Saving North Melbourne – Part 1: The first year

If the AFL’s proposal to send North Melbourne to the Gold Coast had succeeded, the Kangaroos would be ‘celebrating’ a decade in their new home, with the club due to complete its relocation in 2010.

However, as history shows, North Melbourne has remained where it belongs, in North Melbourne.

10 years after his club was due to play as Gold Coast for the first time, former North Melbourne chief executive Eugene Arocca joined The Inner Sanctum to talk about how the club was saved in a four-part series called ‘Saving North Melbourne’.

Who is Eugene Arocca?

Eugene Arocca was long-time lawyer working in Melbourne as a litigator.

He joined a then struggling Collingwood Football Club as a mad fan in 1996 as an honorary lawyer, as the Magpies were in a financial struggle.

He continued in that role up until 2002, where he was appointed a director at the Magpies, before taking up the job as Chief Operating Officer in 2005 and leaving the law for good.

He was then approached by North Melbourne in late 2007 to become its chief executive officer, where he started in January 2008 and worked until July 2012.

In that time, he turned from a lifelong Collingwood supporter to a passionate North Melbourne fan.

He now works as the chief executive officer at Motorsport Australia.

Saving North Melbourne part one – the first year

In the lead up to taking the North Melbourne job, Arocca said he’d done some research into the club’s current situation, fresh after rejecting the Gold Coast proposal.

“I’d done a fair bit of due diligence on the club before I joined, I’d spoken to Andrew Demetriou, I’d made some enquires around the AFL about their state and I must say, when I got into the joint and looked at the situation, it was quite bad,” he said.

“No-one had prepared me for how bad it was to be honest, and coming from a rich club like Collingwood which was going pretty good at the time financially to a club like North Melbourne, that literally had to wait for cheques to come in to pay bills, was quite confronting.

“We still had 16 or 17 administration staff sitting in the basement at Marvel Stadium with the rest of the football department was sitting 2-3km away at Arden Street in a rundown almost derelict building, the old North Melbourne social club.

“I remember going in there in the first week and thinking to myself ‘what have I done here?’, I’m literally discovering the place was on the brink of collapse, the staff were demoralised, there was still some tension at board level post the decision to walk away from the Gold Coast.

“I had not many friends at the AFL, I didn’t have many friends with some of our sponsors, we were literally under siege.

“We had members who were still pretty aggrieved by not moving to Gold Coast, we had shareholders who were controlling the governance of the organisation who were not happy about missing out on a deal with the AFL where they were going to get paid a certain amount of money to basically hand the club to the AFL.

“It was literally like a business under siege from the tax office, from creditors, from the government and fighting on all fronts whilst at the same time internally undergoing enormous cultural challenges because of what the club had been through.

“In all my professional life, which is going on 40 years now, I’ve never confronted that sort of situation, ever.”

While the AFL hadn’t set any expectations or goals on the club after it knocked back the bid, it certainly didn’t make life easy for those at Arden Street.

“The general view was ‘okay, you’ve knocked us back, we’re not going to make it easy for you, we’re not going to make it harder for you, but we’re certainly not going to make it easy for you and don’t expect any favours.’,” he said.

“It came as no surprise as Friday night games were coming, we were getting some pretty terrible TV times, Andrew and the AFL would always deny there was no payback, and there’s probably something in that, but we were a club that was in turmoil and on the field we were reasonably competitive but a mid-tier team.

“There was never any threats or any untoward comments made, but it was very clear that you guys have chosen this path, get yourselves out of it, there’s no second chance.

“I got the clear impression from head office being the AFL, that we had stumbled in that first year, they would close us down.

“If we would’ve stumbled and not made that $1 million profit, then I reckon they would’ve demanded the keys to the place.

“I remember having a chat with Andrew Demetriou after the first 12 months and I took him a bottle of wine to thank him for not being as tough as he could’ve been.

“He sort of said in a quiet moment that the AFL supported my appointment, because they knew I’d be fairly pragmatic as a former lawyer, that I understand the importance of good governance, and I think the feeling was they sort of half expected me to get in there and realise how bad it was and basically turn to the AFL after 12 months and say here you are, here’s the keys, it’s all yours.

“As fate would have it, we managed to convince the shareholders to give the club back, we got more government funding for the new development which was a shock even to the AFL, the club was competitive was on field making the finals, our membership jumped by about 40 per cent, and we turned a seven-figure profit.

“That made everyone sit back and think ‘okay, okay, they’re giving it a crack’ and I think that was a turning point.

“Had it not gone as well as it did, then I’m prepared to say there would’ve been a terrible consequence for the club.”

Immediate changes

Change was afoot at North Melbourne, and Arocca had to get a feel of what life was like at Arden Street quickly.

“Most managers will tell you that if you ain’t got the stock, don’t bother trying,” he said.

“I spent the first four weeks interviewing every member of staff in detail, we had a chat which was up to an hour, including those in the footy department.

“I reached out to our sponsors, the major stakeholders, the cheer squad.

“I made the first month connecting with the staff to get a feel of where they were at, what they were doing, what their views were and also with our external stakeholders and some of our internal bodies such as the cheer squad.

“At the end of that four week period, I’d got a fairly good feel of what needed to be done, and that was to bring the place together.

“We let go of about 60 per cent of the staff in the first three months.

“We sat down a number of people and made them redundant, and I started to then reconstruct a team of people around me that pretty much stuck fat for the remainder of my four-and-a-half year term.

“I was pretty proud, that despite the big money on offer from some other clubs, we never lost a staff member under the new regime to another club during that four-and-a-half year period.

“I used some of my old networks at the clubs to recruit some outstanding people and executives.

“We then populated the staff with the right people to do the right job and we were left with a keen and united team.

“We went on a strategic review, we engaged with government, I remember how emotional I became when the government gave us an extra $3.5 million to help us build the facility.

“Peter Scanlon gave us an extra $1 million to help us finish the building.
They were just key highlights in that first 12 months, were day seemed to spill into night putting in long hours, I literally rang every share holder, 430-odd ones.

“From the $1.01 shareholder to the big ones to tell them the story and paint them the picture, and in October 2008, the club was handed back to the members, which was a sign that things were on the improve.”

Part 2: Returning The Name to come on August 10.

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