In the second of our ‘matched pair’ of interviews with key figures in City’s new set-up, Managing Director Steve Stone talks to Stewart Lewis about the importance of planning to the club’s short-term and long-term success, managing finances – and his straight-talking relationship with Stuart Webber.
Steve, the new structure is a big change. What brought you to the decision, and what do you see as the benefits of the new structure?
Looking at what happened to our Chief Execs – losing two in nine months – makes you think about the way the club is run.
Being in different divisions made us focus on the short term: we worked from transfer window to transfer window. It caused us to spend on transfers for the short term; we locked into long-term contracts, but with players for short term aims.
What this structure enables the club to do is two things. It enables someone to run the business side of the club (i.e. me). And it enables someone to run the football side who’s got the experience and expertise in football. We’ve probably been guilty in the past of having Chief Execs who have spent too much time on the football side.
The advantage of a Sporting Director is they’re looking at the club in the long term. A Head Coach will look at the short term. If you’re talking about a player in the Academy who’ll come through in 2 or 3 years’ time, it’s not top of his agenda.
This is about having the long-term interests of the club at heart. I’ve come from the business world where we had long-term plans and strategies – I think it’s fair to say the club hasn’t really had one of those up until now.
The new structure will only work if the chemistry between people is special, won’t it?
It’s absolutely critical – the chemistry between the Sporting Director and the Head Coach, and between the Sporting Director and the Managing Director.
I helped to recruit Stuart; when we did the interviews, that was one of the big things. From speaking to Stuart the first time we met – it was four or five hours – it was clear that we would get on. We sit and have sensible conversations; there’s no messing about. The club hasn’t been open in that way previously; it was run by the First Team Manager at Colney and it was a bit of a closed shop.
Is Stuart clear about what he’s taking on here?
Stuart’s got his eyes wide open in terms of what the financial constraints are, the fact that we’re a self-financing club. We had a very honest conversation about that before he committed himself to the club. Stuart’s also very comfortable with the principles of what he has to do from a player trading point of view.
What gives me heart is that Stuart comes from a club that had a wage bill far more similar to what we’d have without parachute payments.
Some will say that however good the structure, Norwich’s ownership is a barrier to fulfilling our ambitions – you simply need deeper pockets than we have. What would you say?
It’s obviously easier if someone’s dumping a lot of cash in, as long as you’ve got the right structure. But I absolutely think it’s sustainable to be in the Premier League with the funding structure we have, if we’ve got the right set-up to spend the money properly.
Looking back a year, if we’d made slightly different decisions with our transfers we might well have stayed up, earning another £100million. If we’d managed that successfully, things would be very different now.
We have to be at the top of our game. But I believe it can be done, or I wouldn’t be here.
So you’re genuinely looking to reach the Premier League and stay there?
If you get to the Premier League, it’s a bit like someone donating the money to you. As long as you spend that money properly – not just on players, but on developing Colney and the Academy.
I don’t think, with the amount of money now in the Premier League, that outside funding is as critical as it was. It’s more important that you manage the money better than we have in the past.’
How will you be approaching transfer windows in future?
You’ve got to have a better plan than we’ve had before, when we’ve sometimes spent money on over-age players who aren’t motivated to deliver.
I’ll be very surprised if we’re scratching around for players on the 31st of August or the 31st of January, as we’ve done in the past. Stuart is a planner who’ll do things in advance.
I’m looking forward at least two years with a number of scenarios, depending which league we’re in. We’re planning into the future, not just the next transfer window.
Long-term planning is fine, but surely you have to balance it with getting to the Premier League as quickly as possible?
We know our best chance is next season; we’ll be focused on it. That said, we haven’t always been our most successful with transfers when we’ve had the most money.
Clearly, there’ll be important changes this summer.
You’ve been here two years now. What do you make of the club and the Board?
What I see when I sit in Board meetings is a group of people who are passionate fans of the club and want to do the right thing. Have they always done the right thing? No. Is that because of a hidden agenda? No. Do they take money out of the club? No – they’re all unpaid.
We go to away games and pretty much the whole Board goes, because they’re fans and want to see the game. I’m thinking to myself it’s a pretty good thing.
This club’s a bit different. I moved to Norfolk two years ago, and you become aware of how important the club is to the community.
I’ve seen Tom Smith’s influence increase significantly – he challenges and brings new ideas, and is very focused on ‘what does Norwich City mean?’. Ed (Balls) is very good in terms of chairing Board meetings and making sure that actions are followed up – that the Board is doing what it needs to be doing.
It’s now similar to the professional boards I was used to in the corporate world.
Without changes, I suspect the atmosphere at Carrow Road would now be pretty sour. The changes seem to have at least given the fans some optimism?
I personally feel optimistic, because it’s now a structure I believe in. It feels like there’s expertise in the right places.
Of course it’s easy to talk optimistically – and I will because I feel optimistic. The proof will be in whether we deliver it or not. I’m acutely aware of that, as is Stuart.
Like Stuart, you put a lot of emphasis on communication. Not perhaps what we’d expect from the finance guy?
I like to communicate. In the last nine months we’ve been particularly poor at it. I want to be open – people might not always agree with what I’m saying, but I’ll try to put a rational argument and I’ll front up to things.
We’ve got to tell our stakeholders – primarily our fans – what we’re doing. If not, suspicions grow. I don’t blame the fans for being frustrated. If we can’t come out as a club and say what we’re doing, it’s a pretty poor show.
It’s complicated to get it right, but it’s not complicated to communicate what you’re trying to do.
On behalf of our readers, MFW would like to thank Steve Stone and Stuart Webber for the time and openness they’ve given us. Special thanks also to Norwich City’s Head of Communications Joe Ferrari for facilitating the interviews.