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An inside view - Eugene Arocca on life in Motorsport

 

Recently, Morris Finance had the opportunity to catch up with the CEO of Motorsport Australia, Eugene Arocca. Eugene spoke to us about his journey both personally and business wise, not to mention his thoughts on the changing face of motorsport globally.

 

Eugene, could you tell us about your professional career and how you became the Chief Executive Officer at CAMS/Motorsport Australia?

After graduating in jurisprudence and law at Monash University I began my career as a lawyer at Maurice Blackburn. I spent 23 years in commercial and personal litigation and as a partner l was involved in a number of large class actions representing many thousands of people along with some unusual claims. One of the most notable cases was the suing of Dame Edna Everage for throwing a gladioli into the eye of a fan at one of her concerts.

Growing up in Reservoir, a northern suburb of Melbourne, l was a Collingwood Football Club tragic and had served as the club’s honorary lawyer since 1996, becoming a Director of the club from 2002 to 2005. In 2005, having achieved as much as l could at Maurice Blackburn l decided to venture into the world of Sports Administration as Chief Operating Officer of Collingwood Football Club during a period of expansion in their commercial interests.

In late 2007 I was approached by North Melbourne Football Club to take up the role of Chief Executive Officer, fulfilling the role between 2008 – 2012, a most rewarding period that heralded financial rescue and stabilisation, the resistance of the move to the Gold Coast and a return of the club to the members. Whilst this was the toughest and most challenging period I had experienced in my career, my passion and support for the club grew stronger than one could imagine.

In late 2012 given my background and experience in Sports Administration, I was approached by a personnel agency to apply for the role of Chief Executive Officer at the Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS). Leadership and stability were required as CAMS had seen five CEO’s depart the organisation over the prior decade.    

During your early days at CAMS/Motorsport Australia, what were your expectations and experiences, and what did you set yourself and the team as priorities and goals?

Prior to my commencement as CEO, I had been told that the organisation was reasonably settled, had a good staff complement, and just required strong leadership, better engagement with members, and a more commercial approach. After taking the time to interview each of the 48 staff on a one on one basis what became evident was that silos had been created, there was a lack of trust, poor practices existed and relationships internally and externally were fragile, to say the least. As a result of these findings, we restructured the Executive and lost a substantial number of staff who were not conducive to change. My initial priority was to put in place a team that was totally committed to the organisation and within six months we began developing a Strategic Business Plan that was focussed on improving relationships, improving our processes and systems, increasing our media and communications profile, looking after our staff and adopting an approach based on accountability and transparency.

As CEO throughout the past eight years, what do you consider to be your biggest wins, achievements, challenges, and priorities?

Without a doubt, the increase in membership of 40% over a five year period is right up there amongst our finest, achieved in a simple but structured manner of regular renewal reminders, improved communication channels, a substantial increase in sponsors, such as Morris Finance and establishing a merchandise shop.

Other notable achievements include, but are not limited to:

  • The relocation to a state-of-the-art modern head office in 2019
  • The successful changing of our name from CAMS to Motorsport Australia – a significant branding exercise that has reaped immediate benefits – particularly with our sponsors, media, and members alike
  • Improved relationships with everyone from government to our key stakeholders, Supercars, and the Australian Grand Prix Corp to name a couple
  • An Ernst & Young 2013 study on the economic effect of motorsport, which is estimated to contribute an estimated $2.7B per annum
  • The establishment and noted significance of a Motorsport Hall of Fame in 2014
  • A $6.4M commitment by the NSW government to a new Motorsport Centre of Excellence
  • We have successfully worked with six Asia Pacific countries to help them establish and grow their motorsport participation, in particular being in a position to be able to conduct their own Grand Prix – we actually export our talent and knowledge and are recognised by FIA as “Gold Level Trainers”
  • The creation of an enjoyable work environment for our staff where recognition, reward, and retention are our key objectives

How extensive is Motorsport Australia’s membership in terms of licence holders, associations, touchpoints, etc?

I am proud to be able to say that we currently have more 27,500 competitor licence holders and more than 10,000 volunteer officials, 600 affiliated clubs who have more than 100,000 members and we sanction more than 3,000 events per annum.

The rebranding exercise, how did it come about, and what opportunities has it presented, not to mention the head office move?

CAMS had registered the name “Motorsport Australia” back in 1997, surprisingly not for its own use but merely to stop other parties from using it. For about 5 years I had harboured an ambition to change the name given the fact that The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport was more descriptive of how we were formed, but that name along with the acronym (CAMS), did little to inform people outside of motorsport as to what we actually did. Our purpose is to regulate, promote, sanction, and ensure the safe participation of motorsport lovers from the highest levels to grassroots, but most people would not realise that from the name itself.

In mid-2018 during a strategy session, a couple of recently appointed Directors expressed their frustration of continuously having to explain what CAMS was, hence the opportunity to further explore this sentiment prompted the CAMS Board to sanction market testing. The results were resounding and in April 2019, less than a year later, the Board agreed to the change, which formally occurred on January 1st, 2020. The name change has been breathtaking in terms of the positive impact it has had. Combined with the move to our new headquarters this has presented a major step forward for the organisation, with staff feeling that they were a part of an historic period. Stakeholders have also acknowledged the value and significance of the name change, appreciating it from both a branding and a reputation point of view.

What does the future hold for motorsport in Australia?

Aussies love their motorsport and prior to the pandemic, we had more competitor licence holders on a per capita basis than any other country in the world. Motorsport and combustion engine racing will be here for many years. The world’s love affair with the engine is not likely to subside over the next 50 years, however, we will witness the growth of some other elements such as:

Electric sports – with the Formula E championship leading the way in sport and technology it will cascade down into normal grassroots and it will only be a matter of time before hybrids are racing. I can foresee Mr Musk supporting a Tesla Championship, particularly given he is spending money on spaceships. We will play an important role in promoting and regulating electric sport, particularly as an electric engine requires increased safety precautions.

E Sport – the proliferation of E Sports, particularly during the pandemic meant that motorsport was one of the few sports where professionals could continue competing and the online growth and presence of E Sport grew exponentially over the past four months. Again, we will be there to aid and assist that industry through regulation, officiating, and promotion.

The biggest challenge l believe we face is the replacement of the existing baby boomer generation which was brought up on motorsport being a major part of their lives (think Brabham, Brock and Moffat), with a generation that are more likely interested in sport on their TV or iPhone. The baby boomers in the main have passed on their love to the next generation, however, are children born in the digital age going to be as passionate about real motorsport as opposed to motorsport conducted on or by a computer? Work has commenced on developing ideas around the connection from screen to the car, not to mention getting more kids to experience a real motorsport event.

There are also changing tastes in motorsport, the next generation are more impatient than previous ones and they will not necessarily want to spend a weekend racing at a track 300 kilometres from home. The new market revolves around ordinary people wanting to take their car or a car for a few laps at a local track. It is the drive day experience we have seen proliferate over the last 10 years, run by manufacturers, professional racers or instructors this is where much of the more recent growth in motorsport has been. This represents an opportunity to convert them into actual competitors.

We are also focussing on the participation of women in our sport as we recognise that motorsport is one of the few sports where men and women can compete together, rather than in separate divisions. As women’s sport continues to grow we are introducing programs such as “dare to be different” where we take young girls aged between 8-12 to Grand Prix’s where they take in the whole experience and get to meet the drivers in person.

What’s your take on the effect of COVID-19 on Motorsport Australia and the industry?

Dramatic to say the least, as events drive our industry and we have more than 1,500 motorsport events per annum scheduled, as well as sanctioning many non-motorsport auto activities such as ‘show and shines’. On average that is about 30 to 35 events per weekend around the country and from late March to early June motorsport essentially stopped. June saw the sport kick back into gear with the hosting of approximately 20 or so events in the first weekend of July. Now, with Victoria going back into shutdown, this will set us back.

If you recall, it was the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix on March 13th that essentially signalled the arrival of COVID-19. The impact on Supercars and all motorsport, right down to grassroots has been significant, to say the least. Our licence renewals, which occur on an anniversary basis (i.e. 12 months from when one joins) pretty much came to a halt in April and we have offered extensions to expiring licence holders in an effort to retain them.

Every sporting body is fighting for survival and trying to ensure they not only survive but also come out the other end a much stronger organisation. Accordingly, we set up a recovery taskforce, on the basis of Churchill’s famous quote, “never waste a good crisis.” That task force has been looking at the way the organisation and sport operate in order to find efficiency improvements. We are presenting their extensive well researched report and a number of sweeping recommendations to our Board this week, with an expectation that we will be given the authority to implement recommended changes as designated.

Finally, Eugene, on a personal note can you tell us a little about yourself?

As the son of Italian immigrants, I grew up knowing the value of hard work. I’d like to think that I got a couple of lucky breaks in life, with my parents moving to Carlton to run a milk bar during my last three years of high school, with the change of school definitely helping my scholastic endeavors. Whilst l did not consider myself all that smart, I managed to get into Monash University Law and boy did l work hard at university, holding down up to three part-time jobs. I worked at Chasers night club on Friday and Saturday nights, whilst also working at a supermarket on Fridays and Saturdays. During school holidays I also got a job laying carpets in Nauru House. Post my law degree l ended up getting to join what was then a union law firm and l became an equity partner within seven years. Again, no substitute for hard work.

I love my footy and motorsport but the nature of the business I am in is such that whenever I get the chance, I really enjoy just getting away for a relaxing weekend at my beach house. I have a partner, Kerryn, and two adult boys in their early 20’s who still live at home; not surprising given I didn’t move out of home until l was 32!  

In between working hard at everything l do, I still find time to catch up with friends, having a group of about 14 mates, all Italian lads who grew up in the northern suburbs. I have stayed close to this group of mates since the early 80’s, from night clubs to playing sport to varying professions. I guess you could say that nowadays we are a group of maturing gentlemen that catch up every 6-8 weeks to continue to embrace our love of fine food, our sporting nation, belly laughs, and our loyal friendship.

And finally, for those old enough to remember an epic advertising jingle of the late 70’s you could say that my love for all things legal, Italian food, North Melbourne and Car Racing would lead me to sing, I like “Lawyers, Pasta, Kangaroos and Motorsport.”

To stay up to date with Motorsport Australia's latest news head to motorsport.org.au