22 Apr 2019
Words ResortBrokers Informer Issue 93
Steven Wright: Building Business Growth With A Big Heart
Steven Wright took the helm of BIG4 Holiday Parks in 2014. At the time, the respected brand was punching against the headwinds of significant industry disruption. Now, its growing fleet is set on a steady course with the wind at its back.
Transformation and growth have been delivered thanks in equal measure to Wright’s sharp business acumen and his genuine regard for the culture at the heart of an entity.
“One of the key lessons I’ve learned over my career is that no matter how good or logical your strategy is, it won’t work unless it melds with the culture of the organisation,” he says.
So the family-focused, community nature of BIG4, as a member-owned cooperative network with a proud history spanning four decades, had strong appeal when the CEO opportunity arose.
It’s an empathetic approach that might seem at odds with the hard-nosed world of commercial law where Wright’s career began. Having grown up in Melbourne, he’d studied Law and Economics at Monash, gaining a Master of Laws (Honours) with a particular interest in commercial and sports law.
Then followed nine years with Freehills (now Herbert Smith Freehills), one of Australia’s largest and most prestigious commercial law firms, where he rose to Senior Associate.
“I started to ask myself if I really wanted to do this for the next 20 years,” he recalls. “Then, one day, four friends called me separately, each asking if I’d seen today’s paper. They said there was a job ad in the Financial Review that would suit me.”
And so it did. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation wanted a ‘legal manager’. As it happened, Wright had practised extensively in the sector, counting major sporting events and clubs as clients.
The position of Business Manager was duly offered and accepted, ultimately leading to Wright becoming CEO in 2002.
“It was exciting stuff for a relatively young man in his early to mid-thirties, sitting down to negotiate with the likes of (Formula One supremo) Bernie Ecclestone, and reporting to the Premier and Cabinet,” he recalls.
“I got to know (champion drivers) Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard quite well, helped young drivers Mark Webber and Will Power, and dealt with business greats of motor racing like Jean Todt, Frank Williams and Ron Walker.”
Wright was involved with organising 16 international events from 1997 to 2004, including eight Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix and eight Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island, before it was time for a change.
Interestingly, he was planning a move into the tourism industry, working up a franchise model for the backpacker market. But that was soon sidelined by a call he couldn’t ignore.
He was offered the role of Richmond Football Club CEO. A dyed in the wool Richmond supporter who even knew a few of the club directors through his Grand Prix role, how could he refuse?
Wright’s beloved Richmond had fallen into disarray between 1983 and 2004. He came on board towards the end of the 2004 season when they were suffering the ignominy of claiming the wooden spoon.
Insolvency loomed, having just lost $2.4 million. Wright’s task was to turn that around and rebuild respect for one of Australia’s greatest sporting clubs.
By 2005, he’d turned the loss to break even. Profits were soon to follow. Notably, he conceived and oversaw the Punt Road Oval redevelopment, building a $20 million multi-use high performance and community facility.
And he created a separate charitable foundation with a social responsibility program, including establishing the Korin Gamadji Indigenous Institute, providing employment and vocational training, leadership, health and education for indigenous youth.
After an exhausting five years, Wright was happy to pass the ball to a new executive who had more of a football background.
“My partner and I noticed a number of sporting franchises were being set up on the Gold Coast –V8 Supercars, the Suns (AFL), Blaze (basketball) and of course the Brisbane Lions were just up the road,” he said. “So we decided to move up there.”
After setting up a consultancy firm, SBEC Solutions (sport, business, events, community), Wright’s skills were soon in demand. From 2010 to 2013, he stepped in as interim CEO at the Brisbane Lions, was a non-executive director of the Surfers Paradise Alliance marketing authority, and CEO of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Each of these roles demanded his now well-recognised talent for successful restructuring, rebuilding and strategic planning, effecting cultural change, and achieving financial turnaround and growth.
By this time, Wright had married his partner and started a family.
“We had one child and were expecting our second. I’d heard so many people say they regretted not being there to see their kids grow. I was an older Dad so, because I could, we moved back to Melbourne and I took the opportunity to stay at home for a year.”
Then, just as funds were diminishing and he was contemplating his next career move, a call came about the CEO role at BIG4 Holiday Parks, the head franchisor of the major national network of resorts and parks in the leisure accommodation sector.
“I saw the brief from the recruiting company and noted aspects that suited me: tourism obviously, but also a membership body like a club that operated as a franchise, which was relevant to my legal background.
“So I accepted the role in October 2014, and what an honour it’s been.”
A challenge too, it has to be said. The dominant brand in the industry, BIG4 was being subjected to considerable pressure.
“We are one of the most disrupted industries,” Wright says. “Disruption in distribution channels by the OTAs (online travel agencies) was impacting BIG4, as was the change to traditional park ownership. Corporate groups like NRMA, Sun Super and Ingenia are some of the biggest park owners now.
“My role was to take a brand that was 35 years old and refocus and reinvigorate it. We stripped the business back to its core to rebuild it into a dynamic, agile and forward-focussed marketing co-operative that delivers real value to our parks and the millions of people who visit and stay.”
Wright’s initiatives have included a new governance model, new operating model (including new franchise agreements), new brand and membership strategies, new park recruitment drive, new technology stack and a real focus on growing direct sales through BIG4.com.au, all with a heighted emphasis on quality.
Under his first 5-year plan, record sales have been recorded across all streams. He is now overseeing a new analytics team and system to track marketing and performance, along with benchmarking systems giving parks real-time access to information that allows them to measure performance and drive improvement. A new “best-of-class” website is also being built.
Corporate partnerships have been struck for the first time with powerful brands like Nissan, Bunnings, Unilever and Anaconda, and a team of in-field business development managers has been dispatched to help parks build revenue growth.
A new accreditation model underlines ‘quality’ as the defining factor of the BIG4 brand. And brand requirements are diligently applied. The national network includes 135 fully-branded parks and some 40 ‘affiliated’ properties, which are high quality and occupy prime locations within the network.
A new descriptor system – designating parks Premier, Holiday and Classic – helps consumers understand and select the style of park they want.
Results of the transformation achieved by Wright and his tight-knit team, just 25-strong, are seen in impressive outcomes: record online sales growing at 15% p.a., 42 new parks recruited in two years, exceptional growth of their 360,000-member loyalty program, and a meteoric park owner NPS satisfaction ranking of +51. Employee eNPS is also at an all time high.
Investment in innovation is another major focus of Wright’s strategy for the future. “After all, the creation of BIG4 was the biggest innovation of them all,” he reminds us.
BIG4 was founded in 1979 by four caravan park owners in Ballarat, unified in the belief that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parks’. Their aim was to create a brand that signified parks that were more than just rest stops, but rather places that defined the holiday experience.
“BIG4 is now 40 years old. The essence of our brand is ‘the great Australian break’, so that means our parks are high quality, in great locations, and places where people can have fun and connect with others,” Wright says.
“It is one of Australia’s Top 200 private companies with a total network turnover exceeding $300 million. I came in with a five-year strategy and I’m now developing our next five-year strategy. I plan to continue to keep growing this business.
“The attraction for me is that it is a personal business. I’ve visited 85 parks in my four years. This is a member co-operative, a business with a real heart at its core.”
It’s a theme that runs through Steven Wright’s passions, in business and in his personal life. Now with three children aged six, four and three, he is strongly family focussed, and fortunate to be able to share elements of his work with his family.
“We spent 10 days in Tasmania on a recent trip and visited six of our parks. We love it and it’s great that BIG4 members have the opportunity to meet me and my family,” he said.
“We stayed in cabins this time. But we bought tents a few years ago and often camp in those. Not only do the children love it, but I enjoy the real park experience, showering in the ablutions block, cooking in the camp kitchen, meeting other guests.”
Wright is most certainly a canny business operator, a recent finalist in the 2018 CEO Magazine Australian CEO Of The Year. But he thinks carefully about why he does what he does.
“I like to build social capital in what I do. I ask myself if what I’m doing is contributing to society and I think the roles I’ve had in sport and tourism do that. They’re not purely economic. They build value for the broader community.
“That’s important to me. You won’t find me as the CEO of a giant insurance company.”