Making the big plays: Brumbies' CEO Michael Jones
In a matter of days, The Brumbies take to the field for the first time this season. Fans will welcome the return of rugby after a summer that saw disputes over access to GIO Canberra Stadium, concerns over the commitment of major sponsor, Aquis Australia, to Canberra in the absence of poker machines, and what all this means for a new stadium in the city.
Driving a lot of this rolling maul is Michael Jones – the formidable and forthright CEO of The Brumbies, who has spent the last 12 months shaking up an organisation ahead of the expanded Super Rugby season. With a shopping list of new ideas and a dedication to fiscal viability, Jones is determined to transform the organisation into something like a rugby winger – lean, fast and ready to take on the world.
The Shaker met with Mr Jones in the overhauled corporate hospitality area of the The Brumbies’ home ground. Among tradies, sawdust and fresh paint, Jones talked about all aspects of ACT rugby, plans for the future, and where the team fits as part of the Canberra community.
With so much activity over the off-season, it can only be a relief to see the side take the field for Friday’s match against The Hurricanes.
It’s been really busy – largely because we put so many new initiatives into the marketplace. Events have conspired to mean that timelines have been so compressed. As an example, the works that are occurring in this corporate area would have normally started in September but, due to the protracted negotiations for use of the stadium, we couldn’t get in until Christmas.
We’ve changed all the seating structure and pricing. A few of the long-term fans weren’t too happy with this, but there hadn’t been an update to the offering in 13 years. As a result, we were losing money, and effectively subsidising 50% of the seats. It had to change.
You arrived at the club on the eve of the 2015 season. Are these changes a result of lessons-leant over the last 13 months, or ideas you wanted to implement from Day One but simply had no time.
It’s a bit of a mix. There were many ideas as a result of experiences - either elsewhere or here - that I wanted to do. We moved quickly to alter a lot of the Game Day experience for fans – to focus a lot more on the game itself. Fans will see that even more this year as we bring the attention to the rugby instead of some of the more frivolous activities that would have happened in recent years.
There’s a new Corporate Hospitality offering for the 2016 season. What has changed?
Almost everything has changed. We’ve really worked hard to improve the offering. Alongside the space that holds the traditional Director’s Dinner, we’ve built what we’re calling The Lounge. It’s a less formal setting, and is pretty much designed to bring people through for relaxed conversation with the aim of breaking down the barriers between the public and private sectors.
We’ve introduced a few new categories for the corporates as well. The Locker Room will allow guests to go into the tunnel as the team runs out, and over in the Gregan-Larkham stand, we’ve introduced The Stable – a new area where you can bring one person or 30 – you simply pay per ticket but get a fully catered corporate experience.
The reality is that between 2011 and 2015 there was a 54% drop in corporate hospitality revenues. Clearly, the offering wasn’t attractive in the market, so this definitely needed a shake-up.
You’ve announced a new partnership with technology giant CSC and, as part of that, there’s a mobile app on the way. What can fans expect from the app?
Look, this is one of the most exciting projects for the season. If you look at the home situation, people are watching sport with their mobile phone, laptop or tablet in their lap. They’re looking at stats, picking replays, or checking the scores of other matches.
We’re leading Super Rugby in bringing this to fans, and the app has been designed to be not just used at home, but as a part of the Game Day experience. This will engage a younger market, but also be something that our more traditional members can use over time.
It’s also not just about The Brumbies, we need to be able to enrich the rugby experience by providing information about some of the lesser-known visiting teams. We’ll be recording our own video packages, and it will be loaded with live stats so fans can see the exact state of the match at any time.
What does the approval of Aquis’ casino and entertainment complex mean for Canberra?
Aquis Australia are a great partner for The Brumbies, but there is no doubt they are nervous about their financial position in Canberra – and any potential redevelopment or investment – without poker machines. It simply comes down to that.
If they came to Canberra with the understanding that a certain revenue stream was going to be available to them, and that’s no longer the case, it becomes like a three legged bar-stool: by removing one of those legs, the whole thing falls over.
We’ll support Aquis as far as we can. They deliver a significant revenue to our organisation, and we want to support them as best as we can across the community. The Brumbies see Aquis as a long-term partner in the same way that Toyota has worked with the Adelaide Crows for over two decades, or Ford’s partnership with Geelong AFL that has lasted for 83 years.
So, from the casino precinct, we head across the road to the the proposed new stadium…
Yeah… and everyone wants to know what we thought of last week’s proposal for Manuka Green.
It’s an interesting one. For us, it was great, because it put a model front-and-centre that demonstrates the potential for a private-public-partnership. There’s no doubt about who’s pushing that project – it’s the developers who stand to gain the most. It’s no surprise that the AFL and GWS Giants want to have their colours all over it.
Similarly, if Aquis and their construction partner, John Holland, can drive the city stadium - with the backing of a Macquarie Bank or similar – then wrap that up with the casino, two five-star hotels, a new convention centre and you’re looking at a totally revitalised city precinct. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? We’ll be there every step of the way
Who in Canberra business do you admire? Who should be on our next cover?
Well, you’ve already done Glenn Keys! He was my Canberra manager when I had an aeronautical engineering business years ago.
An interesting guy is Darren Dougan. He was my CFO at Regional Express Airlines before moving on to be CEO of construction company, Hindmarsh, and is easily the smartest person I have ever worked with.
Darren is coming back into Canberra to do some property development, but is also one of the founding directors of The Big Questions Institute – a research partnership between Cambridge University and University of New South Wales.
One of the other directors is Professor Stephen Hawking, so that gives you some idea of the level Darren works at. In fact, he’s currently a PhD candidate in astrophysics at UNSW - something he is doing simply out of interest!
The Brumbies have a squad capable of another tilt at the Super Rugby title. Apart from taking the championship, what does success for The Brumbies look like in 2016?
The simple aim is to be be on a firm financial footing. Ten of the last eleven years have come at a financial loss, and that means that we have to subsidise our activities instead of investing in the business. The old model is unsustainable, and we need to move quickly to get The Brumbies back in the black.
We need more bums on seats, more local participation and greater exposure at grass-roots level. Rugby has always been an important part of Canberra, and we need to leverage off that to ensure we remain viable.
Which is less complicated? Northern Hemisphere interpretations at the breakdown, or the format of the new Super Rugby competition?
(laughing) Well, definitely Northern Hemisphere interpretations. Look, there’s no doubt that the new format has been poorly explained, but it doesn’t take much to get your head around it.
The great thing is that this is now a competition that crosses five countries on four continents. There’s simply no other sporting competition like that in anywhere else in the world, and fans are really excited.
The Brumbies’ home game against the new Japanese team – The Sunwolves – is the best selling so far for this season. It’s pretty clear that rugby supporters are readily embracing the new competition.
With such an international competition, the introduction of international flights out of Canberra must be a great win for The Brumbies…
Absolutely. To have Asia opened up to us is fantastic. The Chief Minister has already stated that The Brumbies are the most visible international brand for the ACT, so there is huge potential for us to push into Singapore. Hosting some games there would be fantastic
In terms of football, being able to get to New Zealand on a direct flight brings us up to the same level as the other Australian teams. We’ll play The Highlanders in Invercargill this season, and that’s a very provincial city that requires a lot of travel. To eliminate a leg of the trip makes it a lot easier for us… we can now get there in half a day.
Which players should fans be keeping an eye on during 2016?
So many! The halves will be exciting with Tom Cubelli and Joey Powell. At Number 8, Ita Vaea is just getting better and better and, by the end of the season, will probably push for selection on the Spring Tour. In the Second Row, Rory Arnold and Blake Enever that will challenge each other for that final spot beside Sam Carter.
And the Front Row? Well, try to find me a better one than what we’ve got. We’ve just got to get the referees to put away the whistle and let the scrum do its thing!
The Brumbies kick off their season at GIO Canberra Stadium on Friday 26 February at 7.40pm, and take on arch-enemies, The NSW Waratahs, one week later.
Tickets are available from Ticketek.