Meet Heath Harvey: The man behind Saracens, European rugby champions

The best in business and sport intersect at Saracens, the English and European rugby champions – a club with deep “Saffer” connections. Half owned by South Africans, captained by a Saffer and with half a dozen top SA players in the squad, it is the club of choice for the UK-based SA diaspora. CEO Heath Harvey inherited a club that was already on the rise and has taken it even further in the two years since replacing Edward Griffiths, best known in SA for his involvement with the 1995 World Cup winning Springboks. Harvey has personal connections with the country – was born in Johannesburg and spent his first 15 years in SA, schooled at The Ridge and Michaelhouse. In our interview in his office at the home of Saracens (Allianz Park in north London) he lifted the veil on what makes the European champion club tick, its ambitions to grow globally and provided insights into the exponential growth of rugby in the northern hemisphere. – Alec Hogg

I’m at Allianz Park, which is the home of Saracens with the Chief Executive, Heath Harvey. I just discovered now Heath, that although you’re quintessentially English in many ways, you were actually born in South Africa.

I was indeed, yes. Not that long ago – 1986. I keep reminding myself of my youthfulness despite the fact that everyone here and everyone who works in professional sports seems to be a generation younger than us. Yes, I was born in Johannesburg and had the first 15 years of my life in South Africa. Wonderful years.

Before coming to this rugby club (and we’ll get into a lot of the shareholding and the opportunities that Saracens have), you were in sport before at Wembley Stadium.

That’s right. Yes, I looked after the commercial elements of Wembley Stadium so that’s corporate hospitality, which was a £60m per year business – retail, tours, and merchandise.

It’s a dream job for many to get into professional sport in some way, particularly on the management side where you’ve got a long career ahead of you. Was it something that had always attracted you?

I thought it was important to have a vocational qualification under my belt, so I actually studied construction management at university and ‘plan-A’ went to the dogs when I graduated in the heart of the 1990s recession. The first industry to suffer, in a recession, is normally construction (that comes to a grinding standstill), so you’re a fresh out of university graduate thinking ‘well, what’s next and what’s plan-B?’ I went into the world of golf. Golf was absolutely booming at the start of the 90s, and they were trying to develop two-thousand-odd new golf courses in the UK, to cater for demand, so lots of merger and acquisition opportunities, lots of development and feasibility work.

I went to work in a business in London that specialised in the health club marketplace and the golf club marketplace. My early career was in golf and in feasibility and turnarounds. It was just a good learning curve for the sports marketplace in general. I spent 15 years in golf and really, by the end of it, I became renowned as the ‘guy to go to’ to turn golf courses around, where a course was struggling on perhaps its second or third owner and couldn’t make the numbers stack up. That’s where invariably I got a phone call from an owner saying, “We’re banging our heads against a brick wall here. Can you come in and show us the wood from the trees and help us turn this place around?” So, I did a number of big golf courses over my time before moving to the Wembley Stadium and the FA and then onto Saracens.

Well, coming to Saracens, it isn’t a turnaround game at all. Saracens, as you arrived, was almost starting to really hit their straps.

Definitely, absolutely and I couldn’t have timed my run better frankly, so the club has always been an innovative brand, both in terms of how they play their rugby and how they conduct themselves off the pitch – massively ambitious. I had the benefit of a predecessor before me, who put a lot of those paving stones in place, so I came to a club that needed a little bit of fine-tuning here and there but it was definitely not a turnaround scenario. It definitely didn’t need dragging up from its bootstraps. Not overly complicated, but I think sometimes fresh blood, in any equation is a good thing. Saracens have come, probably in 7-years, where most professional clubs have taken 20-years to get to, so yes, I had that as a great starting point.

For those people who don’t live in England and haven’t been following the European Championships, at the moment Saracens is completely on top of the pile.

Yes, we are number two in the league table in Premiership Rugby, and of course we want to stay in first or second place by the end of the season, which affords us the luxury of a home quarter-final. It’s always wonderful for your home fans and good for your coffers as well. In European terms, we’re all largely, familiar with the beast, which is Toulon. They have dominated European Rugby with their band of hired guns. For us to have defeated them twice this season, home and away, has put a real marker down and it wasn’t that long ago that Saracens were on the up, and a rising club and being defeated by a team like Toulon. To see those players develop over the ensuing years and to then get on top of players that are considered to be world-class is a massive testament to our coaches and to the way we go about developing people, within the club. Rather than just skimming the cream off the top and buying players from around the world, so that’s something we’re very proud of.

Last year was sensational, if you could repeat that.

Yes, to do the double – it was 12-years since any club had done it, I think you have to acknowledge that it’s very difficult to fight two consecutive campaigns. The game has become so hard and attritional that you need an exceptional body of individuals. To be able to go out there and compete in two campaigns as we did, so it was utterly fantastic. Great for all of our players, great for our fans, great for our sponsors and our stakeholders, and really put a marker down for Saracens.

The South African connection is strong but when it first began, seven or eight years ago, there was quite a lot of criticism. That maybe it was becoming like a little South African club in the UK.

Yes, I’ve heard that and when I did my homework, before taking the job, one of the things that people would be critical of the club was it was too South African but actually, when you look now at the Americans we have in our squad, the Argentinians and the Scots. There is definitely an Anglo/South African flavour to the club and that’s reflected in our shareholding but we don’t go out of our way to emphasise our ‘South Africanness,’ if you could call it that. We are as international as most premiership rugby clubs are out there.

I think, because of our shareholding, we gravitate towards South Africa. It’s hard to ignore the fact that every South African player that’s played for this club has served it incredibly well. They’ve been hardworking, honest, and brilliant individuals (the South Africans that have played for Saracens), and that leaves its mark. Those guys can be very proud of what they’ve contributed to the club’s evolution, over those seven to eight years. We are 50% owned by a South African entity, but I don’t think we intentionally go out of our way to reinforce our ‘South Africanness’.

You get support from the Saffer’s though, based in the UK?

When you sign somebody like Schalk Burger, like we did last year, you do hear a few more Saffer accents travelling up from South-West London, to North London to watch a game. I couldn’t actually tell you to this day how many of our crowd of 10-thousand people here are South Africa. I would be very proud to say yes, if we’re a home-away-from-home for South African rugby lovers in London that’s a great box to tick. Of course, we welcome all of them up here and I’m sure that they won’t have to go too far or visit too many bars before they find some soulmates.

The Saracen story though, is a lot more than that. It’s interesting to see the way that you’ve built the club on team spirit. Time and again when the chips are down, somehow your team manages to overcome, even though you haven’t been out there buying the most expensive players.

Yes, we work within a very flawed system, so to create talent like we do, internally, and then lose that talent to international windows but to work within a system that doesn’t allow you to replace those players. It creates enormous challenges. Yes, you get financial compensation for those players but the salary cap is there to keep the top down and to pull the bottom up, and to try and give the league the opportunity for 12 clubs to develop and grow, as close to each other as possible. Rather than the top go upwards and the bottom go downwards and, as we’ve seen in certain leagues, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. You have to give credit to the cap because we’re 20-years into professional rugby now, and it has managed to do its job.

It is very much a blessing and a curse simultaneously, as you can well imagine. You’ll be into a campaign and you lose nine international players, off to international duty. I think we had 17 players in the Rugby World Cup last year, more than any other club. That creates challenges, so you need to have strength in depth but you also have to say on occasions, when you feel like the chips are down because you lose such a significant number of players. That’s also when opportunity knocks for those younger players, who have the potential and that’s when the window opens and those guys can step through it and show us what they’re made off.

Just this weekend (against Toulon) there were players on that pitch, who showed us a different side to their potential and their capabilities than perhaps any of us appreciated before that. I’m no rugby expert but you open the Sunday papers and you read some of the plaudits and you recognise that for some of these guys… Saturday was a coming of age for them, so it’s a flawed system but even within the flaws there are some merits there somewhere.

But the whole team spirit, where does it start?

I think it starts with Brendan Venter back in the day and the culture that he created. As a club, we’re very proud of how we look after our players and that family and caring culture, that’s in and around our training ground.

Heath, what do you do that’s different to other clubs, when you say ‘how we look after our players?’

There’s no silver bullet, it’s not one thing. It’s a combination of things and I think where I’m probably similar to our director of rugby, is we don’t take great pleasure from talking about it all the time. It’s not a well-guarded secret but we just have a different culture to other clubs, where people are there for each other. Where wives are very welcome in the training ground, where wives can come to the training ground and if they’re trying to develop their own business there will be mentors and people there to support those people. So, it isn’t just focussed on the athlete and on training. It’s a far more holistic approach for a guy who comes to play for us, then his wife and his children come too and they’re part of the equation. Their wives will have afternoon teas together and that sort of thing. It genuinely is about creating a family culture, within the club. Rather than everything just being orientated around that male player who’s come to play for us.

When a player is happy he will do his job on the pitch better than when he isn’t and one of the reasons why a player might not be happy is because his wife hasn’t made any friends, when they moved to Saracens from another club in the country. We haven’t found a way to say to her ‘these are the two or three gyms that are near your house’ or ‘these are the two or three schools we recommend you to look at’ and what have you. You throw people in the deep end and expect them to swim. That’s not caring and that’s not what we’re about, so without spelling out the 20 or 50 things that we do that creates that unique culture at Saracens, it’s really just about looking after people extraordinary well, and expecting them to work extraordinary hard. That’s Brendan’s way and the baton has been passed to Mark McCall and Mark wraps it up very carefully and makes sure that that doesn’t become diluted with time but we’re really honest about maintaining it.

You also have The Saracens Way as a business product that you’re offering to businesses, to understand how they can improve their culture within their organisations. That’s unusual.

Neil de Kock

It is and it’s been something that we originally did, slightly, from the edge of peoples’ desks. What we’ve realised with people like Neil de Kock, who’s heading it up at the moment. Neil has been in the club for a long time and he joins up the squad and the culture of today with the days when Brendan Venter came into the club. He’s seen the evolution and the path that we’ve been on, and as he approaches the end of his playing career (we’re very privileged to have people like that), who are academic, intelligent, hard-working, and can look back on the last 10-years, and talk with authority – how it is we’ve gone from where we were, going through a coach or two a season (all those years back), to having the stability today and the academy that develops the talent and the culture, which nurtures the talent and what have you.

To take that into the corporate marketplace, where a lot of companies don’t care about individuals. They care about their output and everything is measured in numbers. We think that what we have in our training ground, that Saracen “sauce”, can be transferred into the corporate world and make a meaningful difference to a business. A lot of businesses don’t understand what culture is at all, so it’s definitely something that’s transferrable. There’s a lot of demand for it, at the moment, so we’ve signed our first 11 clients and most of them have come to us. We haven’t gone out looking for them, so we’re not really in sales mode yet.

It’s going to be something that’s very limited, so we’re not going to try and scale it up massively and advertise it in the Yellow Pages, it’s really going to be something that we keep close to the club and to the businesses that get involved with the club. If you look out there today, even in the schools that we deal with, there’s a greater emphasis on leadership and a big part of the Saracen’s way is about leadership. For me, one of the barometers of demand for leadership is in schools, when you’re talking to headmasters and sports masters and bursars, and they’re asking Saracens about leadership because it’s something they acknowledge that is not readily available in the marketplace.

If you want to go on a public speaking course, there’s a million companies out there that will teach you how to be a better public speaker. But when it comes to leadership – leadership is a little bit, less tangible and there’s more examples of bad leadership out there then there are of good ones, so to have something that we’ve now defined and created into a finite product that we can take to market is brilliant for us. It’s something we’re very proud of and are continuing to evolve.

Your timing is brilliant. The world is moving in that direction, the corporate world, away from the business of business’ business to the business of business as having a social license, and that comes with what you’re doing. What about rugby in the Northern Hemisphere? For many years it was the poor relation to the Southern Hemisphere countries and provinces that dominated but it appears, at least with the resurgence of England rugby that the pendulum might be swinging.

England head coach Eddie Jones poses at Twickenham

Alec, I think it all ebbs and flows, doesn’t it and old Eddie Jones, in the England setup just this last year is a perfect example of how you bomb out at the Rugby World Cup and everybody says we’re at the bottom of the barrel now. Then five-minutes later he scraped the same bunch of players together, applied a different philosophy to their training and their mindset and managed them differently. Then you got seemingly a world beating team, maybe a little injury ravaged right now, (the England squad) but they’ve got enormous strength in depth. I think it’s exciting times for England.

Yes, other teams are having a hard time of it in the Southern Hemisphere but I think we’ve all got short memories and I think there’s been times, in the last ten-years, where people have looked at teams like Wales and gone ‘it’s a long way back from where we are today’ and two years later they’re winning the Six Nations. I think it’s like the question you asked earlier. You lose players to international duty and it allows those younger guys who normally don’t see the light of day on the team list, to come through and to show what they’re capable of and it gives them a platform or a stage to perform on. I think in international rugby there will always be that ebb and flow. It’s actually, a healthy thing. New Zealand dominating rugby for decades, we all want to see them come off their perch and somebody else challenge them, otherwise it gets a bit stale and one dimensional. That ebb and flow is what makes sport compelling and gives it it’s stickiness.

What about rugby as a whole? Are you seeing it continue to gather momentum, it’s only 20 years of professionalism, as you’ve mentioned?

Yes, it feels to me like we are coming to the end of the amateur part of the professional era, so if you look at the growth that rugby has typically experienced. It’s been single digit, like a 3% growth in TV audiences and even slightly less than that in physical match-day audiences (attendees at games), and just this year, whether it’s the Eddie factor or who knows what it is – we’re now seeing double digit growth in attendees of games and 14% growth in viewing figures of Premiership Rugby on TV. That’s really encouraging, so it does feel like the graph is starting to steepen. The line on the graph is growing exponentially, so exciting times ahead for rugby.

Michael Rhodes of Saracens is stopped by Sebastien Tilous-Borde of Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Saracens and RC Toulon at Allianz Park, London – 21/12/2017

What about bringing South African Provinces or South Africa’s team into a Northern Hemisphere tournament? It’s been spoken about for many years; the time zones are much better aligned than playing the New Zealanders and the Australians. Do you think that’s a dream or do you think that it’s something that could be considered?

Rugby’s biggest issue right now is global calendar alignment. If for example I take Saracens to New York, as we did last year – the cameras are there in the face of your squad and the unknowing broadcaster is saying, so who are the true rock stars in your club and you say ‘well actually, they’re all back in England playing in the Six Nations right now.’ It just takes everything away from what you’re about because that audience over there wanted to see the best rugby players that we’ve got.

When you’ve got an international window happening at the same time as your league is playing through it – it’s fundamentally flawed. Rugby has to fix the global calendar first, before it starts looking at initiatives like a Southern Hemisphere team playing in a Northern Hemisphere league. It’s that old adage of ‘if you want to fill the jar, put the pebbles in first, then the gravel and then the sand, and you’ll get it all in. If you do it the other way around, you’ll wonder why you can’t get the big stuff into the jar last. The big issue in rugby to fix, first and foremost is the seasonal calendar and I think people will be more willing to look and explore those sorts of opportunities, when we haven’t got our league playing through international windows and robbing ourselves of our best, homebred talent. Trying to stay at the top of the league table when you’ve just lost nine of your players to international duty because that’s pretty fundamentally flawed.

The biggest challenge, the physicality of rugby, given what’s happening around the world in health concerns?

Yes, it’s come of age, this attritional element of the game just in the last few years, and we see guys now – some teams you struggle to separate the backs from the forwards. They’re all so big and fast with fantastic handling skills and that’s what makes the game really appealing. It will also be nice to think that players can get into their mid-30’s before they have to hang-up their boots. To do that you need to spread the load on those players. You need to develop the players responsibly. You need to have squads of the right size to be able to spread the load, so it’s not about building a squad of 40 guys and then putting the same 23 out week after week, after week.

I think we are reaching a point, in rugby, where we’re going to have to respect the fact that these guys work so hard to develop themselves to a professional level, and you’ve got to balance that out with elongating their career as long as possible. If I look at us we’ve just put in a £100,000 cryo-chamber, into the training ground. We’re looking at all the facilities that we need to put in to Saracens to make sure our players can get into their 30s because you don’t want the trend in the game to be that guys are finishing up at 28 because the game is so attritional. It’s just sharing the load and spreading their play across the season is imperative. It’s a long season and it gets harder and harder towards the end of the season and you want to see as good a quality of rugby at the end of the season as you did at the start because everybody is fit. Not covered in injuries and struggling to perform, so that’s those different lines on the graph and achieving the optimal balance frankly.

Schalk Brits of Saraces takes on Matt Giteau of Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Saracens and RC Toulon at Allianz Park, London – 21/12/2017

Then the obvious stuff, like if somebody gets injured in a game or concussion and so on. Is rugby doing enough in protecting them in that way?

I think if you look at how rugby has evolved its rules every, single year, truck and trailer, rolling mauls and this year, yes, you can pull down the line-out jumper immediately and that sort of thing. It’s never stood still for five minutes, so what’s going on, on the pitch has always been a work in progress in rugby. It’s kept the game appealing and attractive to watch. It’s even probably made it a challenge for our spectators because you’ll sit there and listen to people going ‘why did the referee blow that because he wasn’t doing that last season and he is this season?’

You’re talking about the spectators?

Yes, so us as fans, we have to keep on top of our game and make sure we’re moving with the times and knowing what the new rule changes are but from a player welfare and care perspective, similarly all the guys on the edge of the pitch now, our medics etc, they have technology and iPads that the broadcaster is providing a separate feed to those guys, so that they can be totally up to the second, with seeing how somebody was hit in a tackle or made a tackle or whatever. It’s not just the receiver of the tackle. Sometimes it’s the giver of the tackle that injures himself, as you saw with Haskell the other week, when he lasted 35 seconds on the pitch.

Schalk Burger of Saracens is tackled by Maía Nonu and Guilhem Guirado of Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Saracens and RC Toulon at Allianz Park, London – 21/12/2017

Yes, you want to know that you’ve got all of that in place to do the right thing by those players and the responsible thing. If a guy needs to come off the pitch then he needs to come off but you don’t want to make a wrong call and leave him out there because you didn’t have the technology to be able to see a tackle that happened on the other side of the pitch, so it’s the 21st Century and I think we’re being pretty responsible. Moving with the times and using everything at our disposal to stay current and have the players’ best interests at heart.

What about the future? Saracens is a growing brand. It’s expanding. You fill your stadium every week. What’s the next venture?

I think it’s a two-pronged attack, so one, on an international basis – how do we grow Saracen’s footprint and expand our brand globally? You see in Central London, kids wearing Barcelona shirts or Real Madrid shirts. I would love to be in core rugby markets around the world and see kids wearing Saracen shirts because that’s their protest vote. That’s their non-domestic team they love to support. I do believe that’s possible, so that’s the international expansion bit.

Then more locally, it’s kind of getting out of that short-term three-year mindset and thinking about filling the stadium for the next game. Thinking about the 10 and 20-year strategy instead, it’s wonderful to have a ground with 10 thousand people full but I don’t want to just be managing the supply and demand through the price mechanism. I need to find my next five, 10, and 20 thousand seats for our fans. If we’re growing our brand then we’re growing our fan base, so if I talk about a 20-year plan – do I see Saracens playing here in 20 years’ time? I think that could be quite a challenge at Allianz Park and I don’t want us to be a club for which only rich men can afford to attend games. It’s a wonderful family experience coming here on a match day. We need to scale that up and make sure that we move with the times. If that means finding a location on the edge of the north circular or the edge of the M25 or wherever, and having plans in place for 10 and 20 years from now.

Saracens fans with flags during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Saracens and RC Toulon at Allianz Park, London – 21/12/2017

That’s doing the responsible thing by our brand and by our fans because we are on a curve right now. If you just forward project that curve on the dotted line only a fool would ignore where it’s going to. The only way to change the ascent of that dotted line is through the price mechanism and that, I think in sport is undesirable and it’s seen as being opportunistic of your fans. Yes, we’ve got to look at the 20-year strategy and how we accommodate our growing brand in 10 and 20 years’ time. As well as doing the week in and week out business as usual stuff.

Looking 20 years ahead there are more populous nations, which are starting to take to rugby. Can you see them becoming serious challenges for the Rugby World Cup?

Yes, without a doubt. It sounds slightly anecdotal but no one ever thought the Chinese would be able to put out a basketball team because they’re not a tall race. In the space of 20 years, their diets have changed and they’re genuine contenders at the Olympic Games. Yao Ming wasn’t somebody we ever expected to see coming out of China 20 or 30 years ago. I think the world is a fast-changing place and I think that we will definitely have some surprises on the horizon. The rugby nations that dominate today will have some fresh challenges coming through in the next 10 and 20 years, without a doubt.

You’ve got Saracens’ brands or Saracen associated clubs in nine countries?

Yes, we’re in Russia, Kuala Lumpur, Romania, USA, Kenya and the Middle East. They’re not necessarily all emerging markets but some of them are expat markets, where people’s time out of work is spent at their rugby club. That’s about growing our brand – having those clubs in those markets but increasingly, as we go forward, we’ll increasingly focus our efforts and attention on growing the Saracen’s global network in those core rugby growth markets of the USA, Japan and China.

One of your stars here, at the club, is Maro Itoje, who has Nigerian parentage and the time I spoke to him he said he would love to go back and make a contribution in Nigeria one day. It shows that maybe these clubs that you have around the world you’d be growing more Maro’s?  

We’ve all read about the growing middle classes in Africa and the associated wealth and it’s not just the Russians, the Indians and the Chinese who are sending their children to English private schools. It’s the Nigerians and those Central African countries, where their economies are starting to boom. Nigeria is a good example. You look at Andrew Harriman and so many players in this country – Adedayo Adebayo, all these guys were of Nigerian descent and have made terrific rugby players, so definitely that is a country not to be ignored. They’ve got a good rugby pedigree there and Maro is absolutely top of the pile right now, in terms of Nigerians playing in our league, or individuals of Nigerian descent. Yes, I think there’s plenty of places like Nigeria that can put a marker down in rugby and be a significant contributor to the game.

What’s your dream, to close off with, in say the next five years?

It’s a good one, so I put a significant proportion of my time into the development of our training ground. Right now we’re in a borrowed facility in an amateur club and I don’t feel that it’s sustainable in the long term, so I want us to have a world class training facility that is commensurate with where Saracens is today. The other thing is the development of our ground, so we have one permanent stand here right now, two are temporary stands and one has passed its sell-by date and I want to make sure that we evolve those two property angles for Saracens. That’s doing my personal double, creating a fantastic stadium here that’s a hell of a match day experience for rugby enthusiasts, families, and the North of London rugby market. It must be aspirational to want to get to a Saracens game and when you leave, to have had a fantastic time. That doesn’t just happen by itself. It doesn’t just happen through building a stadium. It’s a massively detailed process, to get it right. I visit every other ground out there and more of them get more wrong than they get right, so I know what I’m up against. It’s quite property focussed – get us a better ground that holds more people and delivers a better match day experience, and get us a training ground that helps us to continue to develop world class players for decades to come and helps players to prolong their careers with all the right sports medicine, knowledge and using the best of our IP. Ultimately, hopefully both of those two things come back to better results on the pitch and better results off the pitch.