Written by Neale Harvey | Published by The Rugby Paper
Gloucester Rugby Chief Executive Lance Bradley tells NEALE HARVEY why he believes Gloucester’s current lowly Premiership position is simply a blip.
Your involvement with Gloucester goes back a fair way, doesn’t it?
Yes. I joined Mitsubishi as sales and marketing director in 2000 and our MD was a big Gloucester fan. We became a tier-two sponsor and then eventually became the club’s main business partner. You get more involved with the club and when I left Mitsubishi three years ago, Martin St Quinton, Gloucester’s owner, asked if I’d join the board. I did that for 18 months before becoming CEO in September 2019. The motor industry was fantastic to be involved in but you had to be excellent or you’d lose money, so I’m used to an operation where you chase down every half-percent and it’s worked well bringing that mentality to the club, especially at the current time
On becoming Gloucester’s CEO, what were your original pre-Covid objectives?
You have to be brutally honest and the fact was the club had been losing more money each year and although it wasn’t losing as much as some other clubs, that was the wrong comparison. It’s not a great comfort being the best of a bad bunch, you want to be the best of a good bunch. Similarly, on the playing side we’d had a good season in 2018/19 but other than that things had been pretty flat. In five of the last nine years, we’ve finished ninth and our average finish is 7.5, so we’re not coming off the back of halcyon days where everything has been brilliant. As chief executive, you look at reasons for that and where you can make a difference. That was my ambition and I felt we needed to improve the standards and quality of a lot of things we did. That’s a process we’ve been going through for 15 months now and although Covid has thrown a pretty big bump into the road, the underlying work we’re doing has continued unabated and has actually accelerated. Not having fans means we’ve faced obvious financial problems but we’ve made huge strides in other areas.
From a turnover of £16.8m in 2018/19, how much have finances been hit?
This Covid year has cost us between £7m and £8m, which is a pretty big impact. It’s frustrating because the most recent accounts for 2019/20 that haven’t been published yet would have shown quite a significant turnaround in financial performance as a result of savings and various contract renegotiations that we’d been doing. Obviously, a £7m impact knocks spots off any improvements you’ve made but we’ve taken out a government-backed continuity of business loan and the government also offered a winter survival package for rugby, some of which we’ve applied for and are just finalising the details of. That will see us through but these are all loans which we’ll be repaying for years to come.
In addition to turnover, those 2018/19 accounts included £12.8m from investment firm CVC. Can we assume that has now been swallowed up?
Effectively it has. The recommended accounting treatment of it was that it was released as a chunk and that continues in the accounts, but the reality is that money has been swallowed up in making sure the club survives.
Are you confident you can service the loan debt you have now?
Absolutely confident. We’re fortunate that we’ve had a very high level of support from our fans and that’s made a big difference. Last season we asked season ticket holders if they were able to consider donating rather than asking for a refund, and two-thirds of them did. That’s pretty impressive and makes a huge difference to us, while our sponsors have stuck with us as well. We’re doing what we can to make sure we’re still providing value but we do hugely appreciate what people are doing for us. The underlying business of the club had turned around considerably and I’m confident that will continue. The government are talking about easing some of the lockdown in March and I expect we’ll be allowed 2,000 people in again, and we then hope that as the Covid vaccination rollout increases we’ll be able to get 50% of capacity or a bit more before the end of the season in June. What we’re really planning for, though, is that next season we’ll be back to normal.
In the midst of all this, of course, you couldn’t have foreseen losing your head coach (Johan Ackermann) and director of rugby (David Humphreys) last summer?
Not really. I remember sitting with Martin St Quinton, our owner, last summer and saying to him, ‘I don’t remember any of this being in my job description!’. But Johan got an opportunity to go to Japan and that was fine because it suited both parties, and with the new situation in which we found ourselves, we didn’t really want to have a head coach AND a DoR so we came to an arrangement with David and he left as well. All of it was on decent terms and we still speak to Johan and David.
Last July, you promoted Alex Brown to a new role of chief operating officer and appointed George Skivington as head coach. What was the background behind those moves?
Alex was initially appointed as the club’s commercial director by me and I needed someone to do that job who had the same high standards in business that I do. Although people told me he had no experience, he’d played nearly 300 games for the club, had been team manager and had studied for a law degree in sports business, so he was clearly very bright, was well organised and was already immersed in the club. Besides, the fact he didn’t have the practical commercial experience wasn’t a problem for me because with my background at Mitsubishi, I could support him there. Alex initially moved across in October 2019 and in the first six months we’d been making real inroads in terms of commercial contracts, but then came Covid and changes on the playing side so he took over some responsibility there as well, which was a positive move because when it came to looking for a new head coach, we spent a lot of time talking about what sort of person we wanted.
Which leads us to George’s appointment?
The last two head coaches had been very well-respected southern hemisphere coaches (Ackermann and Laurie Fisher) and while that added some great things to the club, we still weren’t achieving the success we wanted. We’d won the Challenge Cup in 2015 but hadn’t achieved sustained success, so what would it take to achieve that? We agreed at an early stage that we wanted to put a lot more effort and resource into our academy and when it came to our head coach, we wanted somebody who had a lot of interesting ideas, agreed with the importance of the academy and would go into that with a completely open mind. That’s why we were so pleased when George applied for the job and he’s had free rein to appoint his own coaches in Alex King and Dominic Waldouck. At the same time, Trevor Woodman and Tim Taylor were given enhanced roles so there has been continuity there and they’ve both been working hard on the transition of guys between the academy and senior squad. None of us could have predicted how well that would work in terms of how many academy players we’ve already seen in the first team, but it’s been very beneficial and we believe we’ve got a great set-up now.
Danny Cipriani’s departure came as a shock, what happened there?
Danny’s quite a complex character and while he had that absolutely amazing season in 2018/19 where in many matches he was completely unplayable, it’s no secret that he had a number of personal issues, many of which we worked really hard to help him with – an example being the ‘Be Kind’ campaign around this time last year. But he still had some problems that he was working on and in the end, he came to us and said he wasn’t sure it was the best way of handling them. We always try to help all of our players and do what we should for them, but when you have someone like Danny who is such a complex character, sometimes you have to do things that are a bit unusual and although agreeing to him leaving part way through the season was not ideal, we all agreed it was the best thing to do. We’ve now signed Adam Hastings for next season and we’re very happy with Lloyd Evans, who’s stepped up fantastically well, while we’re very excited about George Barton. We’ll have some very good competition at fly-half next season.
How concerned are you about Gloucester’s current position at the foot of the Premiership?
We’re not overly concerned, not because of whether there might be no relegation this season but because we absolutely feel that we’re going to finish the season a lot higher than where we are now. Our last three games have been against the second, third and fourth placed teams, two away from home, and against Sale at Kingsholm I think most people would agree we didn’t get the rub of the green in terms of decisions – if we had, we’d have probably won that game. We’re certainly not complacent, but we think there are things we’re doing very well and we’ve got a lot of youngsters playing who are getting good experience and will improve.
Is George Skivington under pressure this season to achieve a top six finish and European qualification?
The biggest pressure George is under is from himself. We’ve said to him all along that this is not a short-term project, he’s on a long-term contract to achieve our objectives. My experience is that short-term fixes don’t really work and when we’re talking about investing as heavily as we are in our academy, you can’t do all these things and then demand of someone, ‘we want to finish in the top six’. Obviously, we would love to finish in the top six because we want to be playing in the Champions Cup every year, but we’re not in this for short-term gains.
We mentioned no relegation this season, so what do you think of potential plans to move to a 13 or 14-team Premiership?
Those discussions are going on but nothing has been formally decided as far as I’m aware. This is a strange season and we all signed up for four points and two points in the event of games being cancelled due to Covid, but nobody really knew how many games were going to be affected and it would be harsh for any team to be relegated potentially as a result of staying healthy, so I could see the merits of no relegation. A lot of people are thinking that no relegation and ring-fencing are the same thing but they’re not. Of course, we would like to see the game grow and if that means the league is expanded to 13 or 14 teams, I think that would be a good thing. There would have to be minimum requirements for any team coming up from the Championship because what isn’t any good to anybody is the situation we had with London Welsh, but if teams are in a position to be promoted that’s obviously a good thing.
What about promotion and relegation in future though?
We’re in strange times and all rugby clubs, especially Premiership ones, have take a huge financial hit. If one of those teams were to be relegated at the end of this season, there’s a very real risk that the financial impact of that would force them out of business, which I don’t think is in anybody’s interests. Similarly, you do need to avoid the situation in future where a number of teams could end up with nothing to play for at the end of a season. I’ve seen some people assuming that if there’s no relegation that would be the case, but that doesn’t necessarily follow because a) nobody ever wants to finish bottom, and b) there are only 12 European places available and everybody wants to be in Europe, so there’d still be that competition at the bottom of an expanded Premiership. Closing off the league doesn’t mean there’d be nothing to play for.
Back to financials, the salary cap is reducing to £5m plus allowances for 2021/22 but do you envisage any further wage or job cuts?
We’ve been managing that process since last summer through our recruitment and retention plans, so we’ll be compliant with that level of cap and I don’t foresee any more job or wage cuts. From a financial point of view, we’ve stabilised now and overall player salaries have come down.
Premiership investors CVC have been deathly quiet so far, but what impact do you expect them to have as we escape the pandemic?
There are some really interesting projects going on behind the scenes. We’re not quite able to talk about the details yet but there are huge opportunities and when people do come out of lockdown, I think there’ll be a great appetite to try new things. If you look back in history to after the second world war, attendances at sporting events increased dramatically because people hadn’t been able to do it for so long. I see something similar happening and if we’ve got an appropriate offer and it’s clearly communicated, we can grow rugby audiences significantly. For example, there’s a huge number of people who will watch the Six Nations on TV or go to a game if they can get tickets, but never think about going to club games. If we can tap into that across the board, it will grow the game significantly.
Prior to the pandemic you announced plans for a new training ground, so what’s the latest on that?
We’re agreed on a site but with the impact of Covid we’ve had to shelve that for now and, for at least a couple of seasons, we’ll be developing our own training facilities at Kingsholm. The University of Gloucester is half-a-mile away if we need to use other pitches but Kingsholm will be a pretty impressive facility once we’ve fully adapted it.
What about your relationship with Hartpury College, where you currently train, and other grassroots and National League clubs in the area?
They are really import and we’ve spent a lot of effort improving our relationship with Hartpury. They’re obviously on our doorstep and there’s been a lot of player exchange so we’re working hard on making that even better. There are development opportunities that can benefit everybody and in terms of other clubs in the area, it’s essential we have good relationships with all of them. We see our role as more than just playing Premiership Rugby, we want to be at the centre of our community to help people in and around Gloucestershire and out into Oxfordshire. We can run coaching sessions, offer advice on nutrition and help with kit deals through our own contacts. Everyone’s suffering financially, so if we can help we will and we’re spending a lot of time drawing up plans.
Finally, Gloucester have been pretty active in the recruitment market with Jack Singleton, Hastings, Matias Alemanno, Santiago Carreras and Andrew Davidson amongst those signed, so how happy are you with how it’s shaping up?
We have a detailed squad plan of how we will look over the next three to five years and where we need to fill gaps. If we’ve got academy players coming through that’s great, but sometimes we’ll have to look outside. We had quite a lot of players over 30 and a gap in terms of players in their mid-20s to give us continuity, so that’s something we’re working on. Alex Brown and George Skivington are chiefly responsible for that and one of the big things we ask is, ‘are they a good bloke?’. We’ve been pleased with who they’ve recruited so far.