Webber Making Waves In The West Country
Published: 13 Aug 2014
First Published on Running Rugby
A survey in the past few days found that the average age of a CEO is 54-years-old and that is broadly consistent with the picture at rugby union and league clubs up and down the country but one in particular is blazing a different trail.
Robert Webber has just completed his first two years as chief executive of the University of Gloucestershire All Golds, having previously worked for InterContinental Hotels Group, and he is still less than half that age at just 26-years-old.
The proud Bristolian studied sports management at the University of Gloucestershire and captained the club before helping to write the bid that persuaded the Rugby Football League to accept it into the professional ranks and he admits it has been “an interesting journey” and a tough introduction to the job and the sport.
“It has been a baptism of fire and I'm certainly not going to sit here and say it has been all roses. It has been tough and there have been times when I haven't slept for worrying about what is going on with the club,” he told Running Rugby.
“There have been a number of times when friends and family have said 'what are you doing?'
“However, I think my youth and the innovative way that I have been thinking about how we can develop as a club has hopefully brought a bit of a new dimension to the sport.”
With a West Country accent and a background in rugby union as a Bristol Rugby season ticket holder for 19 years, he sticks out like a sore thumb in gatherings of senior figures in the rugby league world even before you add age into the equation.
However, both he and the club are gradually building a name for themselves and a reputation after increasing turnover, boosting attendances at The Prince of Wales Stadium by as much as 28 per cent and improving from rock bottom to bona fide play-off contenders in Championship 1 in the space of a year after gaining professional, or semi-professional, status.
And Webber says the All Golds were perhaps overlooked or even dismissed by the rugby league fraternity at first but that people are now starting to sit up and take notice.
“The first year was tough finishing bottom but this year has been much more successful,” he said.
“I think initially people completely ignored us because they thought 'what are these soppy southerners going to do?'
“I don't think people understood what we were trying to do. I think they thought it was just a university coming into the professional leagues and that it was going to potter around for a few years and then the university was going to get fed up.
“It has only been in the last couple of meetings that I have attended that they are starting to understand what we are trying to do and we are starting to get phone calls from Super League clubs asking how they can help us and saying that they want to get involved.”
Webber would not reveal specific financial figures, although he did acknowledge that the turnover and budget increases were “not huge amounts”, but said that the funds at the club's disposal would be rising again next season to account for a busier schedule and more competitive league.
“The turnover of the club has increased from year one into year two, so we have got a larger budget and we have been able to bring in additional players and additional support mechanisms. Looking at our forecasting for next year, the budget will grow again,” he said.
“Things are going to change massively next year with the fact that five teams are coming down and they are all going to be of a Championship standard and the length of the season is increasing as well, so the budget has had to increase to reflect that.”
It is a case of breaking new ground for both club and CEO but there is no lack of ambition and, whilst it is clearly not on the cards in the immediate future, Super League is the ultimate goal.
“Our initial goal is to become a household name in the Championship within the next five years,” Webber told Running Rugby.
“Long-term we want to be a Super League club. That has to be the goal and we have to be striving to reach the top in what we do and we believe as a club that we have the ability to diversify in order to make that happen.”
It is not just the youth of their chief executive that sets the All Golds apart either. The club is unique in the fact that it is a professional rugby league outfit but also still owned by the University of Gloucestershire.
As a consequence, any profits are pumped back into the club or university and there is not the same urgent need or desire to increase turnover that there is for some of the All Golds' counterparts.
There is still a requirement for the club to be self-funded and sustainable but Webber admits that the distinctive business model brings with it “a very different set of challenges to the other clubs” and that a change might be necessary at some point further down the line.
“It has been quite a challenge to dovetail professional sport with the university. We are not a small fish but we are up against the ocean liner that is the university with a very methodical approach where as professional sport is so reactive,” he said.
“We are all aware that if one day we want to become a Super League club, we will probably have to set up a club that is maybe not financially owned by the university but that still has heavy links with it and it is still maybe one of the owning bodies.
“We are aware that we are going to have to diversify at some stage in our history if we ever want to play with the big boys.”
Being owned by the university does have a plethora of perks though, from access to strength and conditioning coaches to a business development team to organise the club's business breakfasts and university staff to carry out functions such as marketing, the writing of press releases, event management and other match day functions.
“I am the only full-time member of staff at the All Golds but we have 1,200 staff at the university who carry out so many jobs and tasks for us,” added Webber.
“Our strength and conditioning coaches are all employed by the university and we have the odd person who is a specialist in rugby league and works on a part-time contract.”
Like Hemel Stags and Oxford (and Coventry Bears will be in a similar position when they join the professional ranks next season), the All Golds are spending well within the £150,000 salary cap for the league.
With other clubs towards the top of the table shelling out much closer to that figure, that makes for a slightly uneven playing field but Webber says the club should be spending more of the salary cap allowance with each passing year.
“At the moment we are over-performing for the proportion of the salary cap that we spend,” he said.
“With the five teams coming down, I'm expecting that crowd numbers will increase again next season and therefore hopefully the budget will increase again and along with that the proportion of the salary cap we spend as well.”
And, whilst the All Golds may not need attendances to rise again at the same rate that they have done over the past year (from an average of 192 to 246) in order to survive as a club and a business, it is essential for growth and to justify their presence in the professional ranks.
“From a development point of view we want 500-600 people and then before you know it 3,000-4,000 people watching the game in Gloucestershire and we want kids playing it from four or five years old and then 10 years down the line playing in the All Golds academy,” Webber told Running Rugby.
“That is the sole purpose of why we are here. We are a club that has been started because the RFL are trying to develop the game in areas that have not had a huge amount of rugby league before.
“100 per cent of our junior academies at the moment are from rugby union backgrounds but they all think it's fantastic that they get to play rugby union in the winter and rugby league in the summer and then some of them have chosen rugby league over rugby union.”
Any links with the Premiership rugby union side in Gloucester are still in their infancy but the All Golds are working hard to foster relationships with other clubs and contact with the other code is vital for a rugby league club making its way in the heartlands of union.
The club's home in Cheltenham is sometimes referred to as the 'birthplace of international rugby league' after New Zealand beat England 8-5 there on 15 February 1908 in the deciding test match of the first ever international series. So, you could say there is some pedigree there but the club is essentially starting from scratch.
Super League may be some way off in the distance and many will still scoff at the prospect of a club in the South West playing in the top tier but Webber insists that certain pieces of the jigsaw are already in place and the ambition and drive of a young club and CEO are at the very least refreshing to see.
“We have all of the resources, facilities, staff and infrastructure here to probably run a Super League club and we have had people say that you don't get the facilities we have at Super League or NRL clubs,” he concluded.
“Why are we doing this if we don't want to become a Super League club? Every club, whether at the very lowest level of the game or the Championship, should be striving to be in the top echelons of the game.
“Will it ever happen? We have had some board members who have said maybe in 2020. Who knows but we are certainly striving for that and one day I want to see the Cherry and Whites of Wigan down playing in the city as well as the Cherry and Whites of Gloucester in rugby union.
“That is why I am here working every hour that I can and the same goes for my team and the players who put in all the effort they can to make that happen and promotion and relegation coming back obviously gives us a real opportunity to do that and in a way that is sustainable.”