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New Era Dawns in Victoria

The following article is reproduced from the June/July 2002 edition of Racebreed Australia with the kind permission of publisher Statewide Racing Promotions, Western Australia.
It's an interview with the Chief Executive of Victorian Racing's new Independent Board of Governance, and offers a fresh and exciting vision of racing's future that deserves serious attention in New Zealand.



THERE has been a changing of the guard in Victoria and the new sentinels of racing are beginning to flex their muscles to meet the many challenges facing the industry.

The former Committee, elected by the Members, has been replaced by a new Independent Board of Governance set up by the Minister for Racing and registered under the Companies' Act as Racing Victoria Limited.

If the views of the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer, Neville Fielke, are an indication there will be sweeping changes over a period of time.

Mr. Fielke, formerly a major player in the corporate world of companies such as HJ Heinz and BRL Hardy, has three main platforms that he is pursuing with the Board:

* PARTICIPATION

* RETURNS TO OWNERS

* DEVELOPMENT AND PROMOTION

"Participation is a lot of things," Mr. Fielke explained. "There is participation in terms of horse ownership; participation in terms of 'on course'; participation in terms of wagering.

"The whole idea of what are we doing to get greater participation....that's the vital question.

"For far too long we have avoided the matter of on-course attendance. Perhaps we have hidden behind the fact that the off-course performance has been very, very healthy.

"But, at the end of the day, if we can't get on-course attendance... and I exclude the spring carnival, which has done a great job... if we can't get that back on track, we are going to have a narrower future, a not as prosperous future as we otherwise might.

"Now it is easy to say that, but what we have to look at is, say, what are the top 100 events in terms of feature events....on super days, or whatever else.....what are we doing to measure those ,and make the atmosphere and the entertainment and make it an experience?

"What I worry about with racing with what I have seen so far, is that there is too much of the same...too much of the same events, too many events.

"The programme can be better differentiated, and, as a result of differentiation, we can target different audiences. I am sure that over time we can deal with attendances.

"There is, however, no 'silver bullet' on this sort of thing. It is about persistency and consistency over a long period of time and I am not going to be able to come in and solve that.

"But we had better start talking about it because if we keep ignoring it we have got troubles."

INTENSE

Neville Fielke has stepped into his new role with a dynamic, high-powered approach. There is an intensity about him that shows he is itching to get on with the job and put his stamp on it.

You feel the force of his personality when he speaks. The words come out fast, idea after idea, one sometimes tumbling over the other such is the speed of his diction...but you never mistake the clarity of his meaning.

Neville Fielke is not a 'racing man' in the terms of one who has grown up with thoroughbreds, or been a mad punter. He acknowledges that his interest in racing has been more peripheral than direct involvement.

"But I have had a grass roots interest in the country and in sport," he pointed out. "I grew up on a farm...where my brothers and my parents still are....and when you have that country ethos it is a bit like the racing ethos.

"We were all brought up on sport. It was all about sport heroes.. So if you have got that passion for sport, and if you have got those grass roots country values and understanding, they serve you very well.

"So while I have never had a really strong thoroughbred racing interest I think that is actually proving to be an advantage.

"I was very fortunate to have a very interesting career in the tough corporate world.

"When I was working for BRL Hardy it was a co-operative winery and that federation, from the country side, has got a lot of parallels to the very wide and disparate interests that are in horse racing.

"You have all got your own needs, and you always have conflicting views. And, if you are a federation, or a co-operative of people coming together, you have got to learn how to handle some of the rights and the wrongs, and how to do things. So that has served me well."

CHANGES

Given the structural changes that have taken place, racing is now a different ball game compared to when the control was in the hands of the VRC committee.

This is an advantage that allows Neville Fielke to approach his new job with an open and unfettered attitude.

"The Committee structure served us well in terms of what would happen then, but it is not going to be the right structure going forwards," he said.

"I have to pay great credit to Brian Beattie (former CEO) on how he has been able to straddle that process and set that process up, and that's really the great legacy he left.

"Brian moved the whole thing a long way forward and he really set up the stage for this governance structure to be put into effect. I have been fortunate to come in at a time when it is now in place.

"My challenge is to take that onwards and upwards."

Some of the matters currently on Racing Victoria Limited's agenda include:

* Maximising the benefits which can flow to the Clubs, owners, and other stakeholders via a review of the 2003-04 Victoria Racing Calendar.

* Re-appraisal of the Industry's Challenge 2005 Plan alongside the development of the RVL Operating Plan entitled "Delighting Customers".

* Improving the profitability of marginal Pub TABs.

* Addressing Risk Management issues.

* Maximising the allocation of capital, especially in training facilities.

* RVL's role in promoting the establishment of a National Racing Information service.

* Recommendations regarding Jockeys' welfare.

WALLPAPER RACING

Asked how he would deal with the claim that we now have too many race meetings (every day of the week and twice on Sunday) Mr. Fielke repeated his view that we have too many of the same meetings.

"Everyone talks about there being too many race meetings," he said. "I keep hearing that continually. It's like wall-to-wall, it's like wallpaper.

"I think the big issue is that we have too many of the same meetings as opposed to, per se, too many meetings.

"I think that what this says to you is that you need some of the best minds and you need to have a clean sheet of paper and you need to have an open mind.

"Now if you have an open mind and a clean sheet of paper and you have some good thinkers at the table, it is not going to hurt trying some things.

"We won't get all those things right but by the mere fact that we are trying there is a good chance we will move forward, and we will move positively forward."

OWNERS

Making ownership more viable is high on Neville Fielke's agenda. "This is all about broadening the number of owners that break even, or make a return, because it has been a very narrow group, " he explained.

"On the other hand it is also about making sure there is more stake-money available, and also making sure that the cost of ownership, in terms of transactional cost, is made simpler.

"There hasn't been much focus on how we improve the costs and processes for training, administration and all those sorts of things.....because they also drive ownership costs as much as stake money provides the return.

"We have to look at both sides of the ledger.

PROMOTION

"Another big ticket item for me is that we have to do a lot to think through our intellectual property and what things we have in terms of media, broadcasting, and the way we develop and promote the involvement in racing....and we haven't done that as well a we could have.

"I believe that aggregation, which is what Western Australia is going through, will serve them better, provided they can get over some of the club politics and code politics.

"Quite frankly, we have spent a lot of time dealing with those issues, and we are probably in better shape than some, but we also have a long way to go ourselves in that area and that's the big challenge.

"How can we get beyond some of the minutiae and some of the meaningless politics and into some of the big meaty issues, and how do we solve those? That's what has got to happen."

CHALLENGE

One of the major problems facing Mr. Fielke and the Board of Directors is how to mesh the old with the new...how to retain to the good parts of the old regime and mesh them with the new ideas for the future.

"There is a big challenge to orchestrate that," he says. "What happens is, when you have some of these new ideas coming in people want to reject them. Well, you just can't live in the past, just like you cant live in the future.

"You have to try to bring the best of both worlds together."

The big advantage for Mr. Fielke and the Board of Directors is that they are starting out afresh. It is true there are still three representatives of the former regime on the Board but they are there to give it balance.

The new independent members are headed by Graham Duff, a former Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Sport, and his deputy, Michael Duffy, a former Federal Attorney-General.

"It is a clean sheet of paper, and for us it is a chance to move forward," Mr. Fielke said.

"One of the things we have to change is the culture inside the organisation and also within the clubs, because the clubs keep on trying to trap you in the way it was.

"What we have got now is the right structure, and the right structure should serve us well if we all capitalise on it. And we should be able to capitalise on it because we have a very capable Board, we have a good Members' agreement and we have got some good people coming in.

"What we have to do is get a good understanding of what framework we have got and make sure it is more transparent than before, and then we can actually rope people in to do their bit.

"This is all about involving the team right across the industry to play their part and their role.

"You have got the role of the clubs and the role of the other stakeholders...they have all got to play their part. We have got to get the key positional players right and then we have got to get the good supporting players right.

"We have got to keep trying things and learning. If we are not trying we won't re-invent ourselves because we will just keep on doing the same things.

"And that won't serve us at all well."


- Ron Taylor