Newcastle Jets: time to start thinking big

After a fairy-tale 2017/18 season that saw the team finish 2nd in the table and achieve qualification for the 2018/19 AFC Champions League, the A-League’s Newcastle Jets are on a high, ready to shed the label of regional team and start thinking like a big club.

Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna has been involved in Australian football for over 30 years, as player, coach and administrator. He was the inaugural coach of the Central Coast Mariners in 2005, where he instilled a real sense of community at the club, and led the team to the A-League Premiership in the 2007/08 season. Mr McKinna’s popular local identity helped him establish a career in politics, where he served four terms as Mayor of Gosford City. Back in the A-League with the Newcastle Jets, Mr McKinna talks to The Australian Business Executive about his plans for improving the club long-term, the financial struggles faced by the A-League’s less prestigious clubs, and the team’s determination to start thinking big.

A fresh start

After a decade of varying success in the A-League, the start of the 2017/18 season was something of a fresh start for the Jets. Before the season began, Mr McKinna publicly outlined a number of changes he planned to make to the team. But the big change at the club had already happened. In June 2016, the club was bought by Martin Lee, who immediately appointed Mr McKinna as CEO. The planning for what would prove to be a season of resurgence began in earnest a year earlier.

“When we came in,” Mr McKinna explains, “the squad we had, we knew it wasn’t good enough. But 95% of the players were contracted, so we were basically stuck with them for another year.” The changes started with the removal of the coach, Scott Miller, who was replaced by local coach Mark Jones. Jones lasted for most of the 2016/17 season, but was removed from his position after the club ended with a second wooden spoon in three seasons.

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“A lot of the process had already started [that season]. The next season we bought in an experienced coach, Ernie Merrick – Australia’s most experienced coach – and he walked in the dressing room and got that immediate respect that we needed.” With the club now moving into its third season since the ownership change, it is important to push on and keep up momentum. Preparations have started well, with the re-signing of many of its current players showing intent to remain consistent. “Too many times in the past, Newcastle Jets, and many other teams, after a successful year, have not renewed contracts and they lose most of their players, but we’re managing our player recruitment very well.”

Big club mentality

In order to achieve sustained success, Mr McKinna knows that the club must shed its historical identity as a regional club and begin thinking like a big team. Setting high professional standards means nothing if they aren’t being consistently met. “We got there [last season],” he says, “which was hard, but we need to maintain that now, because the fans want it, the owners want it, we want it as individuals. We’ve got goals ourselves that we want to achieve for our own personal satisfaction.” With a distinct lack of depth in terms of playing staff in the A-League compared to leagues around the world, clubs qualifying for the Champions League – particularly smaller teams like the Jets – often struggle to cope with the extra playing demands.

“It’s a horrendous schedule,” Mr McKinna says, “and at that time of year a lot of teams do drop off, because they’re trying to juggle a 23-man squad. You are allowed to sign extra players for the CL, but obviously you need more budget to sign more players.” To counter this, the club has extended the salary cap to try and acquire enough players to cope with demands. But even with more players, the risk of injuries is always there, which can easily disrupt a squad. “We’ve actually expanded our medical [team]. We’ve now got two full-time physios, so we’re starting to look at that – preparation, recovery. It’s very, very important. The sports science side of things comes in there to help us manage players and the loads and the travel.”

In order to achieve sustained success, Mr McKinna knows that the club must shed its historical identity as a regional club and begin thinking like a big team.

In addition to on-field performances, the club is emerging from almost a decade of poor ownership and bad decision making, which has had a negative impact on its relationship with the community. Things are starting to look up, with membership and attendance rising. “We’re about fifth or sixth in the table for members. Last year we averaged 11-12k people, which would be in the top half as well. We do very well, I think, in crowds, and I think we can get better.”

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Well-known for his community-minded approach when he was head coach of the Central Coast Mariners, Mr McKinna sees great value in imbuing the same sense of regional pride in his current crop of players. “You have to go back to basics, back to working with the community, get back to being respectful to everybody you speak to, and get the players out there in the community. Over the last two years [everybody at the club] has done an outstanding job.”

The future of football in Australia

Despite its global appeal, football in Australia is still living in the shadow of other codes and sports. Mr McKinna admits the A-League’s relative youth makes it much more difficult to compete with long-standing Aussie brands such as the NRL and AFL. “Participation-wise, we’ve got more numbers than all the codes,” Mr McKinna says. “We need to engage more kids, that’s the clubs’ jobs to infiltrate grassroots football. We play during the summer, so we’re up against cricket. We struggle for airtime.”

Even though the A-League pulls in the 14th highest football crowds in the world, it will always struggle to compete with the huge numbers of Australians who pay to watch the AFL and NRL every week. “We’re a long way behind the AFL and rugby league. But, you look at the J-League, the American MLS – when these guys started, they had that steady growth and then they dropped off, and then they came again.”

There was a sense of excitement a few years ago when the FFA announced new rights for free-to-air TV, with A-League clubs hoping to see an increase in revenue. With the arrival of cricket’s Big Bash League however, the prime viewing spots didn’t materialize. “The TV deal was locked-in for six years, and the clubs weren’t happy with it. Because most of the clubs lose money in the A-League, they were looking to bridge that gap between breaking even. They weren’t happy with what the FFA did with the rights.”

There was a sense of excitement a few years ago when the FFA announced new rights for free-to-air TV, with A-League clubs hoping to see an increase in revenue.

Mr McKinna admits that in order to get the best TV spots, the league needs to do more to attract fans. The way the Big Bash is run makes it more of a spectacle, and football must do everything it can to offer fans an exciting alternative without losing the spirit of the game. It’s clear the financial element of the sport needs improvement. Apart from Melbourne Victory, all the clubs are consistently in the red. A large part of the revenue clubs can control still comes from getting sponsors on board, which is always tough for regional teams. “It’s still not easy to get [big sponsors],” Mr McKinna says. “We’ve increased the sponsorship again this year from last year, and we’ve still got a long, long way to go to even get near what the big city clubs are getting, but we’re going in the right direction.”

To address the ongoing issue of how revenue can be increased, clubs have set up an organisation, the Australian Professional Football Clubs Association (APFCA). Much of the call for more money revolves around the league becoming self-sufficient. “They’ve been lobbying the FFA that they want change. They want an independent league – they want the A-League to break away from the FFA. It doesn’t mean to run independently – it’ll be like the English FA and the English Premier League.” The APFCA hopes to see this change happen in the next couple of years, and believes it will help A-League clubs start generating more revenue. At the moment clubs run on a grant from the FFA, which most feel should be bigger.

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The recent dispute between clubs and the league’s governing body, the FFA, is beginning to reach breaking point. Recently FIFA came in to try and have some influence at the negotiating table, but there is currently no resolution in sight. “The next two months is a really important time for football in Australia,” Mr McKinna says. “Hopefully it’s the best outcome for football, and the professional game, and for the women’s game and grassroots football, that everybody’s represented at the table.” There is a chance, if the A-League breaks away from the FFA, that the league’s salary cap will be removed, creating the potential for financial inequality to infiltrate the league as it has done in so many other leagues across the world.

“The bigger clubs will spend more money, and the smaller clubs will spend what they’re spending [now], or what they can afford. On paper, you would say the gap’s going to get bigger. It just means the smaller clubs have to recruit and manage player development.” Whatever the hurdles the club may face in the future, Mr McKinna is determined that the Jets start cultivating a big club mentality and begin to enjoy a period of resurgence that has promised to bring sustained success back to Newcastle.

“We want to be the best professional sporting club in Australia,” he says, “on and off the field. It doesn’t mean we have to win every week. It means we have to be competitive, and we have to be respectful, and while I’m at the club, I’ll make sure we do that.”

Find out more the Newcastle Jets by visiting www.newcastlejets.com.au.

Zuccala Homes: process as well as product

Melbourne-based boutique design and construct residential builder Zuccala Homes has been a family-run business for over sixty years, priding itself on offering a flexible approach to building that values the process just as highly as the product.

Greg Zuccala is a registered builder and Director of Zuccala Homes. Mr Zuccala’s 35-year experience in the residential construction industry has included several years being actively involved with the Master Builders Association of Victoria, where he was President from 2012 to 2014. The Australian Business Executive spoke with Mr Zuccala recently to get his thoughts on the company’s difference to other developers on the market, his work with a number of national and regional bodies, and Zuccala’s commitment to offering a flexible design and build process to make sure customers’ unique needs are met.

Offering more flexibility

“My dad Vic started the business in 1957,” Mr Zuccala explains. “Shortly after he finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter, he strapped on his nail bag and went out and started building spec homes in metropolitan Melbourne.” This kind of building involves buying a block of land, designing and building a home to go on that land, and then proceeding to sell it. After a few years of building homes this way, the family’s burgeoning business began to change direction. “We started to build display homes in greenfield estates around residential Melbourne, and started to build house and land packages, whereby a customer would buy a block of land, or we would source one for them, and we would design a home on there for them.”

Today, the company views itself as more of a niche builder that provides customers with more flexibility than the average builder, allowing them to choose, modify or create a design from scratch, and giving each project a unique quality. “I’m pretty confident in saying not one of our homes is exactly the same as another,” Mr Zuccala says, “because each of our customers puts their own stamp on it, and we’re happy to allow them that flexibility.”

Zuccala Homes has been well recognised by the major industry bodies over the years, and has utilised its prominent position to become more involved with shaping the industry and helping it run more productively.

For Zuccala Homes, it is vital not just for the product to meet customer requirements, but for the process that the customer goes through to be one that allows them to get the very best quality and value for their money. “The customer has the flexibility to design that home to suit their needs, and be given the opportunity to choose the appropriate specifications to go in that home, and be aware of the appropriate specifications to go in that home.”

Equally important is that during the construction and administration parts of the process – from design through to contract, and from the build to the handover of the home – the company communicates regularly with customers to make sure they are always happy. “They have the ability or the opportunity to call us at any time and have a relationship with someone in our office, and also directly with their construction manager onsite. It’s important that we respect people’s requirement to ask questions.”

An element of the company’s ability to offer such flexibility comes from its relatively compact geographical footprint, which remains restricted to metropolitan Melbourne, and doesn’t stretch into regional Victoria. “We don’t have a large build area. We don’t do a big volume of homes. Our volume in the last few years has decreased, although our turnover’s probably increased. So that reflects the difference in the type of home that we’re designing and building now.” The company’s clientele has also changed a little in the last few years, with a shift from first-time buyer or affordable housing to more customised building of mostly larger homes that represent better value for money.

“People are requiring a lot more of their own input,” Mr Zuccala explains, “and special appliances, and special features, in their homes, and we’re doing a lot more of that than we’ve done previously.”

Today, the company views itself as more of a niche builder that provides customers with more flexibility than the average builder, allowing them to choose, modify or create a design from scratch, and giving each project a unique quality.

Working with industry bodies

Having been involved with industry groups in the sector for many years, Mr Zuccala has plenty of insight and experience into how the industry runs. His recent appointment on the Building Appeals Board in Victoria gives him further opportunity to make a difference. The board is a tribunal, similar to the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), but with a much narrower jurisdiction, dealing with building regulations, applications for modifications to building regulations, and appeals regarding building notices. “It’s run by the state government, and is composed of a number of industry professionals, such as myself, who run their own businesses. They are people like building surveyors, lawyers, engineers, planners and builders.”

Issues dealt with by the board tend to be building regulations that need to be changed by a builder or owner to suit their circumstances, a process which is allowed to happen if the Building Appeals Board finds it to be a fair and reasonable request. “One of the more topical things that comes across the board is the current fire cladding issue that’s on foot throughout the industry, and less recently there was the famous Corkman pub demolition.” The issue surrounding fire cladding started in Victoria a few years ago, when a high-rise residential block caught on fire. There followed an investigation into whether or not the exterior cladding was complaint with fire safety regulations.

“That’s an issue that’s being worked through by the state government, and the technical side of that is being heard from time-to-time through the Building Appeals Board. That affects not only Victoria, but also all the other states.” The Corkman Irish was a pub in Melbourne demolished by developers without a permit. The outcome was that the planning minister and the building surveyor issued orders for the developers to rebuild the property, as well as administering significant fines. “Those developers, under the Building Act, have the opportunity to appeal that decision at the Building Appeals Board,” Mr Zuccala explains. “So that was one of the things that they did.” Mr Zuccala’s role on the board sees him regularly joining a panel of other board members and hearing cases like these. Although the board sits biweekly, his involvement is closer to every 2-3 weeks, depending on the kind of cases that arise.

Zuccala Homes has been well recognised by the major industry bodies over the years, and has utilised its prominent position to become more involved with shaping the industry and helping it run more productively. “In the past we’ve won some awards at the Master Builders Association Housing Awards, and Housing Industry Association, but in recent times we haven’t applied so much for those. We’ve been focusing more on our participation in industry bodies.” In particular, Mr Zuccala’s work with the Master Builders Association of Victoria, including the national board of Master Builders Australia, and the Building Appeals Board, have been useful in helping the company attract new business.

“Rather than our products doing the talking for us, we’re focusing on our reputation in the industry, who we are and what we do for the industry and our experience in the industry. A lot of our business these days comes from referrals.”

Keeping pace with bigger firms

Interest rates are finally starting to rise a little in Australia, but Mr Zuccala believes they aren’t high enough yet to have any real impact on the industry. A more relevant issue is the lending behaviour of banks due to increased scrutiny of their practices. “What has affected the industry I think is the availability of finance, or the banks’ lending practices or criteria. That’s been tightening. That’s had already a significant effect on the industry in terms of the amount of credit that’s available out there.” Mr Zuccala admits that the company is able to avoid this issue a little, due in the most part to its customers being less concerned with affordability, many of them being second or third home buyers with equity in existing properties.

“The industry’s becoming more and more competitive. The bigger players, the volume builders in the market, are becoming more and more flexible these days. They’re building different sorts of products. They have big marketing budgets.” For smaller building firms, it has become vital to differentiate what is being offered in the market, to offer customers a value proposition. For Zuccala Homes, this means focusing on delivering a great process as well as product. “Who we are and how we do it is equally important as what we do. So we’re focused on our process, on communication and customer service, rather than just product alone. I think that’s an enduring point of difference that will see the smaller builder through.”

Zuccala’s real strength however is its longevity in the business, where it has amassed significant experience over more than sixty years in the industry, experience that is bound to see it continue delivering excellent service well into the future.

Find out more about Zuccala Homes by visiting www.zuccalahomes.com.au.

QBANK: a different kind of banking

Member-owned bank, QBANK, has financially assisted the police, fire, emergency services and other public services in Queensland for over fifty years, recently rebranding from a Credit Union to a bank to ensure it remains relevant long into the future.

Mike Currie is CEO of QBANK, having previously filled the role of Chief Operating Officer. His 35-year career in the financial services sector has included national Executive Management roles with CBA, Lloyds International and Heritage Bank. Mr Currie spoke recently with The Australian Business Executive about QBANK’s successful recent rebranding, the issues facing the banking industry today, and the exciting opportunities for the bank to grow its relationship with its special member base.

A long and proud history
“QBANK started out in 1964,” Mr Currie says. “It was started by Queensland Police as a credit union for their own employees. It grew from that start to become the member-owned bank for Queensland government employees.” The bank still specialises in serving the state’s first responder community, and is still member-owned, staying true to its original mission of looking after the well-being of police, fire, emergency services, nursing, ambulance and public sector employees in Queensland.

Previously known as QPCU, in 2016 the organisation decided to rebrand, moving from its traditional branding as a Credit Union to market itself as a bank. Mr Currie explains that this was a strategic move to help the organisation move forward. “It was really about remaining strong and relevant into the future. We felt it was necessary to have a brand that would continue to resonate with and attract younger customers, and we felt that changing [to a bank] would help with that.” The most important element of this rebranding was making sure both existing and potential customers understood that there would be no change in the company’s mission to deliver exceptional financial service to first responders.

“We compete in the retail banking space in Queensland, which is occupied by all the major banks, two of the largest regionals in Suncorp and BOQ, two of the largest customer-owned banks in Australia and a plethora of others. There’s no shortage of competition.” As with all banks, value will always be a major decision point for customers, and QBANK always looks to ensure it offers the best value to customers. Mr Currie also believes, however, that choosing the right bank is about more than just price. “Our mission [is] to provide exceptional service and deliver financial wellbeing to our very special customer segment. These are women and men who serve the community, and we work tirelessly to support them by understanding their needs.”

Member-owned bank, QBANK, has financially assisted the police, fire, emergency services and other public services in Queensland for over fifty years

QBANK makes it a priority to support the community in the areas that matter most to its members, whether that be through sponsorship or other means, and the delivery of financial education directly into the workplace. “We have a heavy investment program over the next three years in people, process and technology. QBANK has an integral part in the first responder and government employee community, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to be their bank of choice.”

Challenging industry conditions

The banking industry is in the middle of a turbulent period, with the banking Royal Commission taking centre stage and bringing to light a level of declining standards that are undoubtedly having an effect on consumer confidence. “[The Royal Commission has] also highlighted the need for banks to work harder to regain the trust of the consumers. One of the unintended consequences has been a tightening of credit standards in some of the larger banks.” This has resulted in some cases to reduced consumer borrowing power, meaning a contraction in the credit market and decline in house prices, something QBANK is constantly keeping an eye on. “We’re in an ongoing low interest rate environment.

The RBA cash rate has been at historic lows for a couple of years, and that environment’s likely to be with us for a while. We’re all having to become more efficient with the way we deliver our services.” The record period of sustained economic growth in Australia over the last few years is set to continue, with financial regulators active in working to prevent consumers overstretching, which should be enough to hold the economy in good stead going forward.


QBANK makes it a priority to support the community in the areas that matter most to its members, whether that be through sponsorship or other means, and the delivery of financial education directly into the workplace.

“All the indicators would point to the cash rate staying where it is. We have seen banks move home loan rates independent of that cash rate because of wholesale funding cost factors, but there are indications that pressure is starting to ease a little bit.”

100% committed to first responders

“I was appointed CEO in March 2017,” Mr Currie says. “I came into the organisation in January 2016 as the COO, and that was really about helping to pilot the rebrand and the transition into a bank.” Prior to joining QBANK, Mr Currie held executive roles in other banks, amassing significant experience in the transformation and rebranding of Heritage Bank. As CEO, he is focused on the strategy of continuing to serve the bank’s member base.

“Making the customer the centre of everything you do remains key to succeeding in business. Consumers have an enormous amount of choice, and you have to make your offering compelling enough to make them choose you.” Mr Currie recognises that, just as important as the organisation remaining relevant is for individuals to continually work on their own skills and expertise to ensure that they are able to act on career and business opportunities as they arise.

The banking industry is at a unique stage where there is a whole lot of regulatory intervention and pressure at the same time as accelerated technological advancements, a position Mr Currie believes represents both a challenge and an opportunity for banks. “We see an opportunity to capitalise on the trust that we have with our membership base, to be able to really grow that relationship and grow our penetration into that customer base. While it’s a challenging time, it’s an exciting time for financial institutions like QBANK.”

During this challenging time, and as it has over every year of the fifty-five that it has been operating, QBANK continues to focus on the mission it developed at the beginning to service a very special part of the Queensland community. “We remain 100% committed to our traditional first responder customer base. We are investing heavily to make sure we keep up with all the technological developments so that we can offer [them] the best available financial products and services.”

Find out more about QBANK by visiting www.qbank.com.au.