Steve Harris admits he makes an unlikely president of the perennially underachieving AFL club Fremantle.

Harris, who also runs Perth advertising powerhouse The Brand Agency, has not played a game of Australian rules football in his life — despite growing up in footy-crazed Western Australia.

Even worse, in the eyes of some rusted-on Fremantle supporters, he was a fan of bitter cross-town AFL rival West Coast before he switched allegiance to the Dockers about 10 years ago.

“I don’t have a strong football background — I actually played rugby league as a kid,” Harris says. “I went down to the local football club at the age of five and I couldn’t kick, so they said, ‘Mate, you need to go over there with the rugby players’.”

Despite a slightly unusual pedigree for the job, it’s clear Harris has developed a chronic case of what’s known among the Freo faithful as “the passion”. In fact, it was Harris and his colleagues at The Brand Agency who came up with the idea in 2002 — when the club was at rock bottom — of a campaign based around the now well-worn slogan: “Do you have the passion?”

“The club didn’t have any money. It needed an advertising campaign and we went to the club and said we’ll do one for free,” he says. “The only thing Fremantle had as a brand was that if you were a supporter you had a strong bond of being long-suffering and you had to be more passionate than anyone else.”

Harris became Fremantle president last year, just as the club began to show signs of turning around years of sporting and financial underperformance. He leads a board of directors that is as high-powered as any in the AFL.

It includes Wesfarmers chief executive Richard Goyder, Australian Capital Equity executive Brian O’Donnell, top lawyer Grant Donaldson, Westfield executive Kate Grieve and Deloitte innovation practice manager and former hockey gold medallist Jenn Morris. Former star players Ben Allan and Stephen O’Reilly round out the board.

Harris, 45, took over the presidency from high-profile Perth retailer Rick Hart, who had helped pull the club from the financial abyss. Now it is debt-free, with sponsorship and membership numbers that are among the best in the AFL. Harris was a first-year director in 2009 when the Fremantle board confronted some home truths in an attempt to arrest years of poor on-field performances that had long frustrated supporters and sponsors — with the exception of a brief period of success in 2006 when the Dockers made the preliminary final.

The board decided to redirect $1.4 million of off-field salaries into the club’s core football operations. The “painful but worthwhile” move resulted in about 14 redundancies, but Harris says the results became evident last year when an inexperienced Fremantle finished sixth on the ladder — up from 14th in 2009. It’s a sign of Harris’s steeliness that he rejects suggestions that 2010 should be seen as a successful season.

“What you saw last year was not success. Success is winning premierships,” he says. “We are the least successful club in the history of the AFL in the time that we’ve been in it (since 1995).”

Nor does he seem to mind offending inveterate supporters who view him with suspicion. Harris was at the forefront of a move to change the club’s playing strip and logo this season, which sparked outrage among some fans. More changes are on the way, says Harris, who is planning to shift the clubhouse from Fremantle Oval to a new facility nearby, in a move that will cost millions of dollars.

“I had a supporter come up to me and he said, ‘You’ve changed the team, you’ve changed the jumpers, you want to change the club song — just don’t change the clubhouse at Freo Oval,’ ” Harris says. “I said, ‘Sorry mate, we’ve got some bad news for you’.”

Harris joined The Brand Agency in 1997 and has been managing director since 2002. The firm, which is 80 per cent-owned by the listed Sydney-based STW Communications Group but operates largely autonomously, is considered the biggest in Perth ahead of chief rivals Marketforce, Meerkats and Gatecrasher.

Harris says The Brand Agency is performing strongly but it’s also a victim of the two-speed economy, in which many businesses outside the booming mining sector are struggling with rising costs and labour shortages.

As an example, he says the firm’s annual bill for rent and outgoings at its West Perth office building is just under $1m, whereas four years ago it was only $250,000. “We’re in a fortunate position — our size and scale and brand and reputation in the market work well for us,” he says. “But like a lot of other businesses in WA, we operate with the rising inflation and costs of operating in a mining boomtown.”

Another challenge for The Brand Agency is that the big Perth-based resources companies, which have no consumer products to sell, have traditionally spent little on advertising.

Last year’s furore over the federal government’s proposed resource tax is beginning to change that, says Harris, who worked on the local mining industry’s highly effective advertising campaign against the tax.

“One of the things that came out of the mining tax debate and campaign is that a lot of these companies realised they didn’t have the franchise with the wider Australian public that they thought they had,” he says. “In WA the importance of mining is known very well but if you get out into the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane it’s not necessarily as well known.”

Harris says serving on the Fremantle board alongside senior executives such as Goyder has given him fresh insights into management and governance, which in turn has benefited his leadership at The Brand Agency.

“The main benefit I’ve got out of it is learning about an elite culture,” he says. “You don’t get any other business where you get a 100 per cent win or a 100 per cent loss indication every single week.

“And getting a window into that has strengthened my management and leadership skills. I’ve taken that back into this organisation to help it change and grow.”

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