Ryan Walkinshaw: “I aim to make Gloucester a flagship club in Europe”

Ryan Walkinshaw Ryan Walkinshaw is a remarkable young man. Thrust into the cut-throat world of global business at the age of 23 following the untimely death of his inspirational father, Tom, in December 2010, he inherited not only Walkinshaw International, a conglomerate incorporating multi-million pound businesses both here and in Australia, but was entrusted with the fortunes of Gloucester Rugby Club, in which Tom Walkinshaw had invested a good deal of energy and expenditure.
It has entailed a dramatic change of lifestyle for a man who had been happily making his way in the music industry. But Ryan, now aged 24, has taken the challenge in his stride to such a degree that he has since launched three additional businesses and, as the recently appointed executive-chairman of Gloucester, now has equally big plans for transporting the club towards European glory with the aid of a new director of rugby, Nigel Davies.
Neale Harvey: Ryan, it’s now 18 months since your father died and you inherited the family business. How much of a whirlwind has it been for you?
Ryan Wakinshaw: It’s been exciting. It was a position that was thrust upon me in bad circumstances but it’s an opportunity I’d prepared for and wasn’t going to turn down. Gloucester is one of many businesses I have around the world but it was one of my dad’s passions. He believed in rugby and that’s why he spent so much time helping to professionalise the sport and turn it into a real business.
I do have to manage my time carefully, though, because the other companies, especially those in Australia, require a huge amount of my attention. We’ve started several new companies over the last year which have turned out large already, but I’m coping pretty well.
NH: As executive-chairman of Gloucester Rugby, what are your priorities?
RW: For me it’s time to take a new twist for the club, to take it forward and to help modernise different aspects of it, while maintaining the traditions, passions and history which are the core values of what makes this club special.
We’ve proven we can make money and our latest accounts reflect that, so we need to keep doing that and then we have three main goals if we are to achieve our  ultimate aim, which is to turn Gloucester into a flagship club in European rugby.
One is to keep turning a substantial profit that we can reinvest in the club and prove that sports clubs can make money and still be successful; the second  is to make our stadium more of a venue of choice within the region, as we did by staging the Tom Jones concert last week; and the third is the team, which is the most important stage.
Everything revolves around the success of the squad and the first two things will create the cash we need there. But sport’s not just about paying for players, it’s about backroom staff and the science and technology involved, which also costs a lot.
NH: Your businesses revolve around the high-performance automotive industry, are any of those cutting-edge technologies transferable?
RW: Of course. We can bring stuff in from NFL, Aussie Rules, Rugby League and even Formula 1. The amount of work being done on the scientific side in motor racing, for example, is staggering and there’s so much more rugby teams like Gloucester can do. If you’re in a tight final at Twickenham that extra five per cent technology can provide can be worth its weight in gold.
NH: Healthy balance sheets and ambition are all well and good, but supporters will always judge success by results. What’s the minimum requirement for Gloucester?
RW: Absolute minimum is top six in the Premiership. Not being in the top four would be a disappointment because we are a club that should regularly be in the play-offs, but we have to be in the Heineken Cup, pushing our brand in Europe,   trying to get into quarter-finals and semi-finals. Once Nigel Davies has had a few years to get everything in place, we should definitely be in the top four of the Premiership.
NH: Does that mean the sack for Nigel if he fails?
RW: Look, if you end up losing the last game of the season and finish fifth behind a very good team, then you can live with that because that’s the beauty of the league.
NH: How determined are you to rid Gloucester of the ‘chokers’ tag that has surrounded the club in recent years?
RW: The term that we’re one of English rugby’s sleeping giants is something that I hate, because it’s true! Dean Ryan ended up falling on his sword for it and some of those failings are still relevant in our culture. They shouldn’t be, we should get a move on and realise this is a new era, with a new commercial department and an entirely new coaching structure. We need to wake-up, and I think we can.
NH: You were clearly very disappointed by the departure in April of head coach Bryan Redpath, who has since resurfaced at Sale. But in an ironic way, do you think it might have been a blessing in disguise following the arrival of Nigel Davies?
RW: Put it this way, I’m extremely excited that we’ve had this opportunity to get someone like Nigel on board. It brings a new professional dynamic to the coaching structure and his vision and attitude, even in the few weeks he’s been here, is incredibly refreshing.
That’s not just me saying it, most of the backroom are saying, ‘wow, what a change to the last couple of years having Nigel involved.’ It’s a very exciting time and you just wish the new season would hurry up and start.
NH: How disillusioned were you by the manner of Bryan Redpath’s sudden exit?
RW: We got told by Bryan that it categorically wasn’t true, then next thing you know it is true. I can’t go into that now, though, because Premiership Rugby will take the matter further if there’s a reason to.
NH: Your father was a big believer in loyalty and showed that, first with Dean Ryan and then appointing Bryan Redpath. Is loyalty a part of your make-up when it comes to your staff, coaching or otherwise?
RW: Loyalty should be a fundamental of any business. Sometimes my dad was right to be loyal to his staff and sometimes he got it wrong and was bitten for it. But my dad’s core values came from being a farmer in the middle of Scotland, where your word was better than any contract.
You look after people and if people work hard for you in return, then you make sure you return the favour by promoting them and showing loyalty. I do believe that loyalty is a huge thing, especially in rugby. The club culture is something that has been overshadowed by professionalism and people ask me whether I’ve seen that diminishing in the way it has in football, and I’m sure to a degree it has.
You can see aspects of rugby changing, but I believe you’ve got to hold on to some of those core values because it is a club and the fans and community need to realise that. Players do, too, because unless you feel part of something, then you won’t win anything.
If you look at any team in sport that’s been successful, the players always feel they’re part of something bigger than themselves and that’s what we need to build at Gloucester.
NH: Your father left a fabulous legacy to English rugby in respect of the work he did as chairman of Premiership rugby, but he was also known as a hard-nosed operator who rattled a few cages at the RFU. Are you hewn from the same rock?
RW: More and more people who meet and do business with me say, ‘damn it, you’re so much more like your father than I’d hoped you would be!’ I think I’ve got more patience than my dad but apart from that there are a lot of similarities in the way we act.
He was a very creative guy who used to come up with ideas – big picture stuff – and plans that people said he couldn’t do, but he’d end up proving them wrong. That’s testament to how hard he worked and he was an incredible individual.
He could be pretty ruthless at times but you don’t get where he was unless you’ve got a hard-nosed attitude to how you do business. I’ve obviously inherited some of that and only time will tell how successful I can be. But I’ve got big plans, not just for our businesses abroad but for Gloucester Rugby Club. There’s a new vision for this club, a new passion for it and we really are all working to turn it from being a great club into a Europe-recognised outfit.

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