March 14, 2014

A family dynasty on track

Running a business with family members has its challenges and benefits. But Bart and James Cummings are proof that a cross-generational family business can work and, through their training partnership, it can survive and even thrive.

When you’re a mere 25 years old and have joined forces with one of Australia’s most celebrated horse trainers, you could feel justifiably proud.

Certainly James Cummings would be forgiven for pausing to celebrate. In July last year, Racing NSW endorsed his training partnership with his grandfather, Bart (James Bartholomew) Cummings, 12 times winner of the much lauded Melbourne Cup, with five quinellas to boot.

Yet what’s most apparent when Business View caught up with Bart’s grandson, is his dedication to the family’s horse training business. There’s no doubt he has the Cummings bug well and truly, and it’s this passion, this single mindedness, passed down through the generations, that’s the surest sign the family dynasty will survive and thrive.

It’s clear the younger Cummings eats, sleeps and breathes racing, with a wealth of knowledge gained from being immersed in the family business since he was knee high. “It’s what we’ve grown up with,” he says. “While it’s never been forced upon us, it’s always been in the background along the way and often the dreams and the aspirations have taken up a large part of our lives.”

Getting down to business

James sees his family’s horse training as a “lifestyle commitment” more than a commercial venture. However, the training partnership will set him up well and does put the two family members squarely on a business footing.

The rules of training partnerships require the duo to set up a company or partnership and any breach of the racing rules, whoever is at fault, results in joint liability. As racing news service Thoroughbred NEWS notes, the partnership serves as an excellent way for the more junior partner to gain further experience and to access capital “for buying and placing of ownership of stable horses”.

Nonetheless, the family’s horse training business really dates back to Bart’s father, Jim (James Martin) Cummings, long before the advent of training partnerships. In 1950, Jim won the Melbourne Cup with Comic Court – which the then 23 year old Bart strapped for him.

Three years later, Bart took out his own training licence and made good use of his father’s stables. Today his son Anthony – James’ father – owns the stables next door to him at Randwick.

Yet until very recently, it wasn’t clear that Bart would take on James as his partner. What changed? “Maybe it was a year for reflection,” says his grandson, referring to the fact Bart reached his 60th year of training last May. “He certainly did seem to turn the corner. He was happily going along with me as his foreman and himself taking full responsibility as the trainer.”

James suggests that contemporary rival John Hawkes also might’ve shifted Bart’s view. “He’s alluded to the fact that John Hawkes seemed a pretty happy man after a few years of training in partnership with his two sons, so maybe the argument I used about Hawksie to him 18 months ago started to sink in. Maybe it dawned on him that it could certainly be a profitable reality.”

Family ties

James believes the benefits of a family business come down to the quality of the relationships. “First and foremost, I think there’s a really great element of trust in family ownership.” While he sees this is comparable to any other business, he does admit there’s a difference. “You’d certainly have to acknowledge that you are much more trusting of family and that does give you a certain advantage.” But he’s not keen to count his eggs before they hatch. “I think the advantages will come to fruition in the next few years and time will well and truly have to tell.”

Communication is key

Both Cummings’ down play the challenges inherent in family ownership. According to Bart, there shouldn’t be any. His grandson laughs. “Communication can come to the fore and help to alleviate any possible challenges so I think I can see where he’s coming from with that response. I don’t think that you want to dwell too much on the challenges until they really arise.”

In the meantime, the younger Cummings is confident that good communication will prevail between the two of them. “If anything is in doubt, we can defer to Bart’s experience,” he says. “But often Bart’s response will be that because I’m there every day and can see it for myself, he’s happy for me to make the decision.” He adds: “I think it’s pretty old school really. Bart is like a patriarchal figure and I report to him as much as he sometimes calls me up out of the blue – whether it’s about a jockey, race day, business or general horse care. It’s never boring! But we make a habit of staying in touch. We talk daily, often more than that, and we have systems of communication within the stables.”

There’s no doubt the communications come thick and fast. In addition to phone calls, both Cummings’ continue to receive faxes and emails. “There’s so much information involved with racing on a daily basis, you can’t really cover it all in speaking about it. But it all gets covered in the end through our communication framework.”

To this end, the Cummings’ Leilani Lodge office acts as an information depot, explains James, centralising all communications. “We really use the lodge office as the hub of the business. But it’s important and common sense that we keep each other in the loop about everything that’s going on.”

Looking forward

James says he and his grandfather are clear on where they’re headed. He puts this down to the four years he has already spent as Bart’s foreman. “We’ve got a pretty good understanding of how we work together.” This includes forward planning.

James notes that a large part of their preparations for the partnership involved communicating with clients, ensuring they were comfortable with the idea of a partnership and obtaining their ongoing agreement to commit to the stables. “We have a very good support base and we’re very thankful to clients that have really committed to the idea, and are willing to see it through.”

Table talk

Being a member of the Cummings clan means horse training and racing permeates every part of your life – work, home and everything in between. This doesn’t faze

James. “When it comes to racing, I think you have to keep in mind it’s a real lifestyle, so there’s a mix of all those things no matter what you do. Often if you’re really passionate about something and want to be really good at it, and work that hard at it, it creeps into your everyday life.” He continues: “In many ways it’s like joining a brotherhood of trainers. It doesn’t take over unless you allow it to but you really have to inject yourself into it wholeheartedly and that breaks down the boundaries. It’s a way of living.”

He likens it to any other small business: “Everyone is aware of the hours of running a small business and that’s the reality of it. But it’s a labour of love. It’s full of passion with rewards and tough times as well.”

Outside looking in

Of course, the problem with immersing yourself in your work can be the way it narrows your view. That makes outside feedback imperative. James agrees: “It’s so critical to have people who care about you and your business, and people who have good knowledge in certain areas, to help you plan for the future, help you clean up things that need doing.”

One example he gives relates to new technology. The Cummings’ updated their communication system to ensure their clients were kept better informed about how their horses were doing. “Owners’ involvement with their horses has become more important as time has gone on and a part of modern Australian racing. So that’s an area where we’ve taken on advice from outside and adjusted the business going forward to meet those requirements. I think it has had a good impact on our decision making.”

James also underlines the experience he has gained from working outside the Cummings’ stables. “I’ve broadened my horizons since I graduated from high school.” This has included a stint at a New Zealand-based stud and a number of different places in Australia upon his return to Sydney.

At the same time he began a degree in agricultural economics. “But my passion was with racing, so I was led to the Hunter Valley where I worked with stallions and covering mares, and did reproductive work. That gave me added experience away from the race course and horse training.”

Eventually, he returned to work for his father’s stable where he’d been working off and on from the age of 13.

Head hunting

James believes it was his breadth of experience that appealed to Bart when he was looking for a new foreman four years ago. According to James, it was Bart’s long-time foreman who recommended James to replace him. The suggestion was well received: “I’m led to believe a smile crept across Bart’s lips and he agreed to give that idea a chance … for want of a better way of expressing it.”

The younger Cummings believes the experience and skills he had gained away from the stables were sufficiently attractive to Bart to counterbalance the issue of his tender years. “Only learning in the one environment doesn’t really give you the opportunity to overcome the problems you come up against, so I think external experience is crucial. I think it helped make it a viable option for me to get a foot in the door, let alone a share in the business.”

To Bart, running a successful family business means steering clear of special treatment. Certainly recruiting a family member shouldn’t be taken for granted. Says James: “Bart’s always taught me it’s important to treat it no differently to any other business. It’s a combination of all the right mix of attributes, hard work and communication, and the skill, knowledge and expertise that you have in your area.”

Adds the grandson: “As Bart says, the Cummings’ have had good experience and good history in this profession, and he’s confident that that can continue.”

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