While the Sharks team has scrapped their way into the SuperRugby playoffs, an off-field battle has been polluting the waters around KwaZulu-Natal rugby. John Smit, who has announced he will be stepping down as chief executive, with Gary Teichmann, another former Springbok captain, announced this week as his successor, answers Ken Borland’s questions about the controversies and successes of his term.
What has caused the delay in the financial statements?
JS: Essentially we were renegotiating our debt/equity situation and the favourable outcome was announced this week with the recapitalisation of shares. It has some complexities, but in essence SuperSport have acquired 9% from KZNRU and then both entities have been issued more shares, together with another financial instrument, the net effect of which is that the Sharks have R40m recapitalised. Furthermore, we were trying to make sure that any future arrangement benefited our schools, clubs and development programmes. To this end Supersport really stepped up to the plate and we are most fortunate to be able to count on them as a shareholder. They will support our amateur organisation to grow our school base, clubs and support our development programme. We’re in a great space.
The economic downturn has affected all the franchises, but just how badly off are the Sharks?
JS: I don’t think it is news that our franchises are under pressure with attempting to retain players while competing with foreign currency, but we as a franchise had to do something to stem the tide and create a business plan that takes us back to operating successfully on both fronts, on the field and off. With this amazing move from SuperSport to inject R40m into the Sharks we can now realistically look at having a profit-bearing budget for the first time in over a decade by 2019. We have had to think smartly as to how we contract players and as frustrated as people have been this year with on-field performance, our new, much younger squad with far less internationals has in its first year together qualified for the playoffs, which for me is a great sign considering the draw of death we were in. This group is signed with us for the next few years and I can’t wait to see how they blossom. Our financial performance in 2016 is right on track and will reflect some of the major changes already implemented. Losses should not exceed R5m and hopefully we do a little better.
How has your relationship been with KZNRU president Graham McKenzie and chairman of the board Stephen Saad?
JS: These two men as well as others on the board have been very supportive of me in my tenure, Stephen has given me so much of his time, for which I am truly grateful as he runs a massive business, values time with his family immensely and he has always found time to assist with every issue I brought him over the last three years.
Are you satisfied with the number of sponsors on board and the key relationships you have developed for the union during your time as CEO?
JS: This is probably the area of the business I enjoyed most and looking back on the revenue we managed to increase on the sponsorship front over the last three years is pleasing. The fact that Cell C have bought into the vision and plan for this team’s future by renewing for a further three years is probably our biggest victory in this rebuilding phase. The other very important relationship that needed mending was with our very own city. Being one of Durban’s greatest assets I found it sad how far removed we were from each other and can proudly say that we now truly are partners. Durban Tourism has been instrumental in us being able to host the All Blacks this year and from there the discussions around a possible stadium move emerged, now knowing full well that any such move would need to benefit both parties should it happen.
You have been criticised for getting rid of Sharks stalwarts like John Plumtree and Rudolf Straeuli, what were the reasons for your decisions?
JS: I think in my three years one thing I could count on was that every time the team lost I was guaranteed to hear or read about Plum not being renewed! So much has been written and said about this issue but I have to say I was devastated at how it was handled. I had a very different idea in my mind of how this process was going to unfold while still in the UK, until one journalist and ex-coach decided to play their part. Never was it my intention to have Plum treated like that and he is justifiably angry. The discussion I wanted to have with Plum was to be one-on-one to ascertain where he saw himself currently and why he believed we hadn’t excelled at SuperRugby yet with the quality of squad we had. One needs to remember that coming in as a new CEO making that change was not an easy one or one taken without the consultation of many players, board members and rugby people close to the brand, with the most important part of this process being taken away by not being able to discuss with Plum himself. The irony is Plum had for months prior to my appointment been asking my predecessor to extend his contract with no luck. It is sad for me how it turned out, Plum was a friend of mine and as a coach I enjoyed playing under him while at the Sharks.
Rudolf asked to leave when offered the Lions CEO post. My relationship with him is still strong and I have always enjoyed Rudolf, his success at the Lions is no surprise to me. He was a great asset to us.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
JS: Wow, how long do we have! On a serious note though, I’m delighted that Gary Teichmann is our next CEO. We have sat down and discussed the areas integral to the business and where the possible hurdles lie. My advice to him was to try and block out the noise and focus on the job, he too will have similar challenges as I did being a high-profile person coming in and it’s important he knows that the same people who pump up his tyres now will slash them at will when they don’t get what they feel they need. So the best advice I can give is the same advice I was given many years ago: Decide your direction of journey, stay on course and don’t be distracted by either the good or bad noise along the way.