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Henry Staelens: CEO, Forest Green Rovers

Henry Staelens: CEO, Forest Green Rovers

Henry C. Staelens is the Chief Executive Officer of Forest Green Rovers - a role he began at the age of just 30 years old. Having left school at the age of 16, and going on to build a career in developing and selling businesses, the opportunity to work at FGR presented itself. Taking the opportunity with both hands, Henry started his professional life in the football industry. In this interview, Henry talks about the club's commitment to sustainability, managing the club through the pandemic and how proud he is to be working at the club that FIFA has labelled, 'The greenest football club in the world.'


How did you start working in the football industry?

My route into football wasn’t a traditional one. I left school at 16, and started in the football industry at the age of 30, having built and sold businesses in between. There has been some property investment along the way too.

I don’t follow the normal way of doing things, which is why the opportunity of running and developing Forest Green Rovers was such an attractive proposition to me. It was actually the first time my mind could comprehend being employed by someone else too; I’d led an entrepreneurial existence up until that point. But from the moment I first met with Dale (FGR Chairman), I knew it was an exciting opportunity and I could do really great things for the club, both strategically and commercially.

 FGR Chairman - Dale Vince (Source: FGR RC)

Meeting Dale has been an eye-opening experience for me and I’ve learned a lot from him; he is probably the first mentor I’ve encountered, whether he realises it or not! It helped that I am a big football fan, sure, but the real carrot to me was the unique potential of the brand behind the football team that Dale has created with his vision.


Did you feel initial pressure taking the role of CEO at Forest Green Rovers? Were you wary of the possibility there could be a mixed reaction to your appointment, given your age (Henry took on the role at the age of 30)?

No, I’m not one to feel pressure. If I want to do something, I’m confident that I’ll do it well and enjoy it. Otherwise, I just won’t do it.

I hadn’t really considered the reaction either – both the positive and negative bits to it – so that was quite interesting to see. It makes you realise how opinionated people are about football, including those that work in the industry, and that it comes with an extra spotlight on your work and character. But once you acclimatise to the industry, you soon realise it’s just another business, albeit a super innovative one that genuinely puts mission and values first.


Since 2019, you have also been the CEO of the Forest Green Rovers Community. How did that opportunity arise and can you share details of some of the work being carried out?

That side of things was just an extension of the role I had already been doing at the Club. The two areas share the same values, so it made sense for them to share the same drive and growth plans.

The FGR Community team do some excellent work, primarily in our district, but we’re also looking further afield: tackling loneliness, helping kids learn about the environment; vegan cooking; leading our fantastic Ambassadors Programme; and generally, just taking the FGR ethos out into the world to deliver impactful initiatives that have a positive effect on those we reach.


Forest Green Rovers has been described by FIFA as, ‘The greenest football club in the world.’ How does it feel to work for a club that has been labelled this way and what initiatives are you most proud of?

It’s a smart moniker. Running a business that has such a strong identity and mission is important; it feeds into every decision we make and the things we do. I wouldn’t say it’s the individual initiatives that excite me, but more the overarching view of it all. The various campaigns and innovations that feed into that are just part of the journey.

 Solar panels at the New Lawn Stadium (Source: FGR FC)


With such a focus on sustainability, it would be fair to assume that operationally, the club functions in a different format to those businesses who have less focus in this area. How does the eco-friendly approach to football impact business operations and decision-making?

To be honest, it's so ingrained into our DNA, it doesn’t impact decision making at all; you forget there is even alternative way to do things.


In 2020, Arsenal football player Hector Bellerin became a shareholder in the club. How did that opportunity arise and how important has it been to have such a high-profile industry professional on-board with the club’s commitment to sustainability?

It came via a LinkedIn message, like a lot of good things tend too, actually! We don’t go looking for investors, but if something comes along that feels right, we’re open to discussing it. And that’s exactly what happened with Hector and his management team. Having Hector on board is great for us, he speaks to a slightly different audience, given his profile in the top tier of football, and he uses this platform well in regard to pushing environmental issues. So, whilst we weren’t looking for such an opportunity, it was a nice piece of happenstance, and his guys are enjoyable to work with.


The club are extremely conscious of their partnerships, ensuring that any new partner or sponsor complements the efforts towards sustainability. With that in mind, how does the club approach their commercial operations given the strong brand and ethos in place?

It's a question I get asked a lot. We are open to working with brands that are doing the right things environmentally and, sometimes, we will partner with others that are on course to changing their previous bad practices, as long as they are committed to doing it for the right reasons (and you can tell!). Greenwashing is a big thing right now, so we avoid any kind of relationship like that.


Forest Green Rovers are currently going through the process of developing a new stadium (Eco Park). What’s the latest news on the project and can you share details on some of the eco-friendly features and facilities planned for the development?

It’s about three or four years away in regard to completion, and we aim to start the build in the next two years or so. In addition, we will be starting the work on our training ground in the next six months, so that’s a much closer deadline. The training ground will also sit on the Eco Park site.

In terms of the details for the stadium, we are working on that at the moment, so there isn’t a huge amount that can be shared; it’s an ever-evolving project.

 (Source: FGR FC)

Football is unpredictable and full of highs and lows, which often makes it difficult to plan your daily schedule. With that said, what does a ‘typical’ day look like as the CEO of Forest Green Rovers?

There really isn’t one, but that can be said for many industries, to an extent. I’m not one for routine anyway, so the unpredictability of it all doesn’t have a negative impact on me. I try to keep Monday mornings scheduled for internal meetings, but other than that, it really depends on what needs attention. You also get used to travelling on Saturdays, whether you’re home or away, but that’s the best part of the week for me.

I also like to give autonomy, so I don’t get too involved in the day-to-day details. I’d much rather people take responsibility for their area, own it, make mistakes and fail fast. For me, the bigger picture and the commercial performance is more important when there are so many different things happening.


What are the short-term and long-term objectives for the club?

In regard to football, our aim is to reach the Championship. Off the field, we are focused on furthering our financial performance, alongside our non-stop efforts in bringing the conversation of climate change to the sporting world. FIFA also recently listed us as the, ‘Best example of fan engagement’ in Europe, so we are building on that with more international initiatives for our global fanbase.


How difficult has it been to manage the club through the pandemic?

It’s been a challenge, but I’ve enjoyed it. We’ve just had to change the way we think and operate, and focus on the areas we can control, rather than those we can’t. So, we’ve primarily put our energy into retail and partnerships, both of which have seen growth during the pandemic – a real testament to the hard work of the staff we have here at the Club. And of course, we have had to engage with fans in different ways, so content has been key to our success.

We’re focused on solutions, not problems, so it’s been a test that we were ready for and we’ll land in a profitable position come year end too.


And finally, the two questions we ask our industry professionals…

What advice would you give to those individuals hoping to pursue a career within the football industry?

It’s a very narrow industry and effectively, there are only about one hundred employers. So, there is a large element of luck needed, although, hard work is what leads to that. For someone wanting to work in football, I’d suggest proving your value first – put together a project and show it to clubs to stimulate a conversation. For example, if you work in marketing, create a one-page PDF on how you would increase fan engagement for their club and how in turn, that will increase revenue. If you go to an employer with something they can’t ignore, they’d be mad to not have a conversation with you. And that’s the chance you need to get your foot in the door.


And where do you see your football career in the future? Are there any personal objectives you hope to achieve?

I’m excited about the work we’ve done at FGR so far, and even more so about the things we still need to do. I like to set ambitious targets that others may not think possible, and then make them happen - that’s what motivates me. My main objective has always been to take the Club to a strong financial footing in preparation for Eco Park, and that’s what the focus for each day has been. So, outside of that focus, I don’t have any clear vision for where I’ll end up. I just enjoy each day for what it is and I will see what happens from there.


Editor & Content Researcher: Sascha Gustard-Brown

Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.