EXCLUSIVE: Meet the man who answers to more than 6,500 bosses

Photos courtesy of Gloucester Rugby
Lance Bradley 3

Lance Bradley took over as CEO at Gloucester Rugby Club last September. It’s been quite a year – and it’s not over yet  

 

Interview by Nicky Godding, editor at Business & Innovation Magazine

When you take on the top job at Gloucester Rugby, it’s not just the owner you have to answer to.

It’s the thousands of Gloucester fans watching from afar, or from the club’s famous Shed, including the 6,500 season ticket holders who all feel they personally own a precious piece of the best rugby club in the world.

But Lance Bradley, who became Chief Executive last year, knows about passion. He spent more than 30 years working among petrol heads in the automotive industry, first for the Ford Motor Company and more recently as Managing Director of Mitsubishi Motors UK – a role he took on in 2009, the year after the banking crisis.

When the entire motor industry was struggling, Lance guided the company, the sole importer of the Mitsubishi brand into the UK, to growth. He stepped down in 2018, after almost ten years in the role.

So what next? At 53, he was a bit young to retire. “Part of the reason I left Mitsubishi when I did was that I wanted to do one last job. In your early fifties, everyone knows you’ve got 10 or 15 years left. I wasn’t in a rush to find something but then Martin St Quinton (the owner of Gloucester Rugby Club), asked me to join the board as a non-executive director.”

Lance Bradley 5Mitsubishi had been a sponsor of Gloucester Rugby since 2007. Lance’s predecessor at the car company had begun the relationship and, as a passionate rugby supporter, Lance saw the business sense of sponsoring a local team which also happens to be one of the top rugby clubs in the country.

“I felt it was a no-brainer – sponsoring a top rank sports team sent out all the right messages to Mitsubishi customers. We wanted to support a community where there was action as well as an emotional connection, and where everyone can get behind a common ambition – to win and win with integrity. It’s a powerful message for any company – and there are precious few such opportunities available, so we grabbed it and hung on to it for the next 15 years.

Before he took the job at Gloucester, he asked Martin a key question: “I asked him what the objective of the role, of the club, was. Martin didn’t miss a beat, he wants to win trophies. And that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

An epic season of change

Lance took over as CEO at Gloucester Rugby last September. And it’s a good thing he likes a challenge, because little has been easy – both at the pointy end of the club – on the pitch, as well as the business itself, thanks partly to Covid-19.

Alex BrownOne of his first appointments, in November last year, was Alex Brown as Commercial Director (now Chief Operating Officer). Alex played for Gloucester more than 200 times, but injury cut his playing career short in 2013.

Such was the club’s regard for him, he became Rugby Operations Manager. When Lance took over last year, Alex was studying for a Master’s degree in sports business management. “It was fairly clear he saw his future more in the commercial world. The coaching team didn’t want to lose him, and he didn’t have a lot of experience on the commercial side, but if we hadn’t offered him the commercial job, we would have lost him and all his knowledge and experience of the club.”

Strength off the pitch means stronger on the pitch

And this is the essence of Lance Bradley. He doesn’t have a problem with people not having experience. What he looks for is attitude and aptitude. “I have managed people for more than 20 years. The only person with the exact experience of a job is the person who’s just left it. What I look for is someone with attitude, aptitude, high standards and the desire to learn.”

So perhaps it should have been no surprise that when the club announced its new head coach in June, it was controversial – especially as the club selected someone who hadn’t been a head coach before when it could have picked from a pool of around 70 applicants, some with much more experience.

George SkivingtonThe successful applicant was George Skivington, who moved from London Irish. The appointment took the London club by surprise – it says that Gloucester is in breach of Premiership Rugby’s Code of Conduct for making an illegal approach to appoint Skivington. When I ask Lance about this, he says: “We are trying to find an amicable solution, but we don’t think we have done anything wrong.”

He’s more forthcoming on George’s impact at Gloucester. “George Skivington has got great people around him; he has the skills and the high standards. Being good is not enough, we all have to aim for excellence, and most people respond really well to that.

“A number of people suggested when we appointed George that he was the ‘cheap option’. I think that’s disrespectful and cost certainly didn’t influence our decision. We wanted someone who didn’t come with preconceived ideas but did have premiership experience. Our players had made that really clear, they wanted high standards and a strong leader.

“The Chief Executive sets the tone throughout and if my standards are high, everyone else’s standards will be. In an elite sports club, to achieve the results we all want, everything has to be excellent – ‘good’ isn’t good enough. For the last six years we have been between seventh and ninth in the league. Last season we were third, but that was due to a number of things going our way. Unfortunately, those same things weren’t going our way in the first half of this season – they weren’t built on repeatable success.

Gloucester Rugby action shot“The reason we are all here is to win things. Everyone’s clear about that, and everything – both on the pitch and off, everything must feed into that ambition.”

Turning pandemic into opportunity

But if the controversies on the playing side weren’t enough to deal with, then came Covid-19 and lockdown.

The pandemic has cost Gloucester Rugby around £5 million in lost revenues. It could have been more but the club asked its 6,500 season ticket holders if they would agree to leave their money in the club in order to help fund the new training ground (Gloucester is leaving its old training ground at Hartpury this summer, but has not yet announced where it is planning to move). “Around 65 per cent of our season ticket holders have agreed. And we are very grateful to them for that.”

Like all other sports teams, Gloucester had to cut costs quickly when the crisis hit. After a week of looking at every aspect of the club’s finances, cutting everything they could (the directors all took a 25 per cent salary cut immediately), they had to look at the biggest cost – the players’ salaries.

“We invited our senior playing group in. They are our most experienced players and don’t just turn up and play rugby. We’re all used to the scale of the Covid crisis now, but back then it still seemed incredible that a virus could potentially have such a devastating impact, of course health-wise, but financially too.

Gloucester Rugby ground from above“When we explained everything to them they went through the same emotions that we had gone through, so we showed and talked them through the numbers. They understood and wanted to help. By the time we spoke to everyone else the following day, players and staff, it wasn’t just management speaking, our senior players could also confirm and explain what the club was trying to do.”

Everyone went on furlough except seven members of staff: four directors, the head of medical who was caring for recuperating players, one member of the communications team and the head of finance.

“Between us, we did everything for four months. Alex Brown and I worked for seven days a week 10 hours a day. It was mentally draining, but it also gave us the opportunity to look at absolutely everything in the business – from ticket sales to how much was being sold in the bars. I believe if you can measure things, you can improve them – and the time under lockdown meant that rather than asking for information, we had to go looking for it ourselves.

“To be successful on the pitch, Gloucester Rugby has to be run as a business. That doesn’t mean we have to make profit – everything we make is ploughed back into the playing side – but the club has to be run efficiently. The reason we are all here is to win trophies. Everyone’s clear about that. But if you don’t have an effective commercial operation you can’t do that.”

“Our plan is to have high standards throughout the organisation and have people who consistently live up to those standards.”

The hunt for a new training ground for Gloucester

Gloucester Rugby needs more space to train, and its current training space at Hartpury University isn’t big enough, so the club must move. Lance won’t yet say where the new training ground is, but it is close.

“One of the things that attracts good players to the club is great training facilities. It’s important to have a good stadium, but players only play here once every two weeks in the season. However, they are at the training ground four to five days a week for all but five weeks of the year, so it has to be top notch.”

The Club’s ties with Hartpury won’t be lost – the Junior Academy will still be based there – and the club is in the process of effecting a smoother pathway through the academy and into the first team squad.

“We want our best coaches to be involved with the academy,” said Lance. “The academy needs to be focused on delivering what the head coach needs for his first team squad, so consistency of approach is essential. It’s a big step up from the academy to the first team. Imagine being a 17 or 18 year old and suddenly finding yourself training with Danny Cipriani, Ed Slater or Jake Polledri. However good you think you are, it’s men and boys. We have to make that transition as easy as possible.”

Less than a year into the job and Lance is successfully joining up the three key areas of the club, the commercial side, first team and academy. He also wants to increase the effectiveness of the work that the club does in the community.

Crowd“I have always felt that a big organisation needs to be a good corporate citizen. Gloucester Rugby is one of the most famous things in Gloucester, and that brings a level of responsibility. And it’s a nice responsibility, because there are things that we can do that others can’t. There is probably no one else that can host a jobs fair and not charge for it, which is what we are planning to do in September. So why would we not do that? If it works, the whole city will benefit.

“We should be supporting local rugby clubs, such as extending our kit deal to them. There is no place that local rugby clubs can put up their match reports for everyone to read. Why not? Why don’t we put a place on our new website? Local clubs can load up their own match reports. We get more traffic to our website and local clubs will have more people reading club reports and hearing of their players’ successes.

“It just takes organisation. Not all good ideas cost money.

“It’s like our business partnerships. It’s not all about writing cheques. We want to offer much more. For instance, we have a database of 75,000 people. We want to look at what we can do for our business partners that no-one else can do, or that we could do better.”Gols Rugby old shot

Lance Bradley is every bit as determined on driving Gloucester Rugby’s success from the board room as George Skivington and his players are in winning on the pitch. And that can’t fail to make its fans happy.