By Kate Madley
Roger Lewis started his career working for some of the world’s most renowned musical institutions, managing music production houses and record labels, but in 2004 Lewis returned home and now heads up one of Wales’s most prized organisations, the Welsh Rugby Union.
Born in Cefn Cribwr, Roger attended Cynffig Comprehensive School before leaving Wales to study at the University of Nottingham; Roger was awarded a BMus in 1976.
A 28 year career in music flourished, starting at BBC Radio 1 and then moving to EMI, Decca and finally Classic FM, before returning to Cardiff as managing director of ITV Wales.
In 2006, Roger Lewis took over as group chief executive of the WRU and Millennium Stadium. Since his appointment, WRU’s turnover has increased by 44% from 2007 to September 2012, and the organisation now forecasts to be debt free by 2021.
A personality passionate about Wales, Roger discusses with Wales World Wide the value of sport as an export, his view of the Welsh rugby team as international brand ambassadors and how rugby connects Wales with the world.
Do you see sport as export for Wales?
There are certain things like sport and culture which is so important for small nations like Wales because they are the things that can create cut-through when measured against bigger nations.
Tournaments, such as World Cups, the Olympic Games and European competitions within sport are so meaningful because the athletes who achieve extraordinary things, in effect, become brand ambassadors for their countries.
Rugby has firmly established Wales in the eyes of the public in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, certain parts of Italy and without doubt England, Scotland, Ireland, as well as a host of other rugby emerging nations.
Individual sportsmen and women become so important because they capture the imagination of the public in such a way that they are viewed as celebrities. In small nations such as ours, both individual sports stars and teams are fantastic exports because they put Wales in front of millions of people.
My vision of the WRU is three fold: to take Wales to the world with our rugby; welcome Wales to the world in our stadium and help to define Wales as a nation. Rhodri Morgan recognised that when he said Wales didn’t have much in the way of great political institutions prior to the Welsh Assembly and so sport was a critical definer for our nation.
Do you think Wales is better known in countries where there is a significant rugby following?
In the rugby playing nations of the world, Wales is seen as something very unique and special, it defines us in terms of our values and beliefs. We play a particular brand of rugby that is so exciting, which shows us as being creative, entrepreneurial and risk taking.
Historically we have been physically small in rugby circles and yes, we are bigger now, but one of our recent icons is Shane Williams, he is a pocket fire ball, he might be small in size but is a giant of a rugby player. He is mercurial, exciting, a risk taker and plays rugby with a smile on his face. Shane comes from the Amman Valley and is a Welsh speaker; he has been a metaphor for modern Wales.
In your opinion, does sport help to raise the profile of Wales and the talent here?
If I’m sticking just with rugby, I think our players for the most part, and yes there are notable exceptions, are seen as people with great values and beliefs. The way Sam Warburton conducted himself when he got sent off in New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup last year is an example of these values. It really positioned Wales in such a positive light, especially when other countries had issues with their players’ behaviour. We talk about this at length with our players because when they go abroad they have to behave as great ambassadors for our nation.
Do you think it is important to connect the vast Welsh Diaspora to make connections that will benefit the Welsh economy?
There is a fantastic opportunity when we tour to be almost mini trade missions for Wales. When we have gone to France on the last two occasions we have had events in the French embassy and have invited French businesses in Wales, and Welsh businesses with connections in France, to meet various ministers with us.
We work with the Welsh Government to ensure in-depth relationships are formed; currently we are building links with Japanese businesses ahead of our tour next year. Real thought and substance goes into this, we go out of our way to connect with the Welsh Diaspora and businesses, not just the fans and sport base.
Do you agree that sport and business are closely connected? Would you say sport often drives this?
Sport, business and the economics of Wales are so closely aligned, and this can be seen just from the economic benefit the Millennium Stadium and the activities that take place in it bring to Wales.
Research undertaken by Cardiff University shows the stadium brings an excess of more than £100 million of economic benefit into Cardiff and the surrounding region.
Last year we had 650,000 visitors to the stadium, the year before we had one million visitors, that’s because there were more concerts and home matches. This is a huge driver of economic benefit for Cardiff and the south east region of Wales; because of the significant visitor spend in hotels, restaurants, pubs and transport. There are real connections between the Welsh economy and Welsh rugby, the stadium and sport in general. Sport is a key driver of brand Wales.
To what extent does the WRU interact with Welsh ex-pat groups?
Every tour I have been on since 2006 we have connected with Welsh societies on tour. This summer in Australia was no exception; we had a reception at the High Commissioner’s house in Sydney who invited a local Welsh choir and Welsh harpist to give atmosphere along with our great Welsh expats, but most importantly we welcomed businessmen and women in Sydney from international companies such as the head of the Pacific Rim of British Airways and senior banks. We told the Welsh story – we are a country open for business. We ensure there is a strong focus on economic and business benefit; this is also reflected in our efforts to build business relationships in the lead up to our Japan tour in 2013. Wales has a rich history of Japanese business relationships.
In what way is Wales unique in nurturing sporting talent in comparison to other rugby led nations?
We have developed a great model for talent in Wales through our five academies. Four are attached to regions and the fifth is the national academy in which we have invested significant sums. The WRU funds and staffs the regional academies.
The Vale Resort is now a national centre for excellence, one of the best machines for developing talent and supporting existing talent in world rugby. The model has been looked at by a number of other nations and now Wales is up there with the best.
I would say the top model still exists in New Zealand but our form is also leading, you can see this through the amount of new talent that has come into the national setup.
Wales (as a country) performs better when it is outward facing. Do you think the achievements of the Welsh team help to drive this outward perspective?
We punch well above our weight in terms of rugby, we are a nation of 2.9 million and we have only four professional teams, but we won the grand slam in 2012, 2008 and 2005. We were semi-finalists in the Rugby World Cup last year and the Ospreys won the RaboDirect Pro 12. In real terms we have outperformed all of the European nations, and I am pleased to add in financial terms as well. The iRB analysed the business performance of the rugby nations and we came out on top with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over five years of 13.4%.
When measured against England they have some five, six or seven the number of professional players compared to us and outperforming them is hugely inspiring for Wales. We have to play to our strength, our weakness is we’re small, we have to take that and accept it because we can be more joined up and work together much closer than before. We’ve got to be comfortable with risk and we’ve got to be entrepreneurial, that’s the only way a challenger brand such as Wales can cut through.
How does the WRU build international links with countries that are not rugby led?
Wales was the first international team to play and visit Japan in the 1960s and now we see Japan has made huge strides with its professional rugby setup. We have a reputation, a history and heritage of going out as missionaries for rugby. We were the first rugby nation to go to the South Sea Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and we were one of the first to play regular fixtures against Canada and North America.
With rugby featuring in the next Olympic Games, you will see a whole explosion of countries involved in rugby, many are already tooling up because they see the prospect of Olympic medals. Wales can leverage a rugby team again as brand ambassadors to raise the profile of Wales in a host of countries, beyond the top 20 we are already very close to.
In your opinion, where do you think are the biggest opportunities for business?
I have just come back from a month in China and I was flabbergasted at how they’ve come on from where they were 20 years ago. The Chinese economy is the second biggest in the world; economists predict that by 2020/2021 it will overtake America. Yes, the Chinese dragon has slowed recently but without doubt they are so exciting and, of course, I would also make reference to the opportunities in other BRIC countries too.
It’s great to see Bangor University has an office in Beijing and the University of Nottingham has a full campus in Ningbo, south of Shanghai and in Kuala Lumpar. I visited both on my travels with the Vice Chancellor. There are approximately 8,000 students at each campus which is a major piece of activity.
But there are a lot of interesting things happening in the Stan’s, Kazakhstan and places similar. Turkey is also a very interesting and a dynamic market at the moment.
Wales has a good track record with Japan, their economy has been relatively flat in recent years but it is somewhere we should continue to work with because Japanese culture has a very long memory. They will remember relationships that were built here in Wales; in Japan they don’t think in five year cycles it’s more like 20, 50 or 100.
What is your favourite Welsh export?
Other than rugby, it’s got to be Bryn Terfel. He is the finest bass baritone in the world; he is at the top of elite performance and is performing in front of the great opinion formers and decision makers of the world. What makes him so different from our other Welsh exports is that Bryn is quintessentially Welsh; he goes out of his way to express his Welshness because it is such a part of him. I went to hear him sing the role of Wotan last week at Covent Garden – it was mesmerising.
They key is, he’s authentic. I have been present in his company across the world when he has made Snowdon tower over everything else. Yes he is an elite performer, but he is also real and truly grounded and at the top of his game. He is connecting Wales with some of the most important people in the world that could help Wales grow economically.
What do you think Wales is known for internationally (not just rugby)?
It’s the creative arts. I think it’s in our DNA. We are a country of, performers, musicians, singers and actors.
Creative arts have been one of the great definers of Wales in the world. Be it now Michael Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, or Bryn Terfel, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones or the likes of The Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers and Kathryn Jenkins. We are great performers and take that performance into literature, where you get your writers and poets as well. Owen Sheers, the WRU Artists in Residence is a modern voice of Wales. And Rugby is all about performance and that’s why it’s done so well for us.