politics…it’s interesting because we were sitting there one evening watching ‘Question Time’ and all the questions were about negatives. I said ‘you know what we want to do? We want to start a Happy Party.’ The trouble is everyone is so sad, you wake up in the morning, pick up the Daily Mail, everyone has a problem, the streets are violent. And so if I were to go into politics, I would want to inject a ‘feel good’ factor. You want to feel that the people you have elected are on your side, whereas the people we have elected now seem to want to control and regulate you, make you dependent on the state. Once the state has sucked you in, it doesn’t do anything for you. We need to be independent, make our own decisions, right or wrong.

See: http://www.stammering.org for information about the British Stammering Association. And http://www.theleesmithfoundation.com for information about the Lee Smith research Foundation.