Change Lessons from Harlequins – Mark Evans ex-CEO

As a Change professional, and a keen rugby fan I have been fascinated by the journey Harlequins Rugby club have been on for the last 10 years  or so.  Of course, now Harlequins are the premiership champions and have provided 9 players to the latest England squad currently touring South Africa, both the press and commentators have been talking about their  phoenix-like rise from relegation to the championship in 2005 and the ‘Bloodgate’ debacle in 2009.)  It is a great story but I knew it couldn’t have been that simple and wanted to understand a bit about the hard work and journey behind this ‘overnight’ transformation… that took 10 years hard graft!  So I went to talk to Mark Evans, who was the man with his hand on the tiller.

In the days of amateur rugby, the Quins were a pretty successful club, who drew their players, from all over the country, but who largely worked in the city, and had a reputation for being rather ‘posh’.  However, once the professional era came, their systems simply didn’t support success in the new era.  A club that drew a crowd of a little over two thousand, simply couldn’t afford the players they needed to win.

Mark arrived with a very clear view of what needed doing:-

  1. Start to change the ethos and perception (2000)
  2. Begin to build a youth development programme which eventually became the Academy which a decade on  produced 12 players of the Premiership Final  squad of 23 (2001)
  3. Begin an outreach programme to local clubs across the region rather than schools to drive crowds to make club bankable. (2001)
  4. Build a new stand (there were three built in total, between 2003 and 2010) so capacity went up in stages.
  5. Increase the playing budget (from 2006)
  6. Secure a new training ground (2010)

Interestingly, throughout his 11 year tenure, he did no more than tweak this strategy.  He was able to depend on the support and understanding of the club owners to weather the storms on this long journey.  He realised that there was a possibility that, en route to success, the club might get relegated but saw this as a bump in the road.  When you recognise that this kind of thing might happen, you don’t need to panic when it does.

Over the years that I’ve been going to watch them, which happens to pretty much coincided with Mark’s time at the top, I’ve seen two (of the the three) new stands built.  The ground has a capacity of around 15,000 and regularly gets gates of over 12,500, and on this championship run, has often been sold out.  There is a policy which involves local schools.  They can also now fill Twickenham (82,000) for their Xmas holiday game and, together with Saracens, this year they claimed a record for the biggest club game in the world of 83,761 at Wembley (I was there too!)  So support, and therefore revenue was ticked off Mark’s list.

They now have a state of the art training ground at the Surrey Sports Park in Guildford and an academy that is producing a crop of fabulous young players.

From my perspective this is an unusual story because it was driven from a single plan by one man, supported by the key stakeholders.  He was fortunate in that he arrived at the right time, and the need for change was clear for all to see.

He also has a very pragmatic view about how success should be measured.  There are the very clear measures I laid out above, but he also recognises that whilst fans measure success in cups won, in  knock-out competitions, you can’t expect to win cups every year.  What you can do, is to expect to be challenging for them in the knockout stages, as Leicester have done, competing in 8 consecutive premiership finals! 

I asked him why he left when he did and he had a similarly clear answer to that.  He recognises that people have different strengths and the kind of person that is really good at transformation, is not necessarily the right man for the next stage of the journey, which is a much more ‘steady as she goes’ kind of phase. 

Mark made it clear that this was not something he did on his own but the result of a lot of hear work from a lot of people, including Tony Copsey, Dean Richards, Richard Varney, Jon Salinger, Jenny Winstanley, Laura Oakes, Julian Gent, John Kingston, Tony Russ, Tony Diprose, Collin Osborne, Anne McCarthy, Conor O Shea and the ever present FD John Dingle (and I’m sure many others including the squad of players!)

I’m hoping to bring you other perspectives on this journey from others involved in it over the coming weeks

Resources:

  1. Telegraph story: Also rans to contenders
  2. Wikipedia: the Quins

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