“It was very strange the first time I came to Griffin Park as Chief Executive; it’s the same walk but a very different feeling when I get to the ground.”
Jon Varney’s matchday routine has somewhat changed over the past two months. A lifelong Bees fan, Jon has swapped the Princess Royal and “a couple of pints of Pride” for the Griffin Park boardroom.
As Chief Executive, TW8 is no longer Jon’s “escape” on a Saturday, it’s his day-to-day.
From his early years as a supporter to working with the Brazilian national team, Jon shares his story.
You grew up in South West London, attending Teddington School and Richmond upon Thames College. With so many teams vying for your attention, why did you choose Brentford?
My nan and grandad owned a pub in Hanworth called the Oxford Arms – the pub is no longer, I think it’s a block of flats now. They had a minibus that would take fans from the pub to Griffin Park on Saturdays. I would have been six or seven when I attended my first game. I remember going in the minibus down to the ground and getting passed over the turnstiles at the Ealing Road end – they are my earliest memories of Brentford and Griffin Park.
Later down the line, I used to go on the unofficial supporters’ coaches to away games – Paddy’s coaches. The coaches would leave Hounslow bus garage at some ridiculous hour in the morning. My mum was frightened to death that I’d never come home! I remember one particular trip to Bury; the coach must have broken down at least seven times on the way there and eight times on the way back.
My grandad and my dad were Brentford fans, and my brother is a season ticket holder along with his son Adam. My great mates Paul Johnson and Nigel Gordon – who are godfathers to my son, Joe – are also season ticket holders. Brentford runs through the family.
What do your family and friends make of your position at the Club?
They’re mainly interested in who we’re buying and who we’re selling! I will keep tight-lipped on that subject, not that I have any of that information anyway! I think they’re genuinely delighted for me. They’ve seen my career in the world of sports marketing develop over the best part of 30 years and they’re proud of me that I’m here and working for the Club. They know that I’ll go that extra yard because I’m a Brentford fan and I’m passionate about the Club and our future in the new stadium. I hope they think Brentford is in safe hands.
Was there any trepidation in taking a position at the Club you’ve supported since childhood? Accepting the role of Chief Executive immediately transformed Brentford from a long-term hobby and passion to your day-to-day work…
100 per cent, yes. When I was first approached, I was quite dismissive about the opportunity; Brentford was my escape, it’s what I did at the weekend. My Saturdays were about getting here at 1.30pm, having a couple of pints of Pride at the Princess Royal and then meandering my way to the ground. It was very strange the first time I came to Griffin Park as Chief Executive; it’s the same walk but a very different feeling when I get to the ground.
However, once I’d read through the brief and met some of the board members, I knew I had to pursue the opportunity. I was a below average footballer so there was no chance of me ever playing for The Bees, but through my role as Chief Executive I know I can help improve our business capability and in turn help us move forward. Wearing a Bees tie will be the closest I get to wearing a Bees shirt!
Pre-match pints: fans gather outside the Princess Royal on Braemar Road
Does your history as a fan give you an advantage as Chief Executive? You have a feel for the Club that could otherwise take months or years to develop…
Knowing the geography of the area and the type of fans that we have means that I hope I can empathise with supporters and the local community; I know what they expect from a matchday and I know what they expect from the Club. My background gives me a significant advantage.
I also knew that I could hit the ground running with the commercial task at hand because I knew the market and have a track record in driving commercial revenue – I knew that I could add value straight away. The Chief Executive role of any sports business is completely multifaceted, it’s everything from ticketing to catering; sponsorship and merchandising; finance, matchday operations and fan relations. I’m really fortunate that I’ve had exposure to each of those elements throughout my career.
Talk us through your professional background. Your career in sport started at the Rugby Football Union, in Twickenham…
I was a failed plumber before that! I left Teddington School with no idea of what I was going to do. A careers advisor suggested that I should become a plumber, so I did an apprenticeship. Less than two years into the apprenticeship I was made redundant – the company went under. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do now?’
As a kid I used to work at Twickenham Stadium, selling match programmes. The guy who used to organise the programme sellers also ran the ticket office, so I asked him at the age of 18 whether he had any jobs available. He gave me a job in the ticket office at Twickenham. It was a brilliant start for me; I was able to understand the process of ticketing and events. During those days you had to hand count the tickets!
There was then an opening in the marketing department at Twickenham, which I successfully applied for. Around 1989, they were building the North Stand at Twickenham - there were 50 executive boxes and they needed someone to sell them. I put my hand up to do that, which put me in touch with the chief executives and directors of the UK’s top 50 businesses because they all wanted boxes at Twickenham. That chapter proved to be the catalyst for me to kick on with a career in sport.
What came next?
I worked for a company called Dorna, a Spanish sports marketing agency who introduced rotating advertising boards to the UK and created the Premier League’s first central marketing initiative. I started to sell the advertising around the pitches of Premier League football clubs to brands like Sega, Wilkinson Sword, Lucozade and Northern Rock.
I finished there and went to Coca-Cola. I headed up their sponsorship of cup competitions in England and Scotland, and of Euro ’96 – the ‘Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola’ campaign’.
In 1997 I decided that I wanted to get back into the world of sales rather than marketing. I went in to a business called Movie and Media Sports, which was backed by Theo Paphitis from Dragons’ Den. Theo picked me up one morning and told me that he’d acquired a football club. I said, “Oh, goodness me, what have you done?!” I jumped in his car and we drove to Millwall, where he’d picked it up from the receivers. There was about four weeks to go before the start of the season, so I helped him get the business back up and running. The club was going through a very difficult time, there was no shirt sponsor and the kit manufacturer had gone bust, so I helped do those deals for them. Theo then had a number of great years at Millwall.
We sold Movie and Media Sports to a US sports marketing agency called Octagon. I stayed at Octagon and managed their sales of Heineken Cup rugby and the British and Irish Lions. In 2003 I got approached to go and work as the first commercial director for Premiership Rugby. Timing is everything in life; I was appointed in July and in November Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal won England the World Cup – interest in rugby just exploded. I had eight fantastic years at Premiership Rugby and did their title-sponsorship deals with Zurich, Guinness and Aviva. I also did their television rights deals with Sky, ITV and ESPN.
“Timing is everything”: Jonny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop goal clinched England's victory over Australia in the 2003 rugby world cup final
And then came your involvement with Pitch International and the Brazilian national team…
Yes, Pitch International are a television rights business who were looking to launch a commercial offering around sponsorship. The first set of rights that we acquired was for the Brazil national team. I organised and commercialised more than 40 games for Brazil.
Brazil don’t have the luxury of playing in the Nations League, so they play a lot of friendly fixtures outside their World Cup qualification years. They are the Harlem Globetrotters of football – they’ve played games in São Paulo, Melbourne, South Africa, Prague, London, Miami and New York. That’s the way they grow their commercial value, through a global footprint.
Was it difficult to find the balance between the needs of the team and the commercial value of the fixture?
We’d sit down with [Luiz Felipe] Scolari and the technical team. Scolari would say, “In this World Cup we’ve got an African team and one from Northern Europe, therefore our friendlies need to be matched up with those types of opposition.” We’d then follow that brief, interspersed with some commercial-driven games against the likes of England and Germany. It’s about finding the balance between what they need from a performance perspective, and what they need from a commercial perspective.
In the dugout: Jon worked with Luiz Felipe Scolari during his time with the Brazilian national team
You’re coming to the end of your second month at Brentford. What are your first impressions of the Club and how much contact have you had with the football side of the business?
Brentford has effectively operated as two businesses and it shouldn’t do moving forward. There is one project here: the Brentford project. We’ve got staff at Jersey Road, at Griffin Park where the majority of the staff are based, and a Community Sports Trust on Brentford high street. We also have a commercial team based at a separate sales centre. The core value at Jersey Road is togetherness and we need to make sure the same principle applies to our off-field activities. It’s difficult to bring everybody together from a geographical perspective, but we have to make sure that each department understands each other’s objectives. We have to be pushing in the same direction. All our fortunes are intertwined, if we can drive more commercial revenues that gives Phil [Giles], Ras [Ankersen] and Thomas [Frank] a better opportunity to invest in the playing department. Likewise, if they go well, selling season tickets, premium seating and sponsorship becomes an easier task.
It is difficult to improve on certain aspects while we’re based at Griffin Park. It’s going to be an amazing season next year – it’s our last season here and we all love it for it what it is, warts and all. It’s been our home and it’s unique. We should absolutely immerse ourselves in the history of Griffin Park next season, in all of those magnificent days that we’ve had and all of those fantastic nights under the floodlights. When we close the gates after that last game, we do so in the knowledge that we’re heading over to a new home that can offer everybody so much more. We’ll never forget where we’ve come from, but we’re about to write our history. We’ve got a hugely exciting future in front of us.
What are the main commercial benefits of moving to a new stadium?
Having London Irish on board is a significant advantage from a commercial perspective; we’re going from 27 or so Brentford matches a year to more than 45 match occasions. That’s going to help us significantly with our pouring rights and our catering contracts. The value also increases for a stadium naming rights sponsor. It’s our stadium, London Irish are hiring it from us on a match-by-match basis, so the majority of revenues generated will be ours to reinvest back in to Brentford.
We’re going from a capacity of just under 80 for corporate seats at Griffin Park, to 3,000 at the new stadium. We’re going to take ourselves away from being arguably the lowest performing commercial operation in the Championship, to hopefully a top-ten turnover. We’re now starting to sell our commercial rights to a much wider audience – this is a critical phase for us and the initial signs are really, really good. We’re going to find out which local and national businesses think of us. To date there is a strong demand for our premium seating and commercial programme.
Finally, with the Club in the midst of such an exciting chapter, what’s your message to Bees supporters?
We’re only going fill the new stadium with the help of our existing fanbase. If you bring family and friends to Griffin Park, we know that they’re going to have a great matchday experience and come back time and time again. Keep bringing your family and friends next season, because I’m confident that together we can create a whole new wave of Bees supporters.
This interview was first published in BEES matchday programme.
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