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Q&A with Xavier Campbell

BTV: Member Forum | 2018 Survey Results A video highlighting the results from 2018 Member Survey.

In many ways, 2018 has been a year of firsts for the Essendon Football Club.

The club fielded its inaugural VFL Women's, wheelchair and esports teams, while 70,000 members were reached for the first time in history.

In further wins off the field, expansion plans for The Hangar took another significant step forward, while a net operating profit of $2.3 million was recorded for the 2018 financial year.

On-field, the season will be remembered as one of two halves. Ten wins from the past 14 games, however, generated momentum heading into pre-season.

Completing his fifth season at the helm, CEO Xavier Campbell took some time out of his busy schedule to reflect on the successes and challenges of 2018, and what lies ahead in 2019.

Xavier, a new year is upon us. When you reflect on 2018, how would you sum it up? 

The year feels like it’s gone really quickly, with some mixed feelings of success and challenges we’ve needed to work through. Generally, it feels like it’s been a positive year. We went through a challenging period on-field early on, and perhaps it was one we needed to go through to find ourselves. Hopefully that’s the catalyst for us playing really good footy moving forward.

It was a season of two halves indeed. What sparked the turnaround?

When we were struggling, I remember making a list and chatting to Dan (GM of Football Dan Richardson) about what success looks like between then and the end of the year. Part of it was identifying a minimum number of games we wanted to win. We identified eight, and we ended up winning 10 of the remaining 14, which was important because success breeds a whole range of other important things for your organisation. It was about finding three or four younger guys and we were able to do that through the likes of Aaron Francis, Kyle Langford and Matt Guelfi. The most important piece was a clearly identifiable brand of football. It seemed that it was both appreciated by our fans and tough for our competitors.

What significance do you place on the strong finish?

It doesn’t mean an enormous amount heading into 2019, other than the fact that we had momentum in the back end. In the context of 2018, it was still a disappointing year where we didn’t reach the goals we set, but it’s (strong finish) been a good catalyst for us to continue to evolve some other elements in the off-season. It’s given hope to the players that we are building something exciting, but we're under no illusions that there’s a truckload of work in front of us. We haven’t achieved anything yet. 

One of those elements is an improved defensive output, hence the arrival of assistant coach Ben Rutten from Richmond. What impact are you expecting from ‘Truck’?

Well, we made a number of changes after the season, with a sharpened defensive focus something John Worsfold and Dan Richardson have spoken about publicly. From that, discussions with Ben Rutten started. He’s a highly acclaimed coach, who was well liked at Richmond and had a hugely positive impact. He’s going to add a lot to our group and that is mostly around the defensive side to our game plan - whole of ground, not just the back six. He’s going to work really closely with key-position players. We’ve never had a line coach work with just key-position players, so that’s something new. We’re going to see upside from both of those initiatives.

The acquisition of Dylan Shiel marked another significant off-season signing. It must be validation of the club’s direction when a player of Dylan’s calibre wants to become a Bomber. 

Yes, it does speak positively about what we’re doing. Obviously, Dylan had interest from other clubs whom he spoke highly about as well. He was very comprehensive in his analysis of those clubs, but he chose Essendon for a range of reasons. I built a strong relationship with him in the process, and he’s just a super impressive young man. He’s got a great line of sight on things, not just on footy, but more broadly across life and what he wants to achieve. He’s clearly an accomplished player, but he doesn’t come as the answer. He’s not the difference. He comes as a player with elite standards who is going to drive another increase in our culture and standards in everything we do.

Looking back on 2018, it was a year of firsts: inaugural VFL Women’s, esports and wheelchair teams, and surpassing 70,000 members, which we’ll touch on later. What were the reasons behind the formation of the new teams and how do they bode for the club’s future?

We have to be careful that we don’t move too quickly. You see the landscape of professional sporting clubs across the world and it’s all moving quickly to a whole range of different spaces, both for commercial opportunities and fan growth. 

For us, it always felt like women’s football was a no-brainer. That’s an equality piece and I know our fans are proud of that. Ultimately, we want to have an AFLW team.

Essendon fielded its inaugural VFL Women's team in 2018. (Photo: AFL Media)

The wheelchair team makes absolute sense given our growing partnership with the Australian Paralympic Committee.

We did an enormous amount of due diligence around esports. There was commercial rationale for it, as well as the intangible around exposing us to a big group of 18- to 35-year-old males who don’t necessarily support AFL. 

I want our fans to know that our football program is our core business. At no point in time have Dan Richardson, Woosha or our players taken their focus away from that. But we will best reflect the society we operate in, and that may mean looking at opportunities that expose us to different markets, particularly multicultural. We will ensure we always do it with an even head and a firm view on the ‘why’. We won’t ever do something for the sake of it.

With that growth comes the expansion of the club's facility, which is due to commence next year and be aided by state government funding. What’s the vision for The Hangar? 

By the end of next year, we’ll start the first phase of our expansion, delivering a fantastic Australian Paralympic Committee outcome through dormitory accommodation, presenting greater opportunities for us to leverage our Next Generation Academy and involvement in remote communities in indigenous Australia, re-establishing a Hall of Fame that I know means an enormous amount to our supporters, and delivering an outcome for women’s football that will potentially put us in a situation where we can host VFLW and AFLW games. That’s a nice position to be in, and something we’re moving really quickly towards.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, CEO Xavier Campbell and Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, at November's announcement about funding for The Hangar expansion. (Photo: AFL Media)

Are you comfortable with where The Hangar currently sits as a facility in comparison to the rest of the competition?

I believe we still have one of the best, if not the best, professional team facilities in the country, but the competition is not standing still.

We obviously went through a challenging period prior to 2017, but what we didn’t let ourselves do was stop dreaming about our vision and how we were going to get there. We did a lot of planning around our facility, new revenues and best practices in football, which has allowed us to hit the ground running in the last couple of years.

I’ve been through Manchester City’s facility and that’s a $215 million pound facility, so of course, the comparisons will be quite different to overseas markets. Compared to our competitors here, however, and when considering our desire to ensure we stay at the forefront of quality facilities, I’m fairly comfortable with where it sits.

Speaking of exposure to overseas markets, this year you’ve been in and out of Singapore completing an Executive MBA. How’s it all going and what made you want to do it? 

It’s the next phase in my development. I was interested in going to an international market to understand about different businesses, different business models and different business challenges. We’re one of 18 franchises and we’re looking at challenging the status quo on a whole range of things.

I go there every six to eight weeks to spend a week studying, so it’s intensive learning. It’s been a lot of work and I’ve had to become really efficient with my time, but it’s also been a good opportunity to empower staff to spend more time overseeing other aspects of the business they perhaps might not usually. 

I’m already feeling the benefits of the experience and know it will add great value not just for me, but ultimately the Essendon Football Club.

What do you see as the club’s priorities in 2019?

Off-field, we’ve built a strategy investments division and we’ve got four exceptionally capable people in that area. They’ve built really strong foundations in the first six months. Now it will be about the genuine opportunities that exist for us to build or invest in over the next three to five years. That will help lessen our dependence on things like gaming, which we are very keen to do. It will also help us build our supporter base and do a whole range of things.

On-field, it’s that even sharper focus on a defensive mindset, but not losing the flair and dynamic way we play. We’ve got that speed and exciting players.

What do you make of the external hype surrounding on-field expectations in 2019?

We embrace expectation. We have made it really clear that we have a careful and considered plan that is not designed to be a flash in the pan. As much as we would love to be a premiership team right now, I want us to be in a position where we compete to be a top-four team over the next five to six years, not just for a short period of time. We’ve had a really considered approach when it’s come to list management. We’re still a relatively young and inexperienced team – they’re the facts – but we’re certainly building towards something positive.

Finally, it’d be remiss of us to not touch on the incredible support from the Bomber faithful in 2018. Reaching 70,000 members for the first time in the club history and beginning a new year with a record number, what has this support meant?

You see a general uplift across the competition year on year, but if you really get into the details of membership growth, there are probably only three or four clubs who have had serious growth, and we’re one of them. That speaks volumes about our supporter base and their loyalty, and that’s something we’re proud of. We want to build a massive supporter base that are members and intricately involved with our football club, who attend more games than they did the year before, and love football more than they ever have. That’s what we’re trying to get to.

The Bombers broke their membership record in 2018. (Photo: AFL Media)

As we close the book on 2018 and head into a new year, what’s your message for Bomber fans?

We’re always astounded by the loyalty and passion of our fan base. We want nothing more than for them to be proud of how we do things - how we play, how we act, the work we do in community, every aspect of our football club. Hopefully they’ve got faith in knowing we’re doing everything in the best interests of the football club. It might not mean that every decision they agree with, but hopefully they know that we’ve got a plan in place, got good people involved and working towards something that will hopefully deliver real pride for years to come.

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