Ramon Vega takes up a great deal of space in the room. He’s tall and broad, with slicked-back hair and a sharp suit, and goes in with a firm handshake and a big smile. He should be an imposing presence, but he’s really not – in fact, the most striking thing about Vega is how friendly he is. Later, I mention the meeting to a few football fans, who all concur: “Oh, the ex-Spurs player? He’s a nice guy, isn’t he?”

Sports metaphors are found all over the world of business, but it’s rare to discover a financier with this level of actual sports experience. Vega is the founder of Vega Swiss Asset Management, but his CV is unusual: he was a pro football player for 17 years, most prominently with Tottenham Hotspur. So perhaps it’s fitting that the first thing he wants to talk about is From Pitch To Boardroom – Vega is co-CEO of Stuart Blyth’s venture, which uses football methodology to inspire corporate leaders in selecting and nurturing winning teams.

The winning formula

“I’m merging two worlds together,” Vega says in his heavy European accent. “I was a professional footballer, an international player. Then I went into finance, into hedge funds and asset management.”

We’re sitting in a suite at the Landmark, a top-flight Marylebone hotel which is very imposing indeed. Vega presses on: “But as I was building a ‘second career’, as we call it, the first career was calling me back.” Vega realised there was a way to combine the two worlds, using his sports expertise to provide a fresh perspective for business.

One of the most important lessons to take from football is understanding that people run the organisation, not the other way around. “A football manager needs to know exactly what kind of player he wants. Does he want a defender, a striker, or a goalie? In business, it’s the same thing. As a CEO, whether you inherit your team or build from scratch, you need to get to know people before you start making changes.”

Of course, one benefit of a corporate environment is you won’t have to deal with the Luis Suarez types of this world and their penchant for biting. But, says Vega, there are also plenty of egos you have to keep an eye on in business: “In football, you have these young players trying to be everything. In finance, it’s exactly the same. Young traders are making all this money, thinking they’re on top of the world.”

A football manager needs to know exactly what kind of player he wants. Does he want a defender, a striker, or a goalie? In business, it’s the same thing

What you have to do, says Vega, is take your Suarez-style trader, and turn them into a team player: “What you’re trying to do, as a manager, is make your people feel good, and feel important. Then they are loyal to you, because you made them feel like that. Then you start to have a winning team around you.” The problem, adds Vega, is that lots of bosses actually don’t like managing: “They want to go and fix it themselves. But I don’t know any football manager who goes onto the pitch himself if the striker doesn’t score.”

Good fortunes

Vega lives in London these days, after being born in Switzerland to Spanish parents, who’d left their home country during the Franco era. He played for the Swiss national team, which was an interesting experience for an immigrant: “When I started to play football for Switzerland – when I had the cross,” he
says, drawing a Swiss cross on his chest, “then you’re suddenly representing the country. Something changed. I had mixed feelings: first, of not being accepted, and then later, accepted.”

Having said that, Vega has only good things to say about his early days playing football in Switzerland: “I was very lucky at the Grasshopper Club Zurich, as I studied banking and finance at university while also playing football.” Not that young Vega was planning to use this education any time soon – in fact, the opposite. When the Grasshoppers wanted him, it was his parents who pushed for schooling, and Vega became the first player for the club to have this kind of play-study deal. “Being a footballer was my dream. I was never thinking: ‘Am I going to make it?’ It was always: ‘This is what I want to do!’ I was very, very lucky that I was able to do it.”

In retrospect, Vega is grateful for the good fortune of being surrounded by forces that pushed him towards education. Because retiring from football can be a brutal experience: “The most difficult part of retirement from any sports profession is – where do you go next? When I retired from football, the first two or three years were the hardest years of my life.”

Being a top-level athlete is akin to living in a bubble, says Vega: “I was doing what I loved, my hobby. And suddenly I had to go to work, like everybody else.”

Vega’s first financial venture was co-founding Duet Group in 2002, a company operating in hedge funds, real estate and private equity. His name would open doors, Vega found: “They wanted to talk to me, yes. But they wanted to talk about football.”

He laughs, but it was genuinely difficult: people struggled with the idea of this footballer-turned-banker. Did they take him seriously? “Not at the beginning,” says Vega. “I was hitting a wall all the time. The first two years were tough. I’d say to myself: ‘Gosh, this is going to be hard; I really need to be better than these guys.’”

Vega set up his own shop in 2008, with Vega Swiss Asset Management (VSAM). The company prides itself on being independent and specialised, advising
$1bn in assets while focusing on portfolio management and fixed income.

“We wanted to be an old-fashioned account manager,” says Vega. “The client knows exactly what’s going on, and everything’s transparent.” Having started VSAM at a crunch time for the industry, Vega points to the effects of changing regulation: “It’s starting to clean things up and put structures in place. But at the same time, managers are limited in what they can do. It’s not always ideal for investors, because you can’t always go for the bigger upside when you’re limited by what’s allowed.”

The upside of VSAM’s personalised attitude to business may be a unique investor experience, although Vega acknowledges this hands-on approach could lead to scalability issues. But as a child of the recession, the VSAM spirit is to be responsive to change: “This is an entrepreneurial point of view. You need to be flexible, see what the market wants, and then you have to adjust.”

Legends live on

In his spare time, Vega often goes to Spain to visit family. His love of cycling comes up often, as well as a passion for the opera. And good food, of course: Italian, Spanish, French. I ask him what Swiss food is like: “Well, you have the rösti, the bratwurst. Then it starts to get a bit tricky… Oh, the chocolate fondue,” he laughs.

I ask if he’s on an old boys’ football team, before realising that may be an offensive term for an ex-pro? But Vega’s a good sport about it, nice guy that he is – he plays with the Tottenham Legends, the club’s veterans’ side. “The old players get together for the charity games, and it’s great,” he says. “We used to play together for all those years, and now we’re all old farts.”

It’s nice, he says, when Tottenham fans come and watch: “I always loved playing for Spurs supporters, and now, 15 years later, they still appreciate what you’ve done for the club.” Every now and again, Spurs and Celtic fans will come up and say hello in the street: “I appreciate it, because that was your life.” And maybe the club world will become a part of his life again: Vega walked away from a bid for Portsmouth FC in 2009, but he’s not ruling out another opportunity.

“If a sports franchise or football club comes up, either for running or investing in, I don’t think I would be hesitating,” he admits. “This is a good time to do it.”