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2019 AGM speech

Good afternoon everyone and welcome formally to the AGM of British Rowing for 2019.

Most of you were here before lunch, and will have seen from Andy’s presentation that there is a lot going on. During my ten minutes or so, I’d like to tell you why I think the future could be very bright – but I can only do so if I address some of the glaring issues that I am sure many of you have come today with a view to discussing.

I stood here last year for the first time and talked about what had been a year of considerable change. This year, I stand here not so new, and not having effected nearly as much change over the last twelve months as I would have liked. But I do believe that things are now on the move, and I am confident that twelve months from now we will be talking about a very different picture from the one that you see today.

Let me begin with the hardest bit – the deficit that you will have seen in the financial statements, and which the chair of our Finance Committee John Hinnigan will talk about in more detail in a moment. It is huge, unsustainable – and being addressed.

I am conscious that the vast majority of you in this room have heard my view on this already, and for those who haven’t, the soon-to-be-published minutes of our most recent Board meeting lay it out. But for the record today, let me make clear that I am in no doubt that unless we address the fact that the cost of running the sport today is higher than our income by some considerable margin, we are going to be in trouble. We therefore are addressing it. I have said to Andy that I can stand here today and defend our financial statements on the basis that they are largely the result of a legacy strategy, but the same will not be true next year. We have dipped below our minimum reserves, and can simply no longer afford to pursue initiatives that do not pay back in very short order. There are no prizes for running a loss-making business or for churning out programmes that don’t deliver revenue before you have driven the car over the cliff.

I talked last year about how we would soon be making a big drive for membership. I am disappointed to be standing here saying that we have not yet started it, but on the bright side, we are now in a position where we will be launching it properly by year end. We launched Clubhub – thanks to the 18 clubs who tested the pilot – and made changes to the membership package with the four new categories of membership, but our coming focus to address our financial position will not be on active members, because if we were to double their number, we would need a commensurate increase in boats and facilities, and costs would increase accordingly. Instead, it will be on people who think of rowing as their sport, and the plan is to explain to them how their support allows us to protect it. It requires us to change mind sets, from the current perception of British Rowing as an unlovable taxman and regulator, to a Trustee of the sport – whose job is to pass the sport on to the next generation in as good as or a better condition than we inherited it, which means that we are here not only to facilitate the present, but to protect the past and safeguard the future.

The “Friends of British Rowing” membership that we have soft-launched will explain to people how their signing up for £30 a year – the price of a cup of coffee a month – will help us to do that. Our aim is to get from our current 31,000 members to 100,000 members within three years.  Getting there will require some significant improvements to the user experience of the draft “Friends Of” webpage, broad and effective communication, and a lot of help from our existing members. But I believe that it is entirely realistic to believe that we can get there, with the first 8,000 members wiping out the structural deficit, and every incremental sign-up providing us with headroom that will allow us to do so many of the things that I think will make an enormous positive difference to our sport.

Moving on to other things, something else I said last year that I am saying again, I am much happier about… Last year’s line was that “Our GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including three golds!” This year I can say that “Our GB Under 23s had their best-ever result at a World Championships, returning home with eight medals – including six golds, and two silvers to boot”. It was an extraordinary performance in brutal conditions – I could barely walk half-way up the course without turning into a sweaty heap – and they and their head coach Pete Sheppard deserve our warmest congratulations. Our senior team bettered their 2018 performance at the 2019 World Champs, with two golds and two bronzes, although that was still a weaker result than we had hoped for. The members of the para team that brought home both golds deserve a particular mention, though – and on a very positive note, we qualified ten boats for Tokyo, which was a result equalled only by the Dutch. You’d have to have no eye for a boat, though, not to have realised that we have work to do to find a couple of boat lengths across the board if we are to be competitive there.

The Junior GB Rowing Team claimed two medals in Tokyo, while at the Coupe de la Jeunesse in Italy we came second, and in the GB France match we won for the eighth time in the last nine.  Junior rowing would appear to be thriving, with a record entry at the Junior Champs in Nottingham, where Gloucester Hartbury won the Victor Ludorum.

Turning to our commercial partnerships, we have added Eve Sleep (who launch formally this month) to our existing partnerships of SAS, who took the naming rights of the Ranking Points Index; and Mizuno, who became the headline sponsor at BRIC for the first time, and also launched our Inspired By range, in April. By this time next year, projections suggest that kit sales on the High Street in Korea will be adding £80K a year to our coffers, which is very welcome. Less positively, I mentioned last year that we were launching a new sales campaign in a bid to find a major sponsor, but regrettably this has not borne the fruit we were hoping for. It is a difficult market, and my own view is that this merely underlines the sense in looking at membership numbers as the solution to our budget issues.

We struggled with the weather this year in terms of racing. The Women’s Eights Head was cancelled because of high winds, which led to 23 women’s crews (of which Tideway Scullers proved the quickest) being given places at the 86th Head of the River Race, where Oxford Brookes came home four seconds ahead of Leander.  A number of other events, including the Offshore Championships, were cancelled because of conditions. Budgetary constraints led to our decision not to re-run Power8 Sprints, and while Masters went fantastically well at Strathclyde in June, with Star Club taking the Victor Ludorum, we cancelled Senior Championships as clubs voted on its change of date with their entries.  The desire to find a date that works for everyone remains, but it is proving extremely difficult, and you will have seen that the decision has been taken not to run the Championships in 2020. Instead, more time will be spent considering the options, with proper consultation. In other consultations, our independent director Liz Behnke is leading a governance review, ably supported by my vice-Chair Kate O’Sullivan, the aim of which is to ensure that we have proper accountability within the decision-making process. I hope it will have the added advantage of saving me being hit on the head by people about matters over which I have no visibility, let alone jurisdiction. We published our new school-age strategy in May, and at my recent visit to the Kitchin Society, I was left in no doubt that the progress we are making with that group is both appreciated and significant. One shout-out in particular, to quote the Chair of that Society in a recent email to me: “There are many hard-working people in Hammersmith and around the country (employed and volunteering) but in terms of effecting change in recent times, Marieke must rank as one of the most successful.”

While I am mentioning individuals, two board members stand down this month having completed their terms of service.  Fiona McAnena is not here but she has played the role of Senior Independent Director during her years on the board, and I would like to thank her very much for her contribution.    Andy Crawford is here, and will be well known to all of you as the Chair of the Sports Committee – a role he has filled with tireless enthusiasm, much to the benefit of so many.  Thank you, Andy, for all you have done.  Expected to replace him – not to pre-empt your vote in a moment, and obviously assuming such a thing is actually possible – is Nick Hubble, who all being well in a moment, I look forward to welcoming to the next board meeting. And towards the back of the room is our newest Independent Director, Karena Vleck, who was the stand-out candidate in a competitive field of forty applicants when we advertised that role last month.  Congratulations and welcome, Karena – thanks for coming today and I am looking forward to working with you. While I am on the Board, I would like to thank them all for their support and input over the course of this year.

I mentioned last year that we would be introducing a new system for awards, and again I am slightly frustrated that I am standing here now without it in place, but I can tell you that we will shortly be announcing a date, likely to be in early March, for a British Rowing Awards dinner that will celebrate the whole of the sport, along with details of how people can nominate recipients. I have slightly stuck my neck out in saying that I am convinced that the sport will support being given the opportunity to celebrate our winners and the sport’s achievements in a bigger event than the relatively small lunches of recent years that have really only included the winners themselves alongside those who nominated them, meaning that they do not get the broader recognition that their achievements deserve. I hope you will help me to be proved right by encouraging individual and club and regional involvement and attendance, because if we don’t get it in the first year, I won’t get any support to repeat the exercise and make it an annual event. Clubs have annual dinners, other sports have annual dinners, schools and companies have annual dinners: our sport should have an annual dinner where we can delight in achievement and commiserate in misfortune.  Please support that, and, when we launch it in the coming months, our membership drive. Of the 1,267 members who responded to our membership survey this year, 95.3% said that they would recommend the sport to a friend, so there is no lack of love for the sport itself! This coming one is a crucial year for us, and it will need us to pull together to make it a success. “Together we are rowing,” after all.

If we can regulate the finances in the way I have laid out, and encourage alumni support to the level that I believe possible, we would put £2m a year in unrestricted income into our coffers. With it, we could do marvellous things – not just for today’s members and clubs, but for the future; and not just for people who know about rowing already, but people whose lives could be so positively impacted by our sport. The vision is to use the sport as a vehicle for positive change, by taking it into communities and to people who would end up loving it, just as we do. That is not a charitable aim – although the launch of Love Rowing, the British Rowing Charitable Foundation, at Cutty Sark on 21st November, in what promises to be an excellent event, will be able to play a major part. It is an aim that we, as Trustees of the sport, need to have, because in broadening appeal across communities and taking the benefits of rowing far and wide, we secure its future in a competitive sporting landscape, we save it from inevitable shrinkage towards its unfair stereotype, and at the same time we inspire passion in people young and old. The knock-on beneficial effects of having the financial platform to run more effective, wider, and better supported programmes in coaching, facilities, recreational opportunities, volunteer support, and membership tools – to people, the sport, and ultimately the GB Rowing team, are obvious.

So… I’d like to ask you all for your support, and in conclusion to thank you all for coming and for listening. And with most of you, like me and the members of the board, being volunteers, I would also like to thank you for the work you do for the sport. In doing so, I will take you as proxies for all of our volunteers, without whom the sport would not function. To you, and to all of them, I’d like to say thank you very much.




Posted in British Rowing.

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