USA Table Tennis
33-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 33, July 30 - Anders Thunstrom Discusses ITTF’s Marketing Dynamics
“Any organization/company needs internal debate to move forward; but when viewed from the outside, there has to be a united front.”
From 1995-1999 Adham Sharara was the ITTF’s CEO. In 1996 you moved to Canada to set up TMS as a marketing service to the ITTF. For almost 15 years you then lived in Ottawa, based in what later became (in 1999) the ITTF President's office. So you must know President Sharara very well. What was your first impression when you started to work with him?
I started working for the ITTF in 1993. I met Adham for the first time ever in December of 1992 in Las Vegas at the World Doubles Cup. Only a brief conversation.
When the ITTF and Adham offered me to re-locate to Ottawa in 1996, we had been working together for one year. At that point, I was still living in Sweden. I was the ITTF Marketing Director (same position as Steve Dainton has now). The formation of TMS happened in early 2000.
“Very organized,” I would say was how Adham struck me at first. He often came to the ITTF office in Ottawa with a “To-do list,” and based on that, we worked on the same until we had check-marks on each item. Then there was a new “To-do list” and so on.
As time went on, how did you get along with Adham and what were the dynamics of your relationship like?
In the early years, there was so much stuff that needed to get done. Along the way, I think we found the right “balance” on how to get things accomplished. I, as the employee, wanted to move fast, and he, as an elected officer, took his time to make decisions. So it shaped up like that.
I was often thinking, “Why is he so slow?”
And I am sure he was thinking the opposite, “What’s the rush?” Or, “Not right now.”
But somehow it worked out that we made a pretty good combination. I was pushing and he had the brakes on, so the pace became right. Sometimes even these days I still think decision making occasionally is too slow. Ha! Ha!
Over the years, of course, you know when it is worthwhile debating matters, and/or when not. I think I have been “softening” a bit.
President Sharara divulged to me that you two actually often had disagreements, but that you always found a solution in the end. How did that work out and can you give us an example?
I did express early to Adham that my opinions were not “for sale.”
Yes, as long as ITTF (or TMS) was paying my salary, I would of course be loyal to the employer, but that does not mean that I always had to have the same opinion as the President, the Executive Committee or whatever.
I still follow my beliefs. So, yes, that opened up for a lot of great debate.
It seems you are surprised since you asked the question, but that also gives me satisfaction. Any organization/company needs internal debate to move forward; but when viewed from the outside, there has to be a united front.
We also had many, many debates and differences of opinions over the years especially about what World Title events should look like and how they should be developed. But we always kept those discussions internal.
In the end, some of the decisions that were made in the ITTF over the years were the result of matters we resolved during our many spirited conversations. Even now we still engage and argue if things are happening quickly enough or if it is the right timing (staff vs. volunteer).
What influence do you think TMS/yourself and Adham have had on the professionalization of the ITTF as far as presentation and marketing are concerned?
It is very much up to others to judge that.
When I started inside the ITTF in 1993, the ITTF was organizing the World Table Tennis Championships every other year as well as the Men’s World Cup every year, staged together with IMG. The yearly budget for the ITTF was around US$ 350,000 with five people employed.
Today the marketing income is in seven figures in US$, there are around 25 people employed by the ITTF/TMS, and there are ITTF events almost year-round. So of course it has been a quite satisfying development.
When Manchester was awarded the 1997 WTTC, there was a one-page fax from the ITTF confirming that Manchester City was awarded the event. Today, there are contractual agreements for every ITTF World Title event; there are numerous directives for organizers to follow in order to get the look and presentation we want. So there has been a lot of development on the competition side.
Still, maybe some would think we should have done better. Sometimes I think that myself.
Now you live in Sweden and the ITTF Marketing office is based in Singapore. How do you and Steve Dainton communicate and handle logistics?
We mostly communicate via Skype and e-mail. I also travel to the Singapore office at least once a year. And then we of course meet at World Title events and ITTF meetings.
We have a lot of activities in Asia. Most of our commercial revenue comes from Asia, so the Singapore office and staff are important for us. They do a good job, and they are quick. I feel like I am the guy applying the brakes now!
The ITTF Marketing staff represent the “lol-generation” (if you as a reader do not understand, just make a phone call!) and the future, which is great.
President Sharara revealed to me that TMS is currently going after some big potential sponsors, but he refused to disclose the names. Could we get a hint from you?
Since I told you about the united front, I am not disclosing any leads, and I have even had verbal commitments that never materialized, so I have learnt over the years the hard way: no agreement is done until it is signed.
Finally, if there is one thing you’ve learned from working with Adham over these years, what would that be?
Very difficult to pin down one thing, but maybe this:
His treatment of various people is very impressive. I noticed that he treats others with respect. Very seldom does he lose his temper or composure, regardless of the discussion or subject. I hope that I have learnt something from that!
Thank you, Anders, for this rare behind-the-scenes look at the dynamics between you and President Sharara before and during his presidency.