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CNBC Transcript: Steve Tew, CEO, New Zealand Rugby

Below is the transcript of a CNBC exclusive interview with New Zealand Rugby and CEO, Steve Tew. The interview will play out in CNBC's latest episode of Managing Asia on 8 November 2019, 5.30PM SG/HK (in APAC) and 11.00PM BST time (in EMEA). If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Christine Tan.

Christine Tan: Steve, thank you so much for talking to me here in Tokyo. New Zealand Rugby, is a $180 million business. It operates brands like the All Blacks, the Black Ferns, the Sevens team, the five Super Rugby franchises. As CEO of New Zealand Rugby, when you look back at the last 12 years, how would you describe your journey?

Steve Tew: For me, personally, it has been an amazing privilege. Like most young men growing up in New Zealand, rugby was a game we all played, and we all dreamt of being good enough to be in All Black community. But my skill set didn't allow for that to happen. So, I had to make a career out of working in sport. For the last 18 years, I've been working in New Zealand rugby, and it has been a hell of a journey.

Christine Tan: Do you remember the day you took over just before 2007 World Cup finish where the All Blacks had a disastrous finish? What went through your mind? What steps you needed to take as you began your journey?

Steve Tew: Yes, well, I was already in the organization, so I was held accountable like everyone else was for that performance. The first thing we had to do was to review the campaign and we went about it in a very professional manner. We got two independent experts to come in and have a look at what we had done to prepare the team for that World Cup. We then had to appoint a new coaching panel, and it was a very controversial exercise because in the end, we decided that the current coaches should have another opportunity to build on what they had created because we had a great run until 2007 World Cup. We went in as hot favorites. There was one game we were not good enough to beat France, that cost us that opportunity to compete in the semi, and then, maybe the final. In the end we said, "Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, you can have another go." And we knew we wouldn't know for sure whether that was the right decision or the wrong decision until 2011. In the end, that proved to be good decision.

Christine Tan: Under your leadership, the All Blacks made a big comeback, as you know, two back to back title wins, some trophy wins as well for the Black Ferns. As CEO, how did you lay the foundation for these teams to get to where they are today?

Steve Tew: Yes, well, as a Chief Executive, you lead an organization that deals with the immediate things that are happening. But we were very fortunate that we inherited an enormous legacy of success, particularly in our Black Ferns and our All Blacks' side. We've got a system that for decades has produced great players and great coaches. So, our job is to make sure that system is refined and resourced; and continues to do that. Then, you put the right people in charge of those teams. I think I always come back to… People ask me, what's the big ingredient for success? Well, I think it is "hē tangata, hē tangata, hē tangata". It is the people, the people, the people. In high performance sports, you've got to get the athletes right. But for me, it always comes down to the coaching. If you've got good coaches, men and women who know how to select athletes, how to nurture them, motivate them, get the best out of them, take them to the edge where they need to be, to perform on the world stage, then you've got a good chance of success. But I'd just come back and reiterate: we have a great domestic set up in New Zealand. Young boys and girls now are introduced in the game very early on. Parents coach. We all get involved in our children's sport, not just rugby. I think that's a big advantage for us. We've got to, as you know, we're a great outdoors country. So, we've got space and all those things add up to I think a group of young people growing up wanting to play sport.

Christine Tan: So, you think you've got the formula right in New Zealand?

Steve Tew: Oh, look, I think we're very fortunate that in New Zealand we now suffer exactly the same pressures that everyone else's with young people. Technology is changing the way things are done. People are very conscious about how they best use their time. Organized team sport is a big commitment, and that's becoming more difficult to get young boys and girls to commit to. The game is a collision sport, so we've got to manage how safe the game is and the perception of safety in our game as a critical matter. So, I think we've done well for a very long period of time, but there are certainly challenges in front of us and we're going to have to be a bit more nimble and more creative to meet those.

Christine Tan: While here in Tokyo, watching the 2019 World Cup, you managed to extend a five-year agreement with Sky to broadcast rugby in New Zealand from 2021 to 2025. You happy you got the deal done? You relieved?

Steve Tew: Yeah, I'm delighted. It's a good deal. I think it's a great deal for Sky, and I think it's a great deal for New Zealand Rugby. It secured a big chunk of our income for the for the next five years. I think, really importantly, it partners with us or gives us a partner that we've known for a very long time and trusted. They're a great broadcaster. They know our game. They know how to get our game in front of our fans the way they want it. I'm excited about the opportunities because again, the world's changing very quickly. We're going to have to be able to change with it.

Christine Tan: To what extent does this remove one financial uncertainty for NZR?

Steve Tew: Well, it's a big chunk of our revenue and it's secured. We're just looking at our budgets for next year. And we're very fortunate that on an annual basis, we have a lot of our income locked in in advance of the year starting. The challenge is we've also got a lot of our costs locked in and it's getting harder and harder to manage. So, the broadcasting deal is important, it's part of a joint venture with Australia, South Africa and Argentina called SANZAAR. And we've still got quite a bit of the rest of the world to contract and negotiate. So, I guess we'll be slightly more comfortable when those contracts are also secured.

Christine Tan: To what extent does this improve the financial picture for NZR? Because you had previously projected a $20 million deficit for the same period.

Steve Tew: Yeah, well, for the five years we're just about to conclude, we filled the gap that we were projecting. So, we've been able to increase revenue, manage our costs carefully. I think the team on and off the field can take some satisfaction and credit for doing a great job over that five-year period. The challenging thing - and I'm handing this over to Mark (Robinson) now - the challenging thing is that our next lot of financial projections also show quite a big gap. So, we're going to continually be seeking additional revenue sources and ways to increase our current revenue.

Christine Tan: As part of the deal, you decided to take a 5 percent stake in Sky raising a lot of questions about the independents now of NZR. Why get into bed with Sky?

Steve Tew: Well, it's about alignment. Nothing has changed. What is good for us is also good for our broadcast partner, and vice versa. You know, we're talking about 40 percent of our income, so you want to have a partnership where your interests are aligned, and you can work together. So, having a relatively small stake in that company, we think just increases the alignment and conviction. And we're not going to put ourselves in any position of conflict. We won't sit on the board. We'll be a very passive shareholder. But the partnership will continue to work. So, it's a feel-good investment. I think it's a commitment. We've made a commitment, and so has Sky. I think that's great.

Christine Tan: The biggest worry for NZR has always been to get that war chest that you need to really retain top players. You think this Sky deal has put NZR in a better position to hold on to its top players at a time when they're being constantly poached by higher paying clubs overseas?

Steve Tew: One of the things we can reflect again with some satisfaction is that in the last five years or so, we've really retained most of the top talent we wanted to, not all the players we would have wanted to keep in New Zealand have stayed, but the vast majority. I mean, even sitting there on Saturday before the game against England, I wasn't sitting there with any regret. We hadn't missed anything that we could have done for the team to be ready. So, I think… yes, there was no doubt if you lock up 40 percent of your income and it's a decent amount of growth as this deal is, then that's helpful in our player retention side of the business. But equally because we committed to putting 36 percent, actually it's contracted and collective, goes into that pot for player retention and player matters. But the rest, of course, is re-investing in the game: our provincial unions, our Super Rugby clubs and the community game that we support. So, again, if you've locked up a decent chunk of it, then that secures that side of it as well.

Christine Tan: Let's talk more about the money, because your job partly as CEO, is to make these financial projections, decide what you need to spend for the year and try to work hard to fill the gaps in between. And very often, like you said, you're spending more than what you have. How do you deal with this budgetary dilemma year after year?

Steve Tew: Well, it's a drain on everyone. And every year, the budget process is quite grim. As I said, we were just finishing off next year's budget right now. I think the reality is we are constantly looking at efficiencies. We're constantly asking ourselves, are all the things we're currently doing still relevant and necessary to do? Can we make some savings here? We are genuinely working very hard on new business initiatives.

Christine Tan: What new business initiatives?

Steve Tew: Well, one, for example, is that we will just about to begin the construction of All Blacks experience in Auckland, in partnership with Ngāi Tahu who has a lot of tourism experience. And so, there will be a very modern interactive experience of being inside the New Zealand rugby thing, largely focused on the All Blacks. It will take people on a journey for an hour or so where they'll get fully immersed in what rugby means to our country and what it feels like to be inside an All Black dressing room for example, to face the Haka, that sort of thing. So that's got two objectives: one is to improve our brand, if you like. People have a better understanding, particularly tourists that come to our country, but also, to be a profitable business.

Christine Tan: So, apart from this interactive experience that you're talking about, broadcasting rights and the other incomes like licensing and sponsorship, what are the new revenue streams can NZR look at?

Steve Tew: Well, that's really what we're all wrestling with I think. You know, it's no secret that all of the unions and the game -- all the unions in the world are currently exploring with an injection of private equity might be useful.

Christine Tan: Are you open to that?

Steve Tew: Well, we are open to the... well, we're exploring the options. I mean, we're very cautious about selling any of our assets permanently to any third party, frankly. Private equity is a broad term for a variety of ways you might raise capital.

Christine Tan: Why are you holding back?

Steve Tew: Well, we're working our way through it. We will take our time. It's not an immediate urgency. And we're talking to a large number of people.

Christine Tan: So, there is interest?

Steve Tew: Of course, there are genuine interests. I think many of the big investment funds, many of the private equity firms are looking for new investments. Ironically, the world is currently quite flush with capital. They see sport and rugby in particular as having a lot of potential that hasn't been fully realized. The expertise, the injection of cash and the expertise in some of the economies of scale that they can bring into an organization - they see as being able to help generate some big upside, which they would obviously share, and so would we. But, you know, we are still genuinely a co-operative. We are owned by 26 provincial unions, and so any decision along those lines has to be worked through quite a process.

Christine Tan: If a sale was to take place, what sort of stake are we talking about?

Steve Tew: Well, there are all the things that you've got to work your way through. I think it's fair to say I can't see New Zealand rugby selling a large percentage of any of its assets. It's more likely to create some new vehicles. I think it's reasonably well understood we're looking at how we help rugby build on the great experience that the World Cup has made in Japan. And we see Japan as a beachhead, if you like, for developing the game with the rest of Asia. For the future, for New Zealand and Australia in particular, the Pacific Islands, Asia and probably the west coast of the United States are where our future will be in a 10-year time frame.

Christine Tan: So, Asia is where you want to be?

Steve Tew: Well, at the moment, Asia is a target because it's we're in this part of the world and it's an enormous economic machine. But we've got be realistic. We've got a lot of work to do.

Christine Tan: Under your tenure as CEO, you've also moved away from domestic sponsors and you've managed to clinch a deal with international insurance giant AIG. And you've also managed to secure a more than $20 million partnership with Adidas, the biggest rugby sponsorship in history. How did you manage to pull all these commercial victories?

Steve Tew: Well, a couple of things. I mean, we still have a portfolio of very loyal domestic sponsors. For example, we've got two or three New Zealand companies that've been with us in excess of 30 years. So, very longstanding relationships which are fantastic. But the amount of money a domestic sponsor or a New Zealand only based partnership can generate is limited. So, the international deals we've done with the likes of Tudor, Adidas and AIG are critically important. That's a big number, by the way, which we never said was correct or incorrect. But with Adidas as our principal partners since 1999, they've taken us into some markets that we wouldn't have got to on our own. Just as AIG had, and they've been also critically important - I think quite a step change for us when we did that deal a few years ago.

Christine Tan: Sponsors usually want to be associated with winning teams. Given the recent match where New Zealand lost the opportunity to retain the World Cup, and lost the match to England, do you think New Zealand has the firepower to remain champions in world rugby even you don't always win trophies?

Steve Tew: Well, I mean, it is impossible for any team to win all the time. And if they did, frankly, that would bore everybody else to the point where they wouldn't want to watch. On last Saturday, England played extremely well, they deserved their win. We're disappointed, but it's one game that we'll never forget. And our guys will build on it. Can we sustain the level of success that our national teams have? Well, I hope we can, because that's the ambition we have. So, this World Cup is disappointing, and we'll hurt for a long period time. But it doesn't alter our winning ratio of over 90 per cent in the professional era for the All Blacks, for example.

Christine Tan: Any hard lessons learned from the match with England, for the players and for NZR?

Steve Tew: Well, we will go back and review the campaign more thoroughly than I've done to date. We are still in grieving mode, frankly. Well, the key lesson is that England turned up with a huge amount of desire and hunger and they executed the game plan almost 100 percent and they pretty much beat us in all aspects of the game. The lesson is if you're not completely on your game, you can get beaten on any day. That's the beauty of sport. That's why people love sports so much. That's why it's such a rich content for the entertainment world.

Christine Tan: But New Zealand will be back?

Steve Tew: We'll be back. We'll be back for sure.

Christine Tan: Since you took over as CEO of New Zealand Rugby, you've actually doubled revenues for the governing body. But at the same time, you've also had to deal with some very difficult issues. You had to deal with the Chief stripper scandal, the Wellington assault and some player indiscretions. How exactly do you deal with such behavioral issues? How do you make sure it doesn't happen again?

Steve Tew: Oh, it's kind of two parts to your question. I guess what we deal with each incident on its own merits, for want of a better term. We make sure we front those very quickly and very carefully and we hold our players to account. But we also look after and support our young men. You know, we've got a cohort of young men and women now. And inside that cohort, you're going to have a variety of backgrounds, a variety of opportunities and temptations. And most of the time, the vast majority of time, our young people make good decisions, but every so often, they don't. At that time, there were a number of incidents and it just built a bad picture for rugby. So, we said, enough was enough. We convened a group of independent experts and they did a review. Out of that review came a series of recommendations and it has borne a program called the Te Ara Ranga Tira - "The Rugby Way". And it has these four pillars inside it. In simple terms, what we're trying to do now is to give everybody in rugby a better chance to understand their responsibilities, to make sure that our game is as welcoming and open to all people as it possibly can be. So, we were the first sporting organization in New Zealand to get the Rainbow Tick for example. We are working really hard on education programs, so our young people understand the issues and the temptations around alcohol, drugs, gambling. We're helping New Zealand deal with some pretty dark statistics around youth suicide, which is a very high level in New Zealand. And the whole mental health and wellbeing issues become very prominent at home. We are running extensive programs, educating young players around mental health and recognizing that the mates need help when they need help. I think it's an opportunity for rugby to do something really special in our country. I'm really proud of what we've done today. And I'm optimistic we'll make a difference.

Christine Tan: Under your watch, New Zealand has done well on the international stage. But there are some who say you've put too much focus on the national teams and really neglected grassroots and provincial rugby. Do you think you could have done more to grow domestic rugby in New Zealand?

Steve Tew: We can always do more. There's no question about that. But if we come back to those resource decisions we talked about earlier, we have a mandate, if you like, to select national teams and put them on the international stage, retain their talent. This not just applies with coaches but all the experts that go around it. We have to decide how much of whatever we've got to be given year we spend on that part of the business. The community game is largely sort of administered by provincial unions. But we are a major funder of these. And so, again, it comes down to the balance. I think we've got the balance about right. But I won't argue with people if they have a different view because it's actually a matter of opinion - how much you put here and how much you put there.

Christine Tan: But you're happy with what you've done so far on the domestic side?

Steve Tew: Yeah, look, in the last 10, 15 years, we've stabilized our playing population at about 150,000 – 160,000. We've got enormous growth in the female game. I think there's a huge opportunity that all of world rugby is now looking at - resourcing is another challenge - but there's definitely an opportunity there. But like I said before - like all organized team sports, we are struggling to keep young boys in particular interested in a time where their attention span is getting shorter. Now, they don't want to be committed to a particular time every day or three days a week to train. The other thing is - I think we've really got to reflect on that - we are telling young boys and girls but largely in the male game to date very early on - if you're good, you're going to get identified quickly and you will be put on a program. So, what it does is it creates a group that are a bit entitled, which was part of the problem that we had with behavior. But it also tells a larger group that they're not good. And so, if you don't think you're going to make it in today's world, you may not continue to play, and we're seeing a drop off because of that.

Christine Tan: There are also questions about the future of rugby at a time when you really have to adapt content to a millennial audience who are consuming and watching rugby in a very different way. How do you see rugby evolving as a result?

Steve Tew: Yeah, well, again, that's one of the big challenges, isn't it? And we've seen that this World Cup - the digital views, the short clips, the stuff that's being watched on handsets -- that's just gone through the roof. Actually, the TV audience in Japan has also been amazing. But the challenge for us in any city in a home market is: are people really interested in sitting down and watching 80 minutes of rugby and paying for it? I know watching my children - they are very happy to watch the highlights, but then they don't want to pay for it. So, how we capture and deliver content is one of the big things that we'll be talking to Sky about in this new partnership.

Christine Tan: After 12 years as CEO of New Zealand Rugby, you've decided to step down at the end of this year and you say you want to remove your rather large shadow from the governing body. What are your emotions as you wrap up the last couple of months?

Steve Tew: Well, the overriding emotion is to get the job done and done well. And so obviously, not seeing your guys get through to the final at this tournament is disappointing, but there's a lot of other things to do. The broadcasting contract in New Zealand was important. So, that's a significant tick. But as I said before, we've still got a lot to do around the rest of the world. And there are, you know, the three or four regionally significant projects that I'd like to ensure I complete it. So, my driving ambition at the moment is to work hard and fast until we get to the day when I walk out. I genuinely believe it's time for the organization to have a different person in the chief executive seat. I think they've recruited really well. Mark will be a very good Chief Executive. He's been around here going for a very long time in lots of different experiences. He cares about the games. I'll work really hard to hand things over to him in as good a shape as possible.

Christine Tan: You've been credited for the success of New Zealand at the international level. You've got back to back wins for the All Blacks, some trophies for the Black Ferns, Sevens team, you've been called a multi-dimensional leader with a real rugby nous. How would you describe your leadership and your management style?

Steve Tew: Well, I like to do what I say, but most importantly, I come back to the people thing. It's about making sure you've got good people sitting in the right seat in the bus -- an old rugby adage. So, I've been very fortunate. I've worked with both in governance and in the management team. Teams that I've worked in have many outstanding leaders, some outstanding people. And I've always tried to lead in a way that is consultative, encouraging and gives people an opportunity to take some risks and learn, and not get too involved and let them do the job themselves. I've always valued everybody in the place, no matter who they are.

Christine Tan: 25 years in rugby administration, 12 years as CEO, is there a lot of politics, boardroom politics that you've had to navigate around?

Steve Tew: No.

Christine Tan: No?

Steve Tew: No, no, no. Yes, there is. I mean, look, the reality is, I always say if you put two people in a room, you've got a political environment, because that's human nature. There's always people with different ambitions, different perceptions, different experiences, different tolerances and everything. World Rugby - it's like any international federation. It's an unusual blend of cultures, of styles, of doing business. What we think of in terms of good business practice, if you like, in the Anglo-Saxon world, might be different in Asia or in Latin America. And you've got to think… the one thing I have learnt is that you've got to sit back and try and see what you're dealing with in the eyes of the person that you're discussing, arguing or negotiating with, and that gets increasingly difficult when tensions increase. So, I think around the world rugby table, we've achieved some significant change in the time that I've been around. But international sport is quite slow moving and very conservative. So, there are some frustrations. We haven't gone as far as I would have liked in some in some areas.

Christine Tan: But what are the areas?

Steve Tew: In terms of the way the sport is governed, it's not as independent as it should be. We've taken some time to give a true representation to some of the smaller and emerging nations. We've been slow -- that pace has now picked up - we've been very slow to recognize the opportunity of the woman's game. But we've also built a magnificent brand in the Rugby World Cup over that period of time. We had 59 million people watching the Japanese game against Scotland in Japan. When we voted to award the World Cup to Japan 10 years ago, we were worried about how it would work here. 99 percent of the stadia was full, so almost a sell out in all games and a TV audience have blown everything away. So, very, very pleasing.

Christine Tan: Whether it's sponsors, players, rugby administrators, what's the best way to build great relationships in the rugby world?

Steve Tew: Well, I think it's the same as everywhere else - you just have to be honest. I think it takes time. One thing I always say to people, young people as they start their careers: it takes a very long time to build your reputation, takes a very long time to build trust, because it's about actions – and you've got to build up a history of those actions. It takes a nanosecond to destroy it. And so, you've got to be very careful when you manage your relationships.

Christine Tan: Your replacement will be former All Blacks' Mark Robinson, any lessons learned from your experience that you can pass on to your successor?

Steve Tew: Well, Mark has been on some board table for the last six or eight years. So, he's actually seen quite a few of our good and bad lessons. Now, look…

Christine Tan: He's the right man for the job?

Steve Tew: Yes, very pleased with the appointment. I've known Mark for a long time. He was a player when I was chief executive at the Crusaders. So, I've known him from the very early days of the professional game. He came and worked in New Zealand Rugby for a while when he retired. He was in a high-performance unit and he's been a chief executive of a provincial union. He's a parent, he's very well educated, went to Cambridge with a postgraduate degree, played the professional game in the U.K., Japan and New Zealand, been an All Black, ran a private commercial business and cares deeply about the game. So, he'll do a really good job. Now, I think that the key for him is to stamp his own style on the organization and look after the people that we've got in place.

Christine Tan: Longtime All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is also stepping down. Have you found a replacement for him?

Steve Tew No. We've made a very firm commitment that that exercise wouldn't take place until we got through this World Cup. So, we will wait until the final whistle of the final and then we'll commence that process. But all the people who you would anticipate to be candidates know what are the processes, and we've been reaching out to them constantly. So, we'll get on with it as soon as the final whistle blows.

Christine Tan: You and Hansen have been good friends?

Steve Tew: Yes, we've been together for a long time.

Christine Tan: How would you rate his performance on the pitch?

Steve Tew: Well, he's been outstanding. Steve has coached for a very long time again. He was in the Crusaders when I was down there. So, I think his first professional coaching contract was signed pretty much the same time as my one was. So, you know, we've worked not constantly together, but for a vast majority of my time in the professional game. He's an outstanding coach, great human being, great friend. And it's quite nice we're finishing together. Well, that wasn't deliberate.

Christine Tan: So, let me get this straight, you and Steve Hansen are leaving at the same time. No coincidence. It sounds like the start of a new era for New Zealand rugby?

Steve Tew: Well, it will be. I mean, Kieran Read also moving out of New Zealand, so there will be a new All Black captain. There will be a new coach in the group because it's not just one coach - there's a group.

Christine Tan: You excited about the new leadership?

Steve Tew: Yeah, I think it's good timing. I mean, Steve probably could've stayed as long as he wanted to, given his track record. But like me, he has reflected that it's time for someone else to bring some new ideas and new energy. I know for him and for his family, being an All Black coach is a really high profile, pressurized job in any country but in New Zealand in particular. You almost can't believe how much intrusion of your life you get when you've got that position. So, I think he'll miss it. I'm sure he will miss it. We've talked about a lot. But there'll be parts of it that he'll be happy to not have to deal with.

Christine Tan: So, what's next for you, Steve?

Steve Tew: Yes, I'm still thinking, actually. I'm going to take a bit of a break in the summer, and then I've got my eye out for potentially another job. But it would have to be one that I thought I can really make a difference on. Or I might build a portfolio of project work, maybe some directorships. But I do definitely want to keep an international flavor to what I do, because I think working outside of New Zealand and seeing how New Zealand can influence things around the world, and the esteem that we are held in, it has been a really important part of my life for a long period of time. So, I'd like to continue that. So, open to offers.

Christine Tan: A lot of talk that your next stint might be World Rugby, you interested?

Steve Tew: World Rugby has got good leadership. Well, I wouldn't dismiss looking at World Rugby if the job came up, but again, when you get through your career and you get to the age that I've got to, you wouldn't take on any job unless you really thought you were the right person for that job at that time. And so, look, I haven't closed the door on anything but nor am I actively seeking anything at the moment.

Christine Tan: And finally, what sort of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Steve Tew: What I'm hoping the legacy will be for the time I spent in New Zealand Rugby is a well-structured organization with good people in it who have a shared vision. They know what their part in that vision is, and they're really proud and happy to work for that organization. And I know it because every year we conduct a survey of all of our staff and we got results and they're really, really strong again this year. So, that's a big tick for me in terms of… as you leave an organization, you want the people in there to know what they're doing, be happy about the place they work for, be proud to work there and be working hard, and we certainly have that.

Christine Tan: Thank you so much, Steve, for talking to me.

Steve Tew: It has been my pleasure.


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