Getting to know...Vikings' new CEO James Rule
Wednesday 3rd October 2012
Getting to know...Vikings' new CEO James Rule
On Monday 10 September, the Vikings announced that Chief Executive Julie Gaskell, would be leaving the club for pastures new and her replacement would be former Hull FC CEO James Rule.
In what has been a frenetic few weeks since his arrival, we have finally managed to secure a few minutes with him (between appointments) and fire a handful of questions in his direction.
WV: Did it take you a long time to reach your decision to join the Vikings, following the initial telephone call you received from the clubs Chairman Steve O'Connor?
JR: No, it didn't take me long to make my decision. I'd had a number of conversations with Steve but it was very apparent from our first meeting that his passion and vision for the club was infectious and I quickly realised this was an opportunity that really excited me too, and it was something that I wanted to embrace and take on. Naturally we talked a lot during the hand-over period with Julie Gaskell and I joined the club as Chief Executive three weeks ago.
WV: What are your first impressions of your new work environment?
JR: Great people, great facilities, loyal fans and some fantastic foundations have already been built across the whole organisation. The performance department is very well run under Denis Betts and the off-field administration department is packed full of passion, ideas and work ethic. My challenge is to bring a slightly new direction to some of our strategies, to ensure that the business is as strong as it can be to allow us to invest as effectively as possible into the performance department.
WV: There must me a number of things on your initial tick-list, but does something jump out as an immediate focus?
JR: Absolutely, and without wishing to put a negative slant on this first interview, the business model in its current state is flawed and by that I mean it is overly reliant on the generosity of our Chairman Steve O'Connor. I'm aware of the promises that Steve made regarding returning Widnes to the Super League and credit to him he has done that. In order for us to grow this club and take it to the place where we all want it to be, we need to develop a stronger, more self-sufficient model, rather than one which is reliant on frequent bail-outs from Steve and we all have a part to play in that. My first priority is to put in place the strategies and processes that are needed which will allow us to start making the first essential steps forward towards a self-sufficient model.
WV: As a sport, rugby league is well recognised as ‘The Family Game'. Given your track record highlights an ongoing desire to engage and interact with supporters it is obvious you share this ethos and something you will be keen to implement further at the Vikings?
JR: The game prides itself on that accessibility to families and Widnes is no different. There are some fantastic initiatives that have already taken place and we want to build on those. Both our Valhalla Foundation community team and our marketing team are constantly looking at ways in which we can grow our audience and income streams flowing into the club. This is essential because ultimately if we don't grow the audience we will be unable to invest in the performance department of the club. That investment in terms of player salaries and development of the supporting infrastructure is ultimately what our loyal fans desire. We need to grow our Viking Stronghold and Dream Ticket memberships and we need to create a real affinity with the club that goes beyond the match day experience. It is essential that our players and our community team are engaging with the wider community on a daily basis, so that people feel an emotional bond with the players and the club and see the positive impact we are having with regard to health, education and other aspirations within our surrounding region.
WV: As the clubs third CEO in the past 5 years, are you confident that your model will attach itself seamlessly to the hard work and endeavour put in by your predecessors in recent times?
JR: First of all I would like to thank Julie. She worked very hard to move the club forward and I have inherited a very good team of staff. I'm confident that a community focused model works. I want Widnes to be at the forefront of the
community and I want our investment in the performance department to increase and we all have our part to play in ensuring this happens. This could be as simple as joining our Dream Ticket lottery, becoming a Viking Stronghold member, being a corporate partner, taking out a Big Screen advert or hospitality opportunity on match days. There are a number of ways where individuals and businesses can get involved and it is in areas such as these that we need to grow, to create a model which I know can work.
WV: At just 34 years of age, you appear to be hungry for success and relishing the challenge ahead of you. Having spent seven years at your former club Hull FC before linking up at Widnes, no doubt you will have a wealth of innovations, ideas and proven business plans to bring to the table.
JR: The repetitive theme of this interview so far is ‘community' and the model at Hull FC worked really well because we built a quality operation with a number of staff and had them in and around the community on a daily basis. Not only did
that build the emotional tie I alluded to earlier, it also attracted significant investment from the public and private sector. Not all investment will come from die-hard rugby league fans. We need to ensure that the Widnes Vikings operation both on and off the field is as attractive as possible to invest in. I also want to ensure that we are as time efficient and cost effective as we can be in all of our activity. Away from the pitch, we are not a huge team, so therefore we need to endeavour to get the best out of every single hour during the working week, in order to generate results and positive outcomes as quickly as possible.
WV: If I asked you to cherry-pick a proudest moment from your time spent in East Yorkshire, what would it be?
JR: That would be ‘The Team behind the Team' as I always called the staff at Hull FC. They were integral to all of the success and I know the same will be true here at Widnes. My proudest achievement without a doubt, was how we developed that team, how we grew that team and the results we generated as a team. There were highs and lows but throughout it, the passion and work ethic of the staff didn't waver, both in terms of the performance department and the administration department. I'm already very excited because I can see the same raw attributes in all of the staff here at the Vikings. That fills me with a huge sense of optimism of what we can achieve together.
WV: We're well aware of Widnes' proud history in the game, but do the clubs members and supporters have every right to believe that an exciting future is also on the horizon, too?
JR: They do, but the caveat to that is the future is what we make of it. By that, I mean if the model stays as it currently is, in terms of no growth coming into the club through income streams such as Viking Stronghold memberships or Dream Ticket lottery subscriptions and increased support from the business community then we will move forward but any movement will naturally be slow. However, if we can encourage the wider community both in terms of fan-base and the business sector to support and invest in their club, then the future can be very exciting.
WV: There's likely to be a percentage of the clubs' members and supporters currently playing ‘Fantasy Football' and linking every available player to the Vikings. Is this a realistic aspiration for them to have and are we likely to see much movement on the player front in advance of the 2013 season?
JR: The opportunity will always be there and you never shut your door on recruitment because it is an all-year round operation. Speaking with Denis Betts and Paul Cullen, I'm told it's the case that players now want to be here and we are getting contacted on a daily basis by players who have recognised the club has re-established itself as a Super League club and want to be a part of it. Having said that, we have to cut our cloth according to our resource. With the right level of support we can bring these players to the Vikings but in order for it to work, we do need additional support.
WV: It's a long time between drinks before the Vikings' next competitive Super League fixture, so what can fans of the club expect over the long Autumn / Winter months to help fill this void?
JR: There is going to be a series of new developments over this period. We are looking at a refresh of our existing website and also enhancing the ways in which we communicate with our members and fans. Very soon, we will also be introducing a "Tell Us" email facility. The concept behind this is very simple - we want our fans to feel as though they have an opportunity, at any time of the day, to offer feedback, ideas and constructive criticism. They can do that by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This feedback will then be absorbed into the strategies that we implement. We may not be able to implement every idea but we are most definitely of the belief that we don't have the monopoly of the best ideas and we will welcome feedback from all our fans on ‘all things' Widnes Vikings.
The Viking Stronghold is also going to be re-launched later this week. This membership is extremely important to all of us and it enables people to spread their payments throughout the year. We have committed to a price freeze for the founding members of the Stronghold if they are able to pay for their next 12 months membership in one lump sum. There will also be an attractive new pricing structure to encourage the retention of existing memberships and the sale of new ones.
We have also reduced the cost of memberships for our junior supporters because common sense dictates if we can build a strong bond with the younger element of our community, we stand a better chance of them remaining a fan of the club in the future.
Obviously, there will also be a tireless amount of work done behind the scenes, in terms of looking at all areas of cost and expenditure and also where we can generate further income. We've got exciting plans on the horizon for our retail operation which will offer our supporters a much more accessible way of making the purchases that will allow them to wear their colours with pride.
In closing, it has been a fantastic first few weeks, made easier by the quality of people already within the organisation and those I have also met from the wider community. I look forward to working with all of the staff and supporters in the coming days, weeks and months to take this great club forward, up the Super League ladder and realise the ambitions that we all hold dear, a successful Widnes Vikings team both on and off the field.
Image supplied by Ste Jones