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News > Alumni stories > Toby Fenn, talks about life in professional rugby and beyond

Toby Fenn, talks about life in professional rugby and beyond

We caught up with Old Mole Toby (class of 2001), to find out more about his career with the Hong Kong 7S and how he co-founded OX Living.
23 Jan 2023
Alumni stories

Can you tell us about your journey from playing rugby at school to the move to play professionally?

I started playing rugby very young, running around barefoot in South Africa, before moving to the UK, aged 10 and getting started with Moulsford Colts. It was a bit of a shock putting on boots for the first time, though I loved continuing the game in a new country with new people and new rules (no hand-offs until U14s apparently!). I never thought I’d end up playing professionally. A last-minute injury at the Hong Kong Sevens saw my first official call-up.  I was offered a full-time contract shortly after. I loved the five years that followed, touring the world and playing in tournaments from Fiji to Uruguay. I’m sure few sportspeople sign their first full-time sports contract aged 30, but I am very glad to have given it a crack. When I look back, really I’ve just been following rugby around the world, doing a few things to keep me busy along the way. 

Can you describe some of the highlights of your rugby career? 

Winning our first Sevens tournament with Moulsford U10s at Stoneyhurst is up there in the memory bank.  I think we managed to not concede a try all tournament. Probably where I started getting so competitive!  A later highlight was playing in my first Hong Kong Sevens. I remember being sat out on the wing for a try to beat Spain in the quarter-finals in extra time. The most people I’d ever played in front of until then was a few hundred, so having 40,000 cheering the home side underdogs to win was certainly a moment I’ll never forget. 

What were some of the most challenging moments during your time as a rugby professional?

Getting injured or being dropped is up there. It’s always difficult to take bad news on the chin, though fairly inevitable in sport - especially as you get older. Though I’d say missing the birth of my firstborn, having to board a flight to France for the Japan
World Cup qualifiers against Canada was my biggest challenge. Despite trying everything our midwife recommended, from spicy curries to Chinese teas, Roan was over 10 days late and I’d promised the coach I’d be back in France for the game. It’s challenging to balance the team with family and friends, but missing the birth is not something I would recommend to anyone else or my younger self. Sadly we lost to Canada and I ended up with an unhappy coach and an unhappy wife. 

What advice might you have for those passionate about their sport in terms of taking it onto the next stage, and going professional?

Back yourself and stay committed. I guess I actually didn’t get invited to play for the 7S - just rocked up to training voluntarily and told the coach I fancied giving it a crack. Like anything, a bit of timing and a bit of luck is always important, although, without a bit of persistence and commitment, it’s a non-starter. 

Can you tell us a little about the transition from a professional sports person to a property developer and how that came about?

I did my Masters in renewable energy in Beijing, following an interest in sustainability and ‘bigger’ world issues (as mentioned - got a bit distracted by rugby along the way). This led me to explore more purpose-driven work generally. Then on a holiday in Malaysia in 2017, I reconnected with an old mate from back home. He decided to quit his job as an engineer and focus on developing co-living accommodations for young working professionals. The focus is affordability, quality, and great service. I liked the idea, and whilst playing rugby helped raise funds privately to develop a portfolio of 200 rooms across Oxfordshire. We are now looking to develop a further 500 rooms over the next five years with quality, affordability and a low-carbon approach all fundamental to our growth plans. 

How did you go about forging a new career in a different field?

I’d say there are many transferable skills in rugby, and I have met quite a few employers that recognise this on a CV. The best advice I can think of is to find something that you enjoy (first) and are good at (second), and hopefully, it’s something that has a genuine role in solving real-world problems. Remember that if you back yourself, there is so much opportunity out there. I suppose failure is a key part of this, just like getting knocked out of a tournament or not qualifying for a world cup, I’ve had a go at various entrepreneurial ventures from graduate recruitment to outdoor education. Many didn’t work out, although they offered a few valuable lessons along the way. 

Can you share a little about how your business is working out? What have you learned from the experience so far?

At OX Living, we started with fairly humble plans, focusing on developing 20 quality, affordable rooms within Oxfordshire. We had a bit of luck with the market, providing some tailwinds for growth. Being purpose-driven in our approach to finding a solution and having a clear plan has helped. What I’ve learned is that it is essential to partner with people you actually get on with and share values with.  And that many problems are the result of poor communication. 
I heard a cheesy saying on a podcast - ‘networks are your net worth’. I’d say the people I met through playing rugby have always offered help and support throughout my life - from personal to career - it’s all about relationships, teamwork and recognising the potential in collaboration and building new connections. 

What advice might you have for those wanting to switch careers and look for a new direction?

Don’t settle. It’s easy to get comfortable in a role. Ultimately find something which makes you happy, push yourself and always look to learn more - especially whilst you’re young. 

 

What has it been like living in Hong Kong? Which aspects do you enjoy the most about living there?

While the UK will always be home, I love Hong Kong. It’s been a turbulent few years, but everything that makes it so special is still here. I live on the south side of Hong Kong island with my wife and two kids.  We surf, hike, cycle, paddleboard, and free dive all on our doorstep whilst being less than 30 minutes from the city center. Hong Kong has a reputation for being an overcrowded city, but almost half of it is beautiful national parks. Hong Kong can offer an amazing pace of life and lifestyle. I came to Asia for one year to study in 2010 and haven’t looked back since. 

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