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Q&A with Cain Liddle

Tony De Bolfo, Carlton Media  November 17, 2017 4:28 PM

2018 fixture breakdown Grace Phillips breaks down the highlights of Carlton's 2018 AFL fixture.

IN one respect, life’s come full circle for Cain Liddle. As a kid from neighbouring Brunswick, he was pretty much exposed to the Carlton way at a time when the game still retained some small vestige of territorialism. As he fondly recalled, “I went to Brunswick North West Primary School where every second kid in my class was a Carlton supporter”.

In taking the chair as the new CEO of the Carlton Football Club, Cain keeps his feet firmly planted – perhaps the legacy of life lessons learned as a four-gamer at Geelong, as midfield coach through two “extremely rewarding” Premiership seasons with Calder Cannons; and as midfield coach at Vic Metro when he was “thrown the keys to the Maserati”, coaching the likes of Gaff, Kelly, Liberatore, Bontempelli, Prestia, Tyson, Viney and Toby Greene through the Metro midfield.

The spectacular successes at Richmond as Chief Customer Officer have only served to enhance Liddle’s reputation as a strategist, in taking that club’s membership to unprecedented levels. It’s a trait that in no small part enhanced his standing as the suitable successor to Steven Trigg, in the wake of a long, intensive interview process.

But who is Cain Liddle?

In an extensive Q and A, the father of three offers an insight into his early years, a life lesson imparted upon him by the great Malcolm Blight and the way forward for 21st-century Carlton under his watch. 

Q: Cain, can you talk a little bit about the early days, and where they took you from Brunswick?

CL: From Brunswick I moved with the family to Ascot Vale, and then onto Geelong. At Ascot Vale I played a handful of games with the North Melbourne Under 19s in the final year of the Under 19s program, then went to the Western Jets for the first year of the TAC program. That year there were six teams – Western, Northern, Eastern, Southern, Geelong and Central – and I trained with the players at the Showgrounds under Merv Keane, the Richmond Team of the Century player with whom I still have a great relationship.

I was then lucky enough to get drafted to Geelong in the Malcolm Blight era. It was 1994, which turned out to be ‘Blighty’s’ last year at the club. I went in as an 18 year-old and was lucky enough to play in the first four senior games of that season. In looking back on it now, there was Ablett, Bairstow, Brownless, Couch, Hocking and Stoneham – you’re talking about some of Geelong’s greatest players.

I had a bit of pace and was playing in midfield at the time ‘Blighty’ was experimenting (I remember he pushed Peter Riccardi forward) as I think he was looking for a bit more speed. I was lucky to get the opportunity I did because I wasn’t a superstar junior, and to be honest I’d rather have played four games for a team that made a Grand Final than 30 games for a team that finished middle of the road. The lessons I learned I didn’t realise until I got a bit older, and here’s one of them . . .

Through the interview process (for the CEO’s position) they asked me about leadership, and I thought, rather than give a sermon on leadership, why don’t I give some examples of things that have had a real influence on me and shaped me as a leader. One of them was a Malcolm Blight story from the last practice match before that Round 1 game in ’94.

Now I didn’t have a lot going for me, but I could kick the footy okay and I was quick – and in that practice game I remember getting the ball, taking a guy on, and another, then getting smashed by another. I had actually taken three guys on and got caught holding the ball, which was ridiculous. I then saw the runner coming out to me and thought “I’m coming off”, so I started running towards him. When I got there the runner put his hand on my chest and said “No, no, well done son – ‘Blighty’ said ‘You just take them on’.” That was a revelation in my head. I started thinking “Wow, someone has just backed me and put so much faith in me”, and I had a really good game because all of a sudden I found this confidence to work to my strengths. 

Whilst I only played a handful of games under ‘Blighty’, that lesson, delivered in that moment, has had a huge influence on me. I really liked the way that he tried things, that he dared to be different and what he said to me actually shaped me, because I’d much rather say to someone “Have a crack and try something, even if it doesn’t work, because the alternative is to not try anything”.

Q: Where did football take you post-Geelong?

CL: I spent a year on Collingwood’s rookie list, then played local footy for Avondale Heights under Simon Lloyd, now the new General Manager of Football at Geelong, then played for Bundoora in what was the Diamond Valley Football League.

Q: What of your professional career away from the game?

CL: Moving back from Geelong, I started working at the Ascot Vale Leisure Centre in sales and service, and what I learned by the time I got to Richmond is that if you’re working in gyms and you can’t sell memberships you’re pretty quickly going to shut your doors. So learning to engage with members and sell memberships was probably the first proper job I ever had.  Whilst I worked through a number of subsequent management positions, working with members was always a critical part of those roles, and those skills were pretty transferable when I joined Richmond.

Q: Did you have any preconceived ideas of Richmond when you joined the club?

CL: What attracted me about the club in the first place was that I saw an enormous opportunity – like Carlton – by way of its huge supporter base without a big membership number at the time. I saw something refreshing which was largely driven around discussions with Brendon Gale who I had the absolute joy of completing an eight-year apprenticeship under. He spoke of the opportunities, of an exciting young list and of the excitement of re-engaging the membership base when I was offered the role.

I remember when I resigned from my previous job to join Richmond my old boss telling me “God, I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into’ – and in the year that I joined with 18 rounds to go, one of the betting agencies paid out on Richmond to win the wooden spoon. The Club was clear in terms of what it wanted to achieve and the one thing that resonates with me about Brendon (Gale) was that there were to be no shortcuts, no silver bullet, no white knight – just good decisions all the time, bit by bit, to get there. That’s exactly what happened and Brendon masterminded it. 

To be fair, Richmond always had a solid membership base. But the club was able to change the relationship with its supporters and re-engage with those who had drifted off.

AFL 2017 Toyota AFL Grand Final - Adelaide v  Richmond
Liddle celebrates the 2017 premiership with Richmond player Brandon Ellis. (Photo: AFL Media)

I do believe that Carlton has also articulated a similar narrative of evolution to its supporters, which is a launchpad. Yes we will continue to be met with challenges – the most recent Sam Docherty getting hurt – but that opens an enormous opportunity to somebody else to stand up so that we’ve found another one or two in Sam’s absence and then get him back.

One of the things I’ve found since I arrived is the great culture here – really great people with a strong sense of purpose who understand what they’re here to do - so we have a great culture to launch from. 

Q: In joining Richmond, what was the priority? 

CL: AFL clubs, in my view, had traditionally treated membership more as an operational function – you know, make sure the barcodes are right and people are in their right seats – whereas what we managed to do is turn it on its head and treat it as a sales function. That’s really what I learned in health and fitness – when it’s the lifeblood of your revenue you’ve just got to be focused on it. 

Q: By that you mean making the actual membership more attractive?

CL: Oh more of everything. It’s about engagement, it’s about the value of the membership and what’s in it, it’s around having strong retention programs in place, it’s about strong acquisition campaigns and timing those campaigns right. You think about health and fitness – you don’t run an acquisition program in June, your acquisition campaign happens in spring – whereas if you think about AFL in the past, the acquisition campaigns were always rolled out in October when nobody’s playing and people aren’t even thinking about football. So it’s about changing the thinking and getting the timing right. This was a lesson re-enforced in a meeting with the Atlanta Falcons five or six years ago, where timing and sentiment are the key drivers around membership campaign timing. 

Q: Can you talk about your involvement as Managing Director of Aligned Leisure, a subsidiary company of Richmond that operates health and recreation facilities? 

CL: Early days at Richmond, I probably shared the view that in order for the Club to get to where it needed to be, it probably needed on-field improvement and at that time I thought it was probably going to take a little while. So I approached Brendon (Gale) and said ‘I really think the Club needs to look at alternative revenue streams to insulate the football program, because outside the football program the Club had one gaming venue and that was really it. Given my background in health and fitness, I picked up early days that there were some core competencies at an AFL club that could really contribute to the management of a health and fitness centre. If you think of the membership IP that sits within a football club, the communication skills across traditional and digital mediums which a lot of traditional fitness centres didn’t have, and the commercial ability to leverage deals that the average fitness club could not do. Then all of a sudden you think about the quintessential purpose of a football club is around people being fit and healthy, which aligns pretty well with health and fitness. To Brendon’s credit, when I flew the kite with him he was really open to considering it and that was a five-year process from that day.

The first thing we did was to get some demographers on board and the pitch to them was ‘Tell us where our future growth opportunities will be 10 or 20 years from now, not next year, so that we can put a stake in the ground”.

We then narrowed the focus to one or two councils and then approached the Shire of Cardinia (in Melbourne’s south-east) in 2012 and developed a community relationship with it.

Through Aligned we saw three real opportunities – clearly revenue, in terms of being paid to manage these facilities, the consumer upside in cultivating a support base through schools and clubs, and the third one was the commercial leverage by getting out there and creating more deals. 

We built a relationship which has been mutually beneficial to the Shire of Cardinia, so that when we sat them down to discuss how they felt about us planning to tender for their facilities they trusted us. When it came time to tender they knew who they were dealing with and we won eight facilities. As a result, Aligned Leisure has a 3x3x3-year deal with the shire, which is a huge growth area in the south-east of Melbourne.

The demographers pointed us down to the suburb of Officer, which at the time was basically a farmland. They advised that when the wedge was pushed back the farms would be carved up into housing blocks and people migrating to that area from other parts of Melbourne were likely to have a propensity to support Richmond.  

We had been in other growth corridors which weren’t in traditional Richmond areas, which is a long slow burn, so we thought “Get into areas where we’re strong and maximise it” – and by the time I left the club, Richmond was the No.1 supported team in every post code in Cardinia, one of the biggest growth corridors in Melbourne. 

Q: The obvious question then is ‘Can you apply the Aligned Leisure model to Carlton?' 

CL:  I think it’s our job to understand the skills we have at Carlton right now and look to maximising the opportunities we have. Is there another opportunity down the track? Potentially, but I’m not committed to saying absolutely yes.

What I am committed to and do believe we can get off the ground is an Education Institute Program, particularly when we’ve got a great relationship with an existing university and I’m very much looking forward to speaking to La Trobe about that.

LiddleNov17Pic2.jpg
Liddle settles into his new environment at the Blues. (Photo: Carlton Media)

Q: Melbourne’s north has long been considered a Carlton heartland, but do you call in the demographers to determine where that heartland might be five or ten years from now?

CL: There is definitely work to be done with the demographers because we do have an emerging northern strategy, but I think what we really need is some supporting evidence and data because the northern corridor is a big corridor and we want to make sure we’re going to the right spots to create them as the epicentres we can work from. 

Q: We’ve seen the Essendons and Hawthorns of this world relocate their training and administrative bases, but could it ever happen with Carlton?

CL:  The advantage Carlton has over Essendon and Hawthorn is that there is actually room where it is to expand. You might recall that Essendon had issues with the bowling club and Hawthorn was built in and had nowhere, whereas here we’ve got a 25,000-strong capacity around and we’re really excited in not only turning Ikon Park into the most elite high performance environment for our players and staff, but also in turning Ikon Park into the AFLW’s premier facility. It’s the ideal size – 25,000 – and the administration and the board did a great job a long time prior to me getting here in getting the plans to where we are to the point that the government can see the huge advantages in investing in this facility and what it can create for women’s football in this area.

Q: The perennial question put to every Carlton President and CEO for more than a decade now is “Will we ever see Carlton AFL games for premiership points back here?”.

CL: I’d like to think that very soon that the minimum crowd you’ll be seeing at a Carlton game is 40,000, so based on that assumption I’d hate to put our supporters in a position where they can’t watch us. Given that supporter base we’re very lucky we don’t have to be seeking out a 25,000-seat stadium whereas some other clubs might. But, having said all that, it will be the home of our AFLW team and I’d like to think that we’ll be able to fill this ground for all those AFLW games. I wasn’t here last year, but I remember seeing that Carlton-Collingwood competition opener and the atmosphere was electric. 

Q: Getting back to membership, clearly you’re not of the view that membership numbers are totally driven by on-field success?

CL: No. On-field success is a bonus, and while I don’t want to talk too much about my previous role, Richmond set seven consecutive membership records when the club’s teams never won a final. Richmond had already beaten their previous years membership record by the time they won a final last year and the data tells you that 80 per cent of people join because they want to feel part of a club, they want to feel like they are contributing and they want to financially support.  I won’t accept on-field performance as an excuse for not engaging with members, and making them feel part of our club.

Members just want to feel a part of something bigger and that feeling comes from everything they see and hear about our football club – from our players, our staff and our coaches. Everything they see and hear from us reinforces how they feel about us. Having been here for only four or five days I don’t think I’m in a position to make comment on where things might be right now, but we ultimately have to get to the point that our supporters trust us, that they’re clear on what we’re trying to achieve and they understand it, and that the experience meets the expectation.

In building membership you really need two things – positive sentiment, which can come from both on and off the field, and you need timing. You can have the greatest membership campaign in the history of the world, but if the timing’s wrong it’s not going to work. So you have to line those two things up and if you do that, history tells me that you can significantly increase your membership base. 

Q: So clearly, increasing membership is one of your priorities at Carlton Where does that sit in terms of your priorities as the new CEO?

CL: The membership is the lifeblood of a football club, so clearly, growing that membership base – engaging with the important members we’ve already got and growing that membership base to financially support the football club is absolutely critical and absolutely one of my priorities.

The thing with Carlton is that it comprises such a huge latent supporter base, so it’s not like we have to create a supporter base – the supporter base is there. It’s about how we engage with that supporter base and make them feel important and want to contribute.

We have spoken about members a lot but let’s not forget the opportunities around further engaging with and understanding our valuable commercial partners, with a view to ensuring we are delivering on their objectives as critical stakeholders of our club.

Q: So what are the other priorities and what is THE priority?

CL: One of the priorities is obviously the (Ikon Park) facility redevelopment. We’re a long way down the path with discussions in terms of that being funded. That’s an enormous priority.

I don’t want to shy away from the fact that we want to win Premierships – while our club purpose is about wanting to make people feel that they belong, ultimately what we’re all striving for is to win Premierships and be a successful football club within both the AFL and AFLW. 

Q: At the time of your appointment as CEO of the Carlton Football Club, a number of similar vacancies existed at other League clubs. Why Carlton? 

CL: There was no doubt that I was attracted to Carlton. I saw in Carlton great opportunity, a massive supporter base which I know from experience can really help drive a club forward if they are engaged in the right fashion. The Club has an incredibly exciting young list and a great hand at this year’s draft. Carlton really ticked all the boxes in terms of being a place I could grow with.

Are you ever ready for the job? Who knows. All I know is that I wanted the opportunity - and in being a senior executive at Richmond for a number of years and then establishing a company of which I was the managing director, with 300 staff, I felt that I had given myself the best opportunity. 

Q: First impressions of the Carlton Football Club?

CL: A very strong culture. I had more than 50 phone calls and texts from Carlton players, coaches and staff, all supportive prior to commencing. Ultimately, everyone connected with this club needs to be made to feel that they belong and there’s no better way to make them feel that they belong by making them welcome – and I truly felt that.    

Q: You’ve completed an MBA and an Australian Institute of Company Directors Course and you’re completing a Doctorate of Business. These, it would seem, are the prerequisites for the role of CEO, but how important is the human touch and the capacity to deal with people?

CL: Critical. Absolutely pivotal. Again, if I can refer to Brendon Gale, under whom I worked for so long, that personal touch was one of his great strengths. 

If our staff don’t feel proud and motivated then they’re probably not going to do a great job and ultimately for us to be the very best club we need everyone doing the very best job, so investing in and maintaining great people is important. 

Q: What about 12 months from now?

CL: Well I’d really hope we’ve got a good understanding of our supporters and our members, and a plan of how we can engage them. I hope we’re well down the track in terms of this facility, its redevelopment and the funding for that to occur, I would hope that our AFLW team has had the success that they’re preparing for and I would hope that the Club continues to invest in the young talent we’ve got in our men’s team. 

Q: You’re a new face at Carlton . . . how would you best describe yourself?

CL: There’s a saying I really like which might answer that question. It goes something like: they who seek will find; they who persevere will win”.