Q&A with Wests Tigers chair Marina Go
Marina Go became the second female chair of an NRL club in September, at a tumultuous time for the Wests Tigers. She talks to NRL.com about the changing culture at the Tigers, the selection of Jason Taylor as coach and the club's plans for the future.
NRL.com: When the Wests Tigers meet Gold Coast in next week's season-opener, it'll be six months to the day since you became chairperson of the Wests Tigers board. How has it been?
Marina Go: The best part for me is how rewarding it is to work with, first of all, an organisation that wants to succeed. From top to bottom there's a real feeling that we can do this. That helps because obviously when people are negative it's a much more difficult situation.
The board was facing some serious difficulty six months ago and the NRL was part of the rescue. Since then, it's been really up to the board and working with closely with CEO Grant Mayer and his management team, to really change the pathway of this organisation. I feel absolutely rewarded that we are on the path to success. It won't be short term, and it won't be easy. But we have a plan. There's nothing more rewarding than coming up with a plan, and accepting some of the early wins uphill that we're getting, which is building a culture.
Before we even run onto the field – yes we've had the Nines and some pre-season wins – but the culture in the organisation is starting to change, almost immediately. I have to give huge credit to Grant Mayer for that, because Grant is really the connection between the old and the new. He has worked absolutely tirelessly with the board to ensure everything changes from top to bottom. You can feel it. I've become completely in love with this team and this game, which is crazy. And that's because I get that back. That's why I love it as much as I do.
How much healing was needed?
I have conversations from time to time with both boards, and there are still wounds. This is an organisation that had two heritage clubs, but they were sitting five-five at the board and clearly not able to move the club to where it needed to go.
Could you explain how it got to the stage where the NRL had to step in and help save a foundation club?
It's probably worth explaining how it works because there is a real misconception within certain aspects of media, which is unfortunate, that the Wests Tigers equals Balmain's financial problems. Clearly, we have two shareholders. Wests, who are financially sound and very, very good shareholder partners. And then we have Balmain, who are currently unfinancial, and we all know that they have serious financial issues regarding Victoria Road. But they are their issues. There was a point where there was a stalemate and Balmain couldn't have made its financial commitments so therefore the club was heading towards a cliff.
So what the NRL has done has basically acted as a bank for Balmain, they've loaned them money to contribute to their half of the joint venture. And so, under certain terms and conditions, which are fair enough, Balmain understands it has its schedule of commitment it has to meet, payment timeframes and that sort of thing. As a board, what we see is a schedule of shareholder funding input. There's a schedule through the year of when we'll be receiving certain funding from our shareholders.
It only becomes an issue for me if we don't receive both pots of funding, but we do because Wests obviously have no issue paying, and Balmain has alerted the NRL that they're not going to be able to meet their commitments so they then put their money in. So what we see as a board is that the money is coming in. At the moment, the requirement is for Balmain to pay back what they owe the NRL. Without it, Balmain wouldn't be here anymore.
And that's the other thing that is really important to see. The reality is, it's harsh. If the NRL didn't agree to that for Balmain, Balmain would've gone backwards already. They've been given a window of opportunity via this funding, and it's because nobody wants to see Balmain leave this game. However, there are certain financial commitments that people need to make over time, and I suspect that there'll be pressure from other clubs if the NRL doesn't recoup that investment. And so Balmain will have to make a decision there. I don't know what that will look like, but at the moment as I can see, my main issue for the Wests Tigers is that the funding are coming when and how we need them. There is no issue with cash flow.
When does Balmain have to pay back that loan and are you confident they'll be able to do it?
At the beginning of March, 2016. We're talking only a year away, [but] you just don't know. Things could change overnight. We honestly wish them well. I don't want to comment either way, because I don't know enough about them. You'd have to say it looks difficult from here, but they're a very committed group of people. There's a lot of passion on the Balmain side. I have conversations with [board member] Dr Leslie Glenn from time to time to see how they're going. I'd love to think that one day they will be able to do that. But there's a timeframe on it. They don't have forever.
Considering the club's experience with the NRL coming to the rescue, what are your thoughts on the governing body saving the Titans, too?
What we have to think about, and we think about this at the board, are the fans. They're the people that matter most. We're not here to serve the board. We're here because there are a group of Australians out there who are absolutely die-hard and passionate about our club and players. We owe it to them to make sure that they have a feeling of security about the club they're following.
What I like about the NRL preparing to bail out clubs and help them where necessary, is that those fans are feeling much more secure. It's a consumer-based business. We don't exist for the egos of chairmen. We exist for the fans. We know that at the Wests Tigers and once everybody accepts that, they'll be grateful that the NRL management is demonstrating a commitment to fans. That's what fills me with joy.
Ideally you want to get to a point in the game where the NRL doesn't need to bail us out, and I suspect that's the reason why some governance changes needed to be made, with our club that was a key turning point. I think it's the same with the Newcastle Knights – there's an entirely new board there. I don't know what the plans are for the Titans, but you would imagine that there would need to be some kind of shift in focus. Those things make me feel good about this sport. I want to be part of a sport that cares about its members. And that's the best way to show it.
Let's talk about Jason Taylor. In a recent interview for Elle, you considered yourself a good evaluator of talent. What'd you see in 'JT' during the interview process?
Good governance process meant that we didn't, as a board, just go and choose him. I know that that happens in some clubs, but it's not necessarily the best way to govern an organisation, because Jason works to the CEO. So what we did instead is we pulled together a panel and the panel interviewed all the candidates. And then made an assessment ranked on criteria. The panel interviewed everybody, ranked them on criteria and came to the board with a recommendation, and it was a very clear recommendation for Jason Taylor.
Obviously we met him and, personally, one of the attributes that got him the job, and why I really liked about him, is his leadership. He had a clear vision, a really strong commitment, and a very strong feeling about the welfare of the players. We wanted someone with a long-term vision, someone to work with us over the course of time, to get this club to an improved situation.
In one of our first interviews with JT, one of his major concerns at the club was its recent history with injuries. What have you done as a board to help him alleviate that issue?
I'll tell you the best way we're able to help him. The best way was to say to him, "When you come in as the coach, you get to make all your decisions". So that means he could hire and fire whoever he needed, because unfortunately that wasn't the same situation with the previous coach. His hands were tied, and that's a very difficult situation.
Because [Taylor] knew what our goals were, he said, "In order to achieve your goals, I need these people". So we said go and do it, obviously within budget. Of course, over the long term, one of those conditions is a better facility for our players. We have one of the poorest facilities – we need a high performance centre. And our players, we owe them that. So that's what we as a board are doing, working to improve conditions for him, that enable him and his players to concentrate on the field.
Is there something in the works?
We're working very closely with the NRL on developing a strategy for funding to try and achieve some kind of new facility. We've got a couple of [local] councils who were here today who are very interested in working with us. We haven't yet made a decision on where we're going to go, but we're certainly a fair way down the track with a couple of them in terms of their plans to assist in funding for a high performance facility. I think it's been quite public that the main councils we've been speaking to are Liverpool, Campbelltown, Canada Bay and Leichhardt to some degree. They've been the ones to show interest. Campbelltown and Liverpool have ramped it up in recent weeks in terms of their enthusiasm for us.