Henry Staelens - CEO of Forest Green Rovers FC

Introduction

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This week, I speak with the CEO of English Football League Two’s Forest Green Rovers, Henry Staelens. Forest Green are unique in that they are the first club on the planet to be certified carbon neutral by the United Nations, and were also described by FIFA as the greenest football club in the world. They’re also the only vegan football club in the world. This conversation took place whilst still in lockdown, following the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s recorded remotely using Zoom. We jump straight in with how a football CEO has been working in the current challenging environment…

Henry

It’s been really fascinating for me. Despite the fact that it’s a horrible situation, I’ve found it from a business point of view, a really interesting challenge, and hopefully, obviously, one that we won’t get again. But trying to diversify in an industry that is quite obvious in terms of what our main revenue is - it’s football - and what the main intrigue is, to try and diversify and keep revenue coming in when you can’t work without your main products, it’s been a really interesting time.

Yeah, lots of ideas. We’re planning with no idea of really what’s going to happen for the rest of the season or next season, but also trying to make sure that we’re commercially savvy throughout this period, so we’re in a really good position when football does come back on.

Alastair

Is matchday revenue the biggest percentage of your income? Or are you able to try and tap into other streams a bit more to try and compensate for it at all?

Henry

That’s an interesting question actually. That’s something we’ve been looking at a lot. So the average percentage to revenue in the English Football League is about 32% from match day. Ours is closer to 20-25%. So we’ve not been as hit hard by that as others. Our main revenue is sponsorship. Because of our green ethos, we are a really good place for environmentally conscious companies to align with. So match day for us is probably about 60 grand per match, three games at home per month, so it’s a lot of money, but in terms of revenue split it’s a lot less than other clubs, so we’re quite fortunate in that sense.

Alastair

Yeah, you are fortunate in that. We’ll talk about the green side of the club a bit later on. Obviously, in terms of the current situation, I know Premier League gets a lot of attention because of the sheer global size and reach of it. In terms of the football league itself and communication with other teams and stakeholders etc, how have you found that? Has it been a constant dialog? Have you been kept up to date well? Or you feel a bit in the dark? How’s it been going?

Henry

It’s a bit of everything. I change my mind on it most days. I think the first thing I’d say is that this has brought clubs much more closely together than anything else. In the past, clubs are very tribal. There’s certain clubs you get on with. There’s certain clubs you don’t, as there is at any level. But throughout this, even things like there’s a WhatsApp group between all chief executives, that’s never been there before. There’s weekly Zoom meetings with EFL to keep us abreast of the situations. So it’s actually brought everyone together. Coming out of this, what it has done is stimulated a conversation around sustainability in football in terms of finances. Football is well known to be one of those places where losses are almost expected and then accepted, which is crazy really. Moving forward, what this has done is said, right, we’re in a situation now where a lot of clubs are potentially on the brink because of COVID, but once we get through this we need to make sure that we’re never on the brink again.

It’s been an interesting time, the communication has been good. The only thing I will say is that between our first match being postponed on the 14th March to now, there’s still no concrete decisions on what’s happening with football. When you look at that, that’s almost two months without an actual decision, which I think is probably too long.

Alastair

Yeah, I mean, it just keeps getting put back and put back. I mean, obviously, in Germany, the Bundesliga, the top league, they’re starting, aren’t they, in a week or so. Would you like to see the season finish? Or some people are saying a point per game basis. Do you have a preference at all?

Henry

Yeah. The season has to finish, for me personally. I think that’s been shared by our chairman, Dale Vince. It’s almost inconceivable that you can do a points per game basis, for me, because if I look at some of the clubs at the bottom who have got a lot more riding on this than what we have, let’s say there’s two clubs at the bottom, one of those clubs might have a really easy run-in, the other club may have already played all the bigger teams. It’s a really hard one. Everyone has to play everyone, either at least once, or ideally twice, obviously. So for me, we’d rather the season be finished behind closed doors. That would still bring some revenue. It will still bring engagement to people that are missing football madly. It will give them something to watch at home. Because the plan would be that every single match would be available either on TV or on stream. Fans can still have their match day, but from the comfort of their own home. So as long as we can do it safely, of course, yeah, I think we want the season back on.

Alastair

And when you say behind closed doors, you mean at the actual home grounds rather than neutral venues, which is another thing that’s been talked about, isn’t it?

Henry

I don’t see how it’s much safer. Unless we’re all going to stay in a hotel on site, we’re still going to have to travel to that neutral ground however many times, I think we’ve got 12 games left or so, maybe 11. So I think as long as the stadiums are safe and there’s only a certain amount of people let in, and those people are in a controlled environment, they’ve been training in a controlled environment, then it should be done in the venues. Of course, it’s a lot easier for the Premier League to maybe hold it somewhere like Saint George’s Park or Wembley. But for us, I just can’t see a viable destination. So if we’re going to do it and if it can be safe, it should be at the home grounds.

Alastair

Yeah, it does make sense to me. You mentioned TV as well. Normally games aren’t generally streamed live; is that something that you think might change? I know obviously you want bums on seats, because that’s your revenue. But do you think in the future that might change in terms of how people watch football?

Henry

So the rules at the moment on the streaming at our level, I think all EFL clubs is the same, international fans can stream any game, so Saturdays or Tuesdays, but UK fans can only stream Tuesday evenings. The obvious reasoning for that is that the fear is that if fans are streaming games on Saturdays, they won’t bother turning up to the game. So this would be a different way of doing it, it would be saying that all games are available to stream. It might be 5 quid, it might be 10 quid. It might be knocked off the remaining season ticket value that they’ve got, which is another headache, in a way. So I think it will change things going forward. We’ve got a really good international fan base. We’ve got over 100 international fan clubs, which for a League Two club is quite startling. So we’ll do well revenue-wise off it, probably bring in 7 or 8 grand a game dual profit, which is obviously a lot less than a match day, but it’s a start.

Alastair

Obviously, up until the coronavirus started, for those people that aren’t aware of the club’s profile and your philosophy, are you able to just explain its green ethos and the background to it all?

Henry

Forest Green, the club itself has been around since 1889, so it’s an old league club. Up until the 2000s, it had never been in the upper echelons of the non-league system, and it was in the National League. Dale Vince bought the club in 2010, and it eventually reached Football League status for the first time in, I think, 2016-17. So where we’re based is in Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, a population of around about 5,000, so it’s a very odd place to have a professional football team. So you see the team coaches coming from the likes of Bradford, Plymouth, huge clubs with huge followings bringing their supporters coaches and team coaches down a single track country lane to The New Lawn is a fascinating sight.

The club, obviously owned by Dale Vince who also founded Green Energy in the UK, is basically run on the same green principles he runs all of his other businesses on. So it’s powered by green energy from his own windmill about 100 yards from the club. It’s 100% vegan, which obviously, we’re mainly known for. We’re powered, obviously, by the green energy or solar, we’ve got a solar mower. And all the match day food for staff, players and fans is vegan whether you’re home or away and whether you like it or not.

Alastair

It’s fantastic. And obviously, some of the accolades, for want of a better word, is I guess, FIFA’s recognised you as the greenest football club in the world, and the United Nations, you’ve been certified carbon neutral as well, which for football, like you say, is unique isn’t it?

Henry

Yeah. And that was Dale’s whole thing. When the club needed saving in 2010, he bought it, he quickly realised that actually this is an opportunity to put the sustainability message in front of a whole new audience. Football fans had never had it put in front of them before. They’re quite habitual in how they like to do things - meat pies, beer, all that kind of stuff. So yeah, to get those accolades, and the most simple one, like you said, is the greenest football club in the world by FIFA. But we are the only carbon neutral stadium. We were the first 100% vegan. And the press we get from it is absolutely crazy for a League Two club. I think last year our reach was over 4 billion viewers in our various press channels. So it’s really captured everyone’s attention.

Alastair

You mentioned the international fan base you’ve got earlier, is that on the vegan side of it, or the green, or just the whole package? Where’s the biggest interest come in?

Henry

We’re doing some stats on that at the moment. So we’re reaching out to those fan clubs and asking them the really simple question, “Why did you start following Forest Green?” I haven’t looked at the data yet, but my guess would be probably 60-70% would be, have an environmental interest or be vegan, or something really simple like that. The others would just be football fans that like to follow small quirky British teams. But we give them both. And obviously, the better our football gets, then the better it is for everyone.

Alastair

Then obviously, the pros and cons, you said it can be quite traditional. When you travel to other clubs, and indeed, when you’re at home, do you have much scepticism? Are people quite cynical sometimes?

Henry

I think it’s almost gone past that. I think at the beginning, well before my time, we were the odd ones out in football, and we still are to a certain extent. But I think people now realise why we do it. They’re a lot more embracing of it. They realise that they’ve only got to come to us once a season, so they’ve only got to go vegan for 90 minutes out of 365 days. It’s not a big ask. And if they want to bring Ginsters or ham sandwiches, as we quite often see put on social media, then that’s fine, we’re not preachy about it. It’s just, we’re not going to serve meat, effectively, or animal products. So we’re not preachy about it. It’s how we think we should run the club. It’s captured huge global interest. And I think it’s really well received now, and a lot of clubs have a good relationship with us.

Alastair

In terms of your plan longer term, you mentioned obviously, Nailsworth is a small area, you’ve got league status now, have you noticed the gates increasing significantly from non-league to league? And then in terms of going forward, trying to scale it up, how big can it go?

Henry

I think match day is probably the hardest thing for us to scale up, because we are in Nailsworth, and even more so we’re in a difficult territory for football. Just down the road you’ve got probably the biggest pull, which is Gloucester Rugby. Below us you’ve got two Bristol teams, you’ve got Bristol Rugby, you’ve got Bristol Basketball, you’ve got all sorts. So we’re averaging around about 2,800 fans per game. If it’s a big game, so a Swindon, or a Cheltenham, or a Plymouth, then we’re looking at more like 4,500. I don’t see that growing hugely whilst we’re at our current stadium, just because of our location. But it’s something we’re working on. It’s definitely gone up. But I don’t see it peaking much past an average of 3,000 in our current stadium.

Alastair

Yeah. You mentioned current stadium, because that brings it on nicely to plans for the new stadium. Do you want to talk to me about that?

Henry

Yeah. So that’s been in the works just to get planning consent, for five years. So it will be called Eco Park. We’ve now got outlined planning consent from the council. It will be the world’s first all wooden stadium, which obviously is fascinating in its own right. And it’s been designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. So they do some really cool, iconic structures, as I’m sure a lot of people will know about. So yeah, that’s going to be an amazing thing. We’ve innovated so much with the sustainability, that I think this was the natural progression. Making our own stadium now carbon neutral has been a really big feat for us. But building one from the ground up, that will have a really positive environmental impact and show what can be done with sustainable building materials, will hopefully make others follow suit.

Alastair

Have you found, because it’s so unique, that you’ve been able to get a lot of interest? You mentioned the architects, but people wanting to be involved in the project? It must be a great thing to be involved in.

Henry

Quite pleasing to me, we had a very, very large company offer to sponsor the naming rights to the stadium five years in advance. So they’d be paying for it now to have the naming rights, and they’ve have it five years between now and when it’s built, and they’d have it for the first five years it’s actually in operation. That was a phenomenal amount of money that we were speaking about. But we’re not ready to give away naming rights at the moment. It’s not something we’ve really spoken about. It just landed on our table. So I think it’s captured a huge amount of interest media-wise, but also commercially it will really push us to a new level. We’ve almost reached our commercial capacity with sponsors at our current site. But this new one of a kind stadium will pull in some really big hitters, so that’s exciting.

Alastair

What are the longer-term plans for the club as a whole? Obviously, going up through the leagues, have you got a timeframe that you want to be at a certain level? What’s the plan?

Henry

No timeframe. We’ve always just said we want to get to the Championship, and we will get there. It’s better not to put a timeframe on it. Realistically, where we are at the moment, would be crazy to be holding Championship football. So even if we went up a league to League One, we’d be welcoming Sunderland. We’ve only got 1200 away spaces. When we play the big clubs already at our league, they sell out within 30 minutes. If we played Sunderland or someone like that, I imagine it would sell out within about two minutes. We want to get there as quickly as possible but we’re not going to rush it. The new stadium will provide a much better platform to play Championship football. It’s just off Junction 13 of the M5, so people can access it. We’re looking at different ways of getting there. So cycle routes, train stations, all that kind of stuff. So yeah, we’re going to get to the Championship, we’re just not too fussed about when that happens.

Alastair

So yourself, Forest Green in 2018, at age 30. That made you the youngest CEO in English football. Was that something that you were really conscious of? Did it put you off or anything? Or did it strive you on?

Henry

I don’t think it did anything really. I guess it’s quite a cool tagline to have, and it gained quite a lot of attention at the time. For me it was just weird. I’ve always been a football fan. I played for Forest Green in the under-18s, 12 years before I joined. The setup then was very different. They were a National League team, training at Plock Court in Oxtalls, in Gloucester, and they had Jack Russell as the goalkeeping coach, the cricket player turned artist. But it was nowhere near as much of a professional setup as it is now.

So I sort of went full circle on it. And then just one day the opportunity arose, and it fitted what I needed perfectly, and it fitted what they needed perfectly. So yeah, it’s been a really interesting time.

Alastair

What was your journey to get to there in terms of your business background? Did you go to university, or just straight from school? How did you get into business?

Henry

Certainly got nowhere near university. I got a few GCSEs to my name. Then I wanted to be a footballer, as referenced a minute ago, but didn’t quite have the behavioural nous in my teens, I was pretty badly behaved. So I left school at 16, then worked every job you can imagine in and around Cheltenham and Gloucester. I worked at JJB, I worked at Argos, I worked at The Pasty Shop. And I just couldn’t make anywhere stick. So I started my first companies in my 20s. Then I sold one of those to my co-founder just before I turned 30, in the media world. I’d already built up a fairly, I guess, it’s not going to take over the world, but I always had a fascination with property, so I built up a property portfolio in the background in my 20s, which I’ve still got now, and I still do quite a lot with. So yeah, I left school, failed miserably at working for other people, built some companies, and invested in property.

Alastair

That’s good. Everyone gets where they need to go in different ways, don’t they? Football’s obviously very different now in terms of its professionalism, in terms of what people eat, and obviously being vegan as well. Do you think, if you had the time again, would it be different now? Or was it just growing up you think that would have always been the case, it just wasn’t the right time for you, I guess?

Henry:

What, in terms of…?

Alastair

Well, when people are younger now, and come into football, it might be different perhaps lower down the league, but they have to be very, very disciplined. I mean, back in the day, shall we say, when you had the likes of Tony Adams, and Arsenal, we joke about the drinking culture, if you like. And Manchester United, the drinking culture. Which you don’t really see in football clubs anymore. Do you think, with that not perhaps being around now, the situation would have been different for you?

Henry

Maybe. Interesting stat is, Tony Adams is a Forest Green fan. He lives quite locally, so he comes to a couple of games a season, so it’s quite interesting you mention him. But in terms of me, I was a good player, probably could have made it at maybe a lower league level. But then, and I’m sure you might know the same, you look back at your childhood and you think of a player that you know is really talented at whatever sport it might be, and you think, “Why didn’t they make it?” And it is always down to that discipline. So they might have been the most gifted player in your five-a-side team, 11-a-side team, whatever, but it really is just tenacity and just not giving up. I don’t think I had that drive to not give up. I think once I got rejected once, I just sacked it off and went and worked at Argos.

Alastair

But obviously, you love football. Did you always have in the back of your mind, that you’d quite like to get into it in some shape or form?

Henry

No, I never really believed it was a possibility, so I’d never thought about it. It was happenstance that an opportunity arose where it suited both parties. I’d just sold my share in the company. I was working on property in the background, but not doing a lot else. I was trying to take a bit of downtime for the first time, and I got bored very quickly. For me, it was the green credentials and the potential commercially for the brand of Forest Green that fascinated me, and I’ve been fascinated in the past why football clubs and the industry as a whole doesn’t make profits, because it really should, because it’s got such massive fan bases.

So yeah, I looked at it as a real opportunity to challenge myself again and get myself off the sofa. And yeah, it’s been really interesting. But like you say, it’s a very different industry to the typical business world.

Alastair

And did you have any expectations when you went into it in terms of what the role would involve? And has it been very different to what you expected? How have you found it?

Henry

I’d need a whole 10 hours with you to describe the football industry. It is a business, first and foremost, the commercial arm of it. The club has to fund what happens out on the pitch, that’s the most basic way to put it. But no, I have no preconceived ideas. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things since. But when you strip it back, it’s a commercial entity, it needs to perform, and it’s something that a lot of people live for. That’s the difference that I’ve found, is the passion of the fan versus a customer can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

Alastair

Before you took the role, did you know Dale Vince outside of the role? Or is that the first time you met him, when you joined?

Henry

Literally the first time I met him. I met him twice, then I started. I literally just got given a work mobile and a work laptop and was told to go and run a football club. Which was perfect for me, because I’d never worked for anyone before. I needed that autonomy. I needed to feel like an entrepreneur still. Dale is one of the best entrepreneurs around. Thinks very differently. Probably the smartest guy I’ve ever met. We just got on. He’s very mission focused. I’m very commercially focused. So putting those two together has worked really well.

Alastair

My understanding is, when he took the club over to start with, it was perhaps going to be a temporary thing, or he was helping the club out, as opposed to it actually being the situation that it is now. Did he have a following of the club, a love for the club at all before he took it over? Or was it more just the community, he wanted to help the community out?

Henry

Yeah, I wouldn’t know about his love for the club before. But to say he absolutely loves it now and that it is a massive focus for him would be an understatement. He’s got so much going on. But Forest Green is always front of mind for him. And as you say, yeah, he didn’t plan on buying the club. It needed help. He was the local guy that could help it. Helped it once. They came back for more money. Then that’s where he decided that it wasn’t a short term rescue package they needed, they needed new ownership. And since then he lives and breathes it.

Alastair

And have you changed in terms of your lifestyle? Are you vegan? And were you before coming into it? Have you had to change your lifestyle?

Henry

No, I certainly wasn’t before, and I didn’t plan to when I joined. But when you realise how good vegan food can be and how far it’s come, whether it’s being made freshly by the club, or whether you go to a supermarket now and you look in the frozen section, yeah, I’m probably 95% vegan now. Not through a conscious change. Just realising that it’s the right thing to do. And just being around the club makes you realise that it’s actually quite easy and you feel better for it.

So yeah, a lot of people around me have also tried it as well, and they’ve maybe not gone vegan, but they’ve gone vegetarian. Yeah, it’s a really interesting change both physically and mentally.

Alastair

We did Veganuary and we watched The Game Changers film. I don’t know if you’ve seen that? Which was, like you say, a real eye-opener in terms of elite athletes and the stereotypes behind that, and eating lots of meat, and it’s just not necessary or not required. Yeah, we try and do it, certainly make a conscious effort to eat more vegetarian/vegan if we can. I think it’s a way a lot of people are going as well. It seems to be, from what I can see, certainly on the social media, more and more people are embracing it and take it up.

Henry

Yeah, it’s gone from being almost like a fad to then being a trend, to now actually being a real lifestyle choice that people can make much more easily now. Some of the vegan products out there are… For me, if there’s no compromise, then everyone would go vegan or vegetarian. If the price isn’t more expensive and the quality is better, then why wouldn’t you change? I think we’re getting to a point now where that equilibrium will start to take effect. So all the corn products, Linda McCartney does some amazing stuff. So yeah, I think we’ll see a massive shift over the years.

Alastair

Yeah, well, I was going to finish off with a couple of quickfire vegan questions. So as we’re on the subject, I’ll ask you now. Do you have a favourite vegan recipe or meal that you always like?

Henry

I don’t know whether it’s vegan, but it’s vegetarian. I only recently found it. It’s really basic. I’m not a cook. It’s Linda McCartney’s shredded duck. It’s probably my favourite, I probably have that three or four times a week. That’s something I cook myself. But in terms of food at the club, there’s a million different things. We’ve got a really good head chef there who is naturally a vegan. She makes amazing stuff. I don’t know if you’ve been to the club, but you should definitely come up and try it.

Alastair

No, I definitely will, that sounds really good. And favourite chef? I guess you just answered that, that’s your head chef at Forest Green!

Henry

Yeah, it’s Jade Crawford, our favourite chef. She’s amazing. But we’ve been lucky to have lots of chefs come down and cook with us. We’ve had Jamie Oliver. We’ve had Saturday Morning Kitchen. We’re looking at doing MasterChef stuff. But no, I don’t really have a favourite one apart from Jade Crawford at Forest Green.

Alastair

You mentioned, just finally, Cheltenham that you’re from, is that the biggest game of the season, the El Glosico?

Henry

Yeah. I think it probably is for them. But it’s always an interesting game personally for me, because I’ve grown up in Cheltenham so I know a lot of people there. But it brings a lot of intrigue for the fans. But I think that game along with Swindon, and then playing the so-called bigger clubs in the league like Bradford, that kind of stuff. But yeah, El Glosico is always front of mind when people check out the fixture list.

Alastair

And you got the bragging rights at the end of last year for that one, didn’t you?

Henry

Yeah, we did, in November we went there and won, which was a very good day out. But depending on what happens this season, it may be that they go up on a points per game average. And if not, then we’re going to have play El Glosico behind closed doors when they come to us in a couple of weeks.

Alastair

Not quite the same, is it?

Henry

No. It might be a more enjoyable affair, I think.

Alastair

Well, Henry, best of luck for the rest of the season, whenever that happens. It’s been really great chatting to you. I look forward to chatting again soon.

Alastair

Since Henry and I spoke on the 13th May, a decision was subsequently made on the 15th by the Football League as to how the season will actually finish, which obviously differs as to how Henry had hoped and expected it might. So perhaps I’ll try and get Henry’s thoughts on that another time.

In the meantime, do please subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss hearing from our next great guest. This podcast was brought to you by Alastair James Insurance Brokers of Cheltenham. We provide personal insurance for high value homes and contents, including fine art, collectibles, jewellery and watches, and for commercial insurance, a variety of sectors including commercial property, liability and construction. Visit our website: ajamesinsurance.co.uk, and see the link to it in our show notes, or follow us on all the usual social media channels to find out how we can help with all your insurance requirements.