Journalist John Burbedge meets Ron Gourlay who in July 2017 became chief executive at Reading Football Club, one of the Thames Valley’s most high-profile businesses.
Job description: Expect to run a multi-million turnover business in the media spotlight, delivering live 90-minute sport-based entertainment. Your weekly performance will be judged openly by a fickle and vociferous customer-base, your results compared against direct sector competitors, then internationally publicised. Meanwhile, you will develop leisure, hospitality, retail, merchandising and sponsorship income streams each potentially impacted by the product quality and sustained success of the aforementioned open-air performances on the pitch.
Well, Ron Gourlay did in July 2017 – with Reading FC having had three different international owners within six years – Russian, Thai and now Chinese.
Not that Gourlay was jumping into the Madejski Stadium deep end. He was Chelsea’s chief executive for five hugely successful years, and previously held senior management positions with Manchester United and Umbro.
Today, Gourlay’s role focuses on two teams – “my business side and my footballing side”, and three income streams – “media, stadium, and commercial revenues.” Each team reports directly to Gourlay.
The ‘football side’, spearheaded by manager Paul Clement, comprises the Royals’ EFL Championship first team squad and a Reading FC Women side in the FA Women’s Super League, plus Academy age-group squads down to under-9’s; overall a ‘side’ with 230 players on its books, not to mention coaches, trainers, physios etc.
The ‘business side’ has approximately 180 mainstream staff, but on matchdays Reading FC often employs up to 750 in total.
“Getting the right balance between football and business is key. Most people judge us on what they see on the pitch; they don’t see all the business-building hard work behind-the-scenes.”
“I love football. Reading is one of the oldest league clubs, is well respected, and has interesting and very different challenges – a local community club, but with international appeal.
“I’ve had the taste of success at Chelsea and Manchester United. For me, it’s now about the challenge of making this club fit to sustain a higher level.”
Gourlay believes Reading can, in time, reach and establish itself in the Premier League. “We have a fantastic Thames Valley location and economy with worldwide brands and business success on our doorstep, an accessible stadium capable of seating 24,000 in its current form, and large fanbase potential. We have touchpoints for success that we need to unlock. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.
“We have opportunities to fulfil the ambition of our owners and a fanbase who want to see their team back in the big league, but their club run in a proper manner.
“The aim is the Premier League, but, to be realistic, 23 other teams want the same. We have to be careful, clever and creative about how we do our business and compete.
“We are building the infrastructure now, so we are ready to move forward when the time comes.”
“We are in transition. Sometimes you have to go a few steps backwards to go forward.”
“I now have a fabulous team and am confident we can take the club forward successfully.”
Along with “getting the best possible quality people together” Gourlay has been focusing on Reading FC’s ‘legacy project’ – development of the club’s new £35m Bearwood training ground with state-of-the-art pitches, medical and sports science facilities.
“Reading FC is built on the excellent foundations of our Academy*, so Bearwood is a major investment by our owners that is key to the business.” (The club is a £20m turnover business.)
All the club’s ‘teams’, bar the Madejski Stadium and Royal Berkshire Conference Centre operations staff, will eventually move to the Bearwood base.
Gourlay’s remit does not cover the planned £500m Royal Elm Park mixed-use development complete with 600-plus homes, convention centre and ice-rink. “But, there are undoubted opportunities for the club from this neighbouring development.”
And rumours of stadium renaming? “A club like Reading has to exploit all our commercial opportunities, but at the same time must protect the club’s values and heritage.
“It’s all about the right commercial partners, the right fit with the club. We mustn’t be pressured into short-term fixes that jeopardise the club long-term,” stated Gourlay.
*Reading FC is one of only 26 UK clubs with EPPP Category One Academy status for training and professional development of players and coaching staff.