Interview: Kenny Baillie, Glasgow Warriors chief executive

TAKING over a club when it is at the top of the league could be viewed as folly in the harsh world of professional sport, but Kenny Baillie has only become more convinced of his decision in the 18 months since he was appointed chief executive at Glasgow Warriors.

• Kenny Baillie settling in at Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow's spanking new training home. Pic: Robert Perry

If it were Manchester United or even Rangers, there might be some merit, but when it is a rugby team competing as the under-funded minnows of a league now involving three richer rugby nations, folly would seem an under-statement.

Throw in the fact that this 34-year-old Glaswegian walked away from a lucrative career in software production, a rare business that continues to toss about annual salaries well into six figures like confetti, and which for Baillie involved office stops across America, Hong Kong and the middle east, the move shifts into the incredulous.

But Baillie could not appear happier, making himself at home in Glasgow Warriors' new Scotstoun base out in the leafy west end. But why? The simple explanation is that Baillie never lost his passion for rugby and it finally reeled him back in; an ambition seared within him to see his native city being lauded as a rugby giant being ignited again.

He had been a decent full-back, winning an under-21 cap against New Zealand before collecting a healthy bounty of league and cup silverware with the newborns of Glasgow Hawks. He even represented Glasgow against Montferrand (now French champions Clermont Auvergne) in the district's first European adventure 14 years ago.

And Glasgow now have the Anniesland club to thank and the manner with which they embraced rugby's epochal move to professionalism, trumpeting a new vision in Scotland, for enticing Baillie back from computer software to his first love.

As startling as the move to the Hawks and then to the Warriors might seem outwardly, the relative youngster in the world of executive boardom retains his natural mix of sharp-suited, suave, ever-smiling exterior and innate enthusiasm, something that served him well when he told Glasgow Hawks, including a few hardened cynics of the SRU, that he was crossing the divide and becoming a union man.

He smiled, and said: "I did think about that (the enmity between clubs and the union], but this was an opportunity to drive a professional rugby team and there are not that many of them around.

"And it was a fairly straightforward transition. The principles of running Glasgow Hawks, Currie, Kelso or whoever, are just the same: organising teams, facilities, committees, sponsorship, income, promoting events; on a bigger scale, obviously, but very similar.The one real difference is the management of player contracts, which is an entire business in itself."

The intriguing bone of contention with the Scottish pro teams, of course, is that it is not like running Celtic or Rangers, in the sense that you are not your own master. The SRU provide the money, albeit much of it stemming from Heineken Cup and Magners League participation, and they call the shots. Still, Baillie was unfazed.

"You can't get away from the fact that the Warriors are wholly owned by the SRU and they are essentially our major sponsor, and so they have a significant input into the day-to-day running of the club, but at the same time I now have silos of expertise in ticketing, marketing, finance and rugby at Murrayfield that I can use to help me do my job."

To outline how he independent he feels he is, Baillie cites the securing of new sponsor PV Solar from Hamilton where, once he had checked that the deal did not conflict with others the union had, he was left to get on with it. He also insists that the money brought in - estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 over two years - is ring-fenced for Glasgow, as will be future sponsorship monies he lands and ticket income.

Baillie has friends in high places in and around Glasgow, from lauded academics to Old Firm executives, and he is pretty savvy in how sport operates in the west of Scotland. He savours the challenge of knitting the Warriors into the fabric of Glasgow sport and points out the average attendance rise this year to 3,800 takes them past their Firhill groundmates Partick Thistle as merely a starting point from where he hopes to take the rugby team beyond the averages of the SPL's basement sides in 2010-11. The youth supporter scheme is also closing in on 2,000 members, something others watch enviously.

However, he has a host of leading players currently watching training rather than participating as the new season closes in, the result of the same top-class players pushing their bodies for Scotland and Glasgow from last June to this June. Sore bones and battered muscles quickly forget the delirium of reaching a Magners League semi-final and beating Ireland and Argentina in successive Tests, and three weeks' holiday has not proven enough to reinvigorate some.

Baillie acknowledged that it was a surprise to see an "unprecedented" number of players return for pre-season training still nursing knocks and agreed that losing Johnnie Beattie and James Eddie at least for the first half of the season, after shoulder operations were deemed necessary, was bad news. That put paid to a trip to France to defend the Challenge Vacquerin Trophy.However, word is that Chris Cusiter, Al Kellock, Graeme Morrison and others receiving treatment will be fit for the start of the season.

Baillie shares both concern with supporters and the lack of ability to alter that picture, and so has kept his summer focus largely on the move into the new home of Scotstoun and the challenge of integrating the team further into the west coast psyche. He is preparing a programme of community visits that will extend beyond last season's figure of 820 and is urging clubs to get in touch.

"Without television support, the only way to develop is to get in about the community," the chief executive stated, "but it is something professional rugby did not do well for a long time.

"People used to see the players playing for their club and district, so would know who they were, but times have changed. We've just signed an Argentinian international winger (Federico Arambaru] who 99.9 percent of the Glasgow people wouldn't recognise if he walked past them in the street. So how do you get youngsters to realise he is someone they might idolise, when he's not on the TV every week like the Old Firm?

"Well, Federico will be like all the other players taking part in school, hospital, club and charity appearances, in the hope that more people identify with him and us, and we gradually integrate into the fabric of the community."

Baillie continues: "Our new marketing campaign is called 'Belong', based on the song 'I Belong to Glasgow' … 'when I get a couple of drinks on a Saturday Glasgow belongs to me'. Well, Glasgow belongs to me, to you, to the supporters in the stand, to the players, the community, and this is just an extension of that in taking the club into the fabric of Glasgow.

"It's fair to say that even five years ago people in Glasgow would get confused between the Warriors and the Hawks because the Hawks got off to a flyer when the game turned professional, while the SRU kept changing the Glasgow pro teams' identity. But that is changing."

The slow but sure rise in attendances back that up, even if it is difficult to determine how many established rugby club supporters have been persuaded to follow the Warriors in the way a few thousand new rugby fans have. But, here again, Baillie's understanding runs deep.

"In a country the size of ours clubs will always be the grassroots of the sport, producing the players, but should they also come and watch us?" he asks, rhetorically. "You'd hope they'd want to come and watch the Warriors, but can you expect guys in their twenties, thirties, forties and older to watch rugby on a Friday night, play for or watch their club on a Saturday and maybe do mini rugby on a Sunday?

"For me, it would be fantastic if all the clubs identified with their club first and foremost and the Warriors as their professional team, and even if they don't buy a season ticket come along five or six times a year to watch us.That would be great progress.

"I'm in a fortunate position of being chief executive of our professional team, Glasgow Warriors, but I'm no better than the guys running West of Scotland, Ayr, Glasgow Hawks, Dalziel, Ardrossan, Hillhead-Jordanhill... There is as much talent in the amateur game as there is in the professional game.

"There is a lot of expertise and very good people now available to me at Murrayfield from Gordon McKie (chief executive], Eamon Hegarty (Finance Director] to Graham Lowe (performance director] and Andy Robinson (Scotland coach], who can bring huge amounts of talent and expertise to the sport in their particular field, but if you break the game down there is as many world-leading doctors, accountants, finance chiefs etc involved in amateur rugby across Scotland.

"The benefit in the pro game is that you are full-time so can use more time to best effect, and it means we can also provide a bit of leadership to the grassroots and the amateur game."

BAILLIE talks a lot of sense and his appointment, as a known rugby figure, has come at a good time for Glasgow and the SRU. He does not just talk to varying tiers of rugby players, supporters and committee men, but identifies with them, and vice versa. He knows it, but is keen not to overplay it, which is where he holds the potential to make a difference.

"The benefit of being on both sides of the fence for me is that you have a better understanding of why the amateur and pro games maybe haven't connected well. More effort is required and the responsibility lies with the professional team, but clubs have to want to come with us too.

"I've seen West, Hawks and Ayr all complain that the others are getting more of an advantage than they are. 'I see Glasgow did a session at Hawks last season; why aren't they doing one at West'. 'Warriors did a session at West. Does that mean you don't like Hawks anymore?'

"At any stage the offer is there for anyone to pick up the phone and invite us along for a session. Of course, there is a limit to what you can do, and we have a club draft system that now means certain players should be with 'their' club, but there is nothing we can't work through.

"And it's not just players or coaches either. I spoke to a Premier One club recently who had concerns around the cost of video analysis. I mentioned it to our analyst at the Warriors, Robert Holdsworth, who is as good as it gets in rugby union just now, and he said he'd happily do a video analysis session for all the clubs in the area, and give them ideas of the video stuff they want."

Baillie is refreshingly self-deprecating, but with a bit of prodding the ambition that begins to reveal why he walked away from a lucrative career in software emerges. He wanted Glasgow Hawks to put his city at the top of the Scottish club game, supplanting the likes of Melrose, Hawick, Heriot's and Watsonians. He now believes Glasgow Warriors can drive among the best sides in Celtic and European rugby, albeit with two feet still on terra firma.

"Everyone knows the issues we face in a country where we don't have the greatest number of rugby players, where there are social challenges with health and fitness, and we don't have the support of television. For me, the growth starts with a healthy and vibrant domestic competition with real rivalries, clubs and different parts of the country wanting to get one over on each other, and building on that at pro level.

"But, it also needs pro teams that are winning. I was speaking to a friend who is pretty high up with one of the Old Firm recently and I asked him: 'If there was one bit of advice you could give me what would it be?' and he said: 'Keep winning.' Simple.

"I know it will be difficult for the Warriors even to repeat last year's success, but the thing that got me when I decided to come here was how professional and well-managed this squad, management and off-field support team was - that is why Glasgow have been competing with teams with bigger budgets.

"In sport you often get groups of players coming together at the same time and I think we have that at the Warriors right now. Of our squad 16 players are under 24 and we have no back rows over 25, and the team is getting better every year.

"We have lost a few key players this summer but I'm not unhappy because we have been given good (financial] support by the SRU to hold on to a lot more of our internationalists, guys who have done well with Scotland and are now very desirable elsewhere, and I think the youngsters we have signed like Chris Fusaro, Duncan Weir, Robert Harley and others are the best the club has ever signed in one go."

He concluded: "The excitement is in the building for me. Sean (Lineen] and the squad will build on the pitch, but if we can get more sponsors like PV Solar on board, and increase the support base further, we will have more flexibility and ability to sign better players to help that. It's about 'belonging' to Glasgow and wanting the best for Glasgow and the west coast. No-one ever said it would be easy, but that was never something that put me off."