After just over six months as Cardiff Blues chairman, Alun Jones sat down for an exclusive Q&A to update supporters, sponsors and all key stakeholders on his progress at the Arms Park.
Q: You have now been in your role as Cardiff Blues chairman for just over six months. Has it been as you expected?
AJ: Yes, deep down it is what I had expected. You go into these roles with your eyes wide open, you know all the big stories and issues, but you don’t necessarily know all the detail.
The big thing has been learning all of that detail. It’s about knowing the reasons why something happens in a certain way and you do not understand that until you are involved on a day-to-day basis.
Being the chairman of the board is relatively straightforward and I have been made to feel most welcome by everyone. The learning curve is about the level of detail you need to carry out your job as effectively as possible.
One thing that was immediately obvious to me was just how hard everybody here works. It is one big family and the sheer amount of work that goes in to building and maintaining a culture and getting a team on the park should not be underestimated.
It is totally relentless, with a huge amount of detail and preparation and that goes right across the entire operation, whether it is rugby staff, commercial, facilities or the ground staff. Everyone is so committed and so concerned on not only success on the pitch but also the overall supporter experience.
Q: How do you reflect on what was a frustrating end to a promising season?
AJ: It was those three games at the start and three games at the end that defined our season. There were some disappointing results there, but we have to remember had we been able to finish those first three games of the season, which were so close, then we would have qualified by a country mile for the Guinness PRO14 pay-offs and we would be in the Heineken Champions Cup.
That is the nature of the sport. At the start of the season I was a frustrated fan but believe me the sense of frustration is tenfold when you’re involved so closely in the preparation! We know we are better than what we achieved at the end of the season but ultimately, we played three big teams, who play very differently to us and we weren’t quite good enough.
We had some brilliant wins in the middle of the season and acquitted ourselves well in the Champions Cup against some massive teams. It gave us a taste of the standard we need to operate at to succeed at that level. Some of the younger guys, particularly in the pack, will have benefitted enormously from the experience.
Q: You mention players learning from the experiences of this season, how do you feel ahead of the new season?
AJ: I personally think we’re in a great place for next season. People talk about signings and how many we will make but we have done 20 top quality re-signings. Keeping top quality players has to be a huge part of our succession plan and I don’t necessarily think we get the credit for that.
Our focus has to be on the players we’re generating through our pathway. When you see how many of our squad have come through that pathway and some of the players who are in it currently, then you can’t help but be excited. Of course, we need to bolster that with further signings, and it would be remiss not to, but when you look at the breadth of talent within the squad and coming through it is hugely impressive.
There are things to tweak, to develop and fine tune but that’s continual improvement and we should always be striving for that.
Q: When you came into the role you mentioned winning the Guinness PRO14 and European competitions as targets. Does that remain the case?
AJ: Absolutely and it’s going to be a challenge for sure. You need that driving ambition, but you also need a big dose of reality. Currently the teams at the top end of the PRO14 and Europe are that much stronger and that means we need to develop our game plan and ensure we have the right playing resources.
The question for us is how we do that and make sure that every decision is geared towards our objective. It will involve an awful lot of work and we’ve already done a heap on the purpose, values and culture of our entire organisation and also what that actually means - what are the individual objectives and how do we achieve them. We will hopefully have completed this piece of work by the start of the season and that will allow us to communicate it properly to our staff, sponsors, shareholders, supporters’ groups, fans and all stakeholders right through the region so they understand what Cardiff Blues is about and where we’re going. I’m extremely optimistic about the future.
This is a three to five-year plan, but these structures also need to serve us well for the next decade and more. That isn’t saying there’s an awful lot wrong. It is more a case of tweaking dials, of putting long-term thinking into an organisation and sport which by its very nature is generally focussed on short to mid-term objectives.
Q: Another focus was restructuring our financial position and also the make up of the board. Can you update us on any of this?
AJ: Yes, we’ve done a lot of work already this year.
Our projected accounts for 2018-19 are a lot healthier than in previous years and 2019-20 is again much healthier.
It is about being disciplined as a business to live within our means. The primary focus for us in that sense has to be sustainability and that we don’t spend what we haven’t got. We have had to make some tough decisions, we will have to make further difficult decisions next year, the year after and I suspect each year. This isn’t a sport awash with cash and we have to make sure every penny counts. We need stability and with sustainability we can grow the business and take it where we want to take it. It's massively positive; we are talking here about long-term planning and sustainability which will allow us to succeed at the highest level.
Unless we have rigour in the business it is too easy to lose control of the P&L. We’ve achieved a lot on that front and the creditor position will improve over the next couple of months, as part of our culture is to be a good business to do business with.
In terms of Governance we’re hopeful that within the next couple of months we will be able to announce some new Non-Executive Directors joining the board and their credentials will speak for themselves. They will be really important contributors to the business.
There’s still more to do but we have to move forward in small steps. Right now the focus is making sure the core fundamentals of the business are in the right place to move on, adapt and change.
Q Has there been any progress on discussions with Cardiff Athletic Club (CAC) around a new lease at Cardiff Arms Park (CAP)?
AJ: I’m really grateful for the way Keith Morgan and the members of CAC have responded to my appointment. We have a great open dialogue on the CAP site and everyone wants the same thing. We all want to see a modern upgrade to CAP which will guarantee top level rugby at the ground for decades to come and I believe CAC are totally committed to that shared vision.
It is such an iconic stadium, known all around the world and a modern take on it would be fantastic. We are doing all that we can to support CAC with their project. There are still lots of factors to take into account but ultimately everyone wants to see a successful Cardiff Blues and Cardiff RFC playing at CAP.
We are striving for an improvement in playing facilities to attract and retain the very best players but also the best match-day facilities to improve the fans’ experience and hopefully non-match-day facilities which will help with our commercial model. This is professional sport and we have to be able to generate revenues at all times and via all avenues. If we can maximise non-match-day revenue in a city centre location in the capital, then it serves everybody and benefits everybody.
Q What are the current challenges and hopes for next season?
AJ: On the playing side the challenge is continual improvement, succession planning, developing our exciting style of play and winning! Mulvers and his team are making great strides on this front and I’m looking forward to our first match in the new campaign.
Finance will always be a challenge and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that but we are doing the right thing in ensuring we’re sustainable as a business. Taking the pressure off our cash flow will give us time to build and concentrate on improving and growing our business.
If we condense our business plan to its very basic form it is based on a virtuous circle. Essentially, if we meet our rugby objectives to be successful on the pitch then we will make more revenue. If we generate more revenue, we make more profit and if we have more profit then we can invest more in the squad, coaching and facilities. Becoming self-sufficient kick starts all that.
The commercial opportunity in this region is simply huge. First and foremost, Cardiff Blues is a global brand and we are the custodians of that brand. There are global and UK opportunities. The Cardiff Blues diaspora is massive.
If you look at the Cardiff Capital Region, there’s a population of 1.5million people within our catchment, almost half the population of Wales, and about two thirds of the top 300 companies in Wales (by GDP) with collectively some £24bn of GDP. So, when you look at the social, economic and commercial opportunity then you can’t fail to see the enormous potential. Unlocking that potential is our biggest challenge.
If we cast our minds back, when we were in the semi-finals of the Champion’s Cup in 2008-09 we had 45,000 next-door, we averaged gates of more than 15,000 and that is the potential of this region.
We have to create the right product on and off the pitch, so we appeal to our fans and to the community at large. In this respect, our Community Foundation does a huge amount of work already throughout the region, last year engaging with some 55,000 individuals. It is just staggering.
If we can get everything moving in the right direction at the same time, there’ll be no stopping us. Other teams across the UK should be envious of the resources we have and the challenge for us is unlocking that potential.
We’re already really looking forward to next season. With the players returning for pre-season this week and both our PRO14 Conference and European pool draw revealed, the excitement is really starting to build. We have some amazing history with the teams we face in Europe and look forward to renewing that rivalry.
Season Membership sales have been very impressive so far, we are substantially ahead of this time last season, and I must thank all of our members for their continued support. I would really encourage anyone who hasn’t renewed or is considering a membership to join us on the journey as we enter an exciting new era at the Arms Park.