Taking the tackle. Ensuring the long-term viability of Bath Rugby Club is challenging yet rewarding, Nick Blofeld (pictured above with Bruce Craig) tells Mel Flaherty.
“I always said I would not have taken this job without the challenge of The Rec,” says Nick Blofeld, the CEO of Bath Rugby Club, “But then again, if I was just running the rugby club, life would be a lot simpler and less stressful.”
Blofeld laughs at the very notion. He definitely does not seem the type to shy away from a hurdle or two, having successfully been part of the team that led the historic and traditional Epsom Racecourse through a major development involving a new grandstand and the addition of a 120-bedroom hotel in his previous role. The goal now, at Bath, is to totally redevelop the club’s famous stadium, The Rec, to provide better facilities for fans and corporate business and to therefore extend use of the site throughout the year and make it more commercially viable. No easy task under any circumstances, but particularly for a club steeped in history and with many associated parties that have an interest in it.
So despite his appetite for taking on projects with problems to overcome (the Jockey Club-owned Epsom threw up some similar challenges), Blofeld does admit that planning for the future of The Rec, as he has been now for about four years, has been more difficult than he imagined. This has made him even more determined, however, and he is feeling quietly confident that a new stadium is achievable by 2016/17.
His confidence has received a recent boost from the Charity Commission’s acceptance of the new ‘scheme’ and the likely rejection of a Town and Village application for The Rec. There is still a restrictive covenant on the site, going back to 1922, limiting the amount of commercial activity that can take place there, but Blofeld is hopeful this can also be overcome. He says that after all of this, the actual planning process itself will hopefully feel relatively straightforward by comparison.
On the ball
Having the plans held back in this way has been frustrating as well as time-consuming but Blofeld has still managed to implement a raft of changes at the club to help it towards its long-term target of becoming self-sustaining. Last year the club reported losses of £2.8m and Blofeld says the aim this year is for it “to lose a lot less”, but he is adamant that, once the stadium has been redeveloped, the business should be able to at least break even so that its fortunes going forward are not reliant on a wealthy benefactor.
Bath’s owner is the wealthy and very committed, Bruce Craig, who made his own fortune in pharmaceutical logistics. Blofeld has known Craig since they both studied at Loughborough University and they have been friends ever since – in fact they were best man at each other’s weddings. Indeed, it was Blofeld who introduced Craig to the idea of buying the club, which they had both followed from afar having had several of their university alumni playing there over the years. Blofeld joined the club while the ownership negotiations were going on.
Since he started, Blofeld has overseen the creation of the new training facility, Farleigh House, which has for the first time brought the players and the business side of the club together in one location. One of the things he really loves about this job is that, unlike at Epsom where he had no responsibility for the horses (which he was happy with, not having followed the sport previously), at Bath his role also encompasses accountability for what happens on the pitch.
The new combined training facility has definitely made that aspect of his job easier, although he feels man management and communication have always been particular personal strengths, which must also come in handy for him as a father of four. He attributes this in no small part to his upbringing in a military environment and the four and half years he served with the Ghurkhas in Nepal, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and Brunei before his urge to do “something more constructive” (the relatively peaceful state of the world at the time meant he never got to put much of his training into practice). This led him to the world of FMCG with roles at Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Dunlop Slazenger after an MBA at Cranfield.
At Bath, Blofeld has also concentrated on making the existing facilities work harder for the club and on connecting the club more with the local community (the club’s recruitment catchment area in RFU terms is actually Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire) to ensure it remains well supported in the future. Since he started, the club has introduced Rugby Mondays – opening up second team games to the public for the first time. No charge is made for entry but money is made on food and beverage. The company has also started to sell hospitality for these games which Blofeld says are a great entry level experience to potential regular spectators and hospitality guests. “If people have a fabulous first or second experience, they will want to come back for more,” he explains.
He has also further developed deals to boost repeat attendance, particularly for those who could not commit to becoming a full season ticket holder. For instance, packages of five or ten games can be bought, and these are bundled to include some of the lesser matches to help up the numbers and create a better atmosphere for all, and, of course, to increase revenue opportunities. In addition, the junior membership scheme has been revamped so that it is split into different age groups and can therefore be made more relevant.
Another of Blofeld’s priorities has been to ensure the customer relations marketing and sponsorship sides of the business work effectively together to mutual benefit – he says that departments tended to operate “in silos”, completely separately in the past. Enabling co-operation in this way does not daunt him, after all one of the biggest challenges he has faced in his career to date was relaunching Dunlop as a global brand.
“It was a classic middle-of the road brand at a time when Nike and Adidas were huge and there were a few funky little brands also making headway,” Blofeld recalls. “The positioning of Dunlop was then different in Belgium to Germany and the UK, and different again in the American market, the really key area for us. By the time I left after five years it had become a global brand with local relevance. It was brilliant to be a part of that process.”
For now, however, he seems to be in his dream job, despite the difficulties presented by The Rec and the uncertainties that the action on the pitch can bring to the role. “If we lose and it has been raining, I know I am going to have a bad week,” he says. “On the flip side, at the last game of the season, we were seen as having no hope against a very strong Leicester and then we won 27 to 26 in the last minute of the game. The sun was shining and the atmosphere was brilliant. That was a very good week.”