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East Midlands Chamber News

Big interview: Leicester Tigers CEO Andrea Pinchen

As CEO of Leicester Tigers, Andrea Pinchen is front and centre of one of the region’s most famous sports clubs and a titan in English rugby. After coming through a first year in charge that involved overcoming financial challenges previously unheard of in the club’s 140-year history, she speaks to Dan Robinson about navigating stormy Covid waters and her journey to the top of the sport industry.

Andrea Pinchen was only a few weeks into her new job when she addressed fans via Leicester Tigers’ in-house TV channel to inform them the club had decided to release five high-profile players, including England international Manu Tuilagi.

The announcement in early July 2020 followed discussions about the club’s decision to impose 25% wage reductions for higher earners in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which had also led to 31 of the 160 non-playing and coaching staff being made redundant.

Agreements couldn’t be made with the five stars in question and confirmation of a parting of ways was one of the first key tasks for Andrea, who had been appointed CEO two months earlier after climbing the ladder during 17 years at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road club.

“That was a really tough time in which we had to make some very, very difficult decisions,” she recalls.

“It was a massive learning curve because how do you handle that? It’s not a negotiation where we say ‘we would like to do this, how do you feel about that?’ This was about survival and we needed to curb the wage bill.

“Making that announcement as one of my first tasks in the new job was out of my comfort zone but the decision-making process was that no single player was bigger than the club, and no-one would be treated any differently to the next person.

“It was tough but that started to rebuild the culture to succeed, in which everyone is clear about the direction we’re heading in.”

Andrea Pinchen's career journey

Despite being new to the top role, Andrea’s vast career experience positioned her well to drag the club through to the other side.

Born and bred in Leicestershire – originally from Birstall, just north of Leicester, she now lives near Melton Mowbray – her first job was in private healthcare sales back in 1985.

A desire for something new led her to the airline Emirates, initially working in cabin crew before progressing through the ranks to cabin service director and eventually delivering training programmes in leadership, management and aviation security, based in Dubai.

Andrea says: “I’d initially thought I’d go there for six months and travel around the world, then come back, but I ended up being with Emirates for 11 years.

“It was a great opportunity for my development because I was exposed to so many cultures. There were more than 110 different nationalities within the crew and you’d never be kept with the same group, so I was always learning.

Read this article and more in Business Network magazine

“When I look back now, I can see how the experience really stood me in good stead to communicate with different people from all walks of life. I’m forever grateful for that.”

After 11 years with Emirates, it was time for a change once again. But having worked with Dubai’s police force on aviation security, mitigating the threat of hijacking and bombs, the idea of returning to a normal nine ‘til five job didn’t appeal much.

At the beginning of 2004, Andrea entered the sports industry at Welford Road. While her chosen sport during her youth was the speedway – she watched the Leicester Lions with her dad and sister – she needed no introduction to the city’s rugby club. “Who doesn’t know the Tigers, coming from Leicester?”

Her first role was as ticket sales manager and it didn’t take long to introduce some subtle but important changes.

Andrea explains: “Really early on, I wanted to change from a reactive box office, where someone would ring us and we’d sell them a ticket, to a proactive approach where we had to find a way of filling all these seats.”

She also changed older working habits that were “inherent” within the club, such as treating players who wanted to buy tickets for friends and family as colleagues rather than ordinary customers, which helped integrate various parts of the organisation.

“Whether you were on or off the pitch, we wanted people to realise they were all working for and important to Leicester Tigers,” she adds.

“Another thing that struck me at that point was how the people in the ticket office were just used to churning through a lot of work.

“So a couple of minutes before kick-off, I’d lock the door, get them all outside and tell them to look around the stadium, so they could see they’d facilitated every person being there for all this excitement and enjoyment.

“By seeing the outcome of all that work, I was trying to create the feeling of real ownership and belonging to the club, which felt like the start of the journey if you like.”

Creating a cultural change at Leicester Tigers

Promotions followed to lead teams in hospitality, conferencing and events, and sponsorship, before bringing all those facets under one umbrella when Andrea was offered the role of commercial manager in 2012.

She was instrumental and growing the securing key sponsors and, two years later, was appointed to the board as commercial director. Another elevation to chief operating officer arrived in August 2019 before the top job came beckoning in May 2020 – replacing Simon Cohen, who had been CEO for eight years.

Andrea is keen to highlight how Simon and chairman Peter Tom CBE have championed her cause throughout her ascent in the club.

But her appointment also felt like a natural progression for someone who has sought to integrate every aspect of the club and encouraged employees to realise the role they play in the cog of a matchday.

She tells an anecdote about how, when working as commercial director and primarily based at the stadium, she turned up at the training ground for a meeting and surprised coaches by asking how the respective three-year plans of the playing and commercial operations could be closer aligned for mutual benefit.

For Andrea, it’s all about creating a culture in which everyone is rowing in the same direction – something she feels had eroded in recent years along with the performance of the team, which finished second-bottom in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons.

“Let’s be honest, results weren’t going our way and we weren’t achieving what we wanted to, or what we felt we could achieve,” she says. “So we needed to stop that decline, reassess to see what was going wrong and work out what we needed to put in place to rectify that.”

Onset of pandemic marked 'worst time in Tigers' history'

Easier said than done when there’s the small matter of Covid-19, which struck just as Andrea was getting to grips with the cultural changes initially while she was COO.

It was in February last year when the warning signs could be identified and mid-March when the rugby season was initially suspended for five weeks. It wouldn’t be until August when it finally restarted behind closed doors and the financial impact has been profound – costing a club with an annual turnover just shy of £20m about £1m each month since the pandemic hit.

Pulling no punches, Andrea says: “We’ve been a club since 1880 and to have something so big that could threaten the survival of the club meant it was probably the worst time in the club’s history.

“The paramount objective during the first lockdown was purely just about survival. With all live sport stopped, we lost our main source of income, so it was all about consolidating our costs and getting what help we could from the Government.”

Alongside the redundancies and wage cut for higher earners – lower earners had their salaries protected – most of the remaining off-field staff were placed on furlough and overheads were slashed by moving the remaining employees from the stadium to the training ground in Oadby. The club was also kept afloat by a bank loan and shareholder investment.

The past season has arguably been the toughest as games have been held without any fans in attendance, while many of the cogs in the Tigers wheel – from medics and cooks to media and administrators – have been brought back from furlough.

“A really large proportion of our wage bill has had to come back off furlough, while we’ve had to go through some stringent Covid protocols,” says Andrea.

“That started with the testing regime, which costs £30,000 per month, while there’s also PPE costs.

“We’ve absolutely haemorrhaged money and each game you’re not able to open your doors for – and every conference or event you cancel – has a huge impact on the ability to claw anything back.”

Returning to a sense of normality

While the public health, economic and social effects of Covid-19 have been tragic for many people, Andrea recognises how it’s given everyone a chance to reflect.

Like many in business, she has embraced everyday digital transformation by using tools like Zoom and Teams, which she believes will save her lots of time in the future when it comes to meetings.

A sense of normality is returning, with Mattioli Woods Welford Road able to welcome some fans back at last for the final home game of the season last month, but Andrea is eager to heed the lessons she’s learned over the past year and a half.

Some fans were allowed to return for the Leicester Tigers versus Bristol match

She adds: “As awful as Covid has been and the impact it’s had globally, it has afforded us an opportunity to reset.

“We’ve needed to do that as a business and a rugby team. We were heading in the wrong direction but we’ve been forced into making some tough decisions that will put us on a firmer footing in the future.

“Every department, and each decision in those departments, is now aligned to common goals.

“It means we’re not just chasing short-term results but we now have the opportunity to look at what we want to achieve over the next few years and beyond.”

Tigers roaring back up the league

Leicester Tigers are on their way back to the big time after almost hitting the bottom, believes Andrea.

The club, which is one of the most successful in England with 20 major titles, haven’t won the Premiership title since 2013 and came within one place of relegation in the two seasons before the campaign that recently ended.

In the 2020/21 season, head coach Stephen Borthwick guided the Tigers to an improved sixth position and a European Challenge Cup final that they narrowly lost to Montpellier.

Leicester Tigers head coach Stephen Borthwick

Andrea says: “A number of things have happened. We’ve probably been guilty of doing the same thing to maintain the success we’ve had.

“At the same time, we didn’t see how other clubs have mimicked what we were doing but then driven on, and before we knew it we’d been overtaken.”

The gradual erosion of culture within the club identified by Andrea has also focused her mind when it comes to placing the right people in the right roles, while equipping them with KPIs that will help hit common goals.

“Everyone is now clear on the direction we’re going in,” she adds. “We’ve hit the bottom and are on our way back up. But we’re just at step one on a long journey and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Finding new opportunities during Covid

While survival has been the name of the game for Leicester Tigers during Andrea’s short time as CEO, new business opportunities have also arisen during the pandemic.

The club has managed to bring new partners on board and, in lieu of being able to offer the usual matchday hospitality and advertising packages, has provided avenues for promoting new types of content via its social media channels.

“When we come out the other side of the pandemic, we don’t want to look back and realise we’ve not done anything but survive,” says Andrea.

“We needed to be in a firm position to start driving forward and recouping some of the lost revenue, and a lot of it’s been from creating new types of social media content for our partners.

“By having to innovate more than we would normally have needed to, it’s given us new avenues to monetise.”

Diversity benefits business

Being a role model for young women who want to pursue a career in the sports industry is a mantle Andrea is eager to take on.

She is one of only two female CEOs in elite English rugby alongside Saracens’ Lucy Wray, although Leicester is in a unique position in that its two biggest sports clubs have women at the helm – with Susan Whelan the CEO at Leicester City.

Andrea, who also credits the Chamber’s Enterprising Women network for supporting her career, says: “I’ve always felt a responsibility to encourage other women coming through in business and sport to see the opportunities available to them.

“If you have the right ability and personality to drive things forward, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Diversity is an important subject to Andrea – not just for equality’s sake, but because it offers real business impact.

“It helps you to understand and appreciate people,” she adds. “If you all think in the same way and come from the same angle, you aren’t going to get far.

“Having different experiences will drive a business forward.”

Taking rugby into the community

The Tigers are building links with communities in Leicester and further afield to help feed interest in rugby over the long term.

There are plans for a women’s team, initiatives promote the club among BAME communities, while coaches visit schools to show how the game can be played on concrete playgrounds rather than just on grass pitches.

Meanwhile, it continues to work closely with Indian outfit Delhi Hurricanes, which is a global partner that benefits from the English club’s expertise with the aim of growing the sport in the country.

Andrea believes these networks could prove crucial in maintaining interest in rugby, should it drop off during the pandemic as youngsters have been unable to play or attend games.

“More and more, we’re realising that unless we go out and facilitate community programmes, people aren’t going to come and knock our door down to give rugby a go,” she says.

“We’re trying to promote rugby as a sport for all, where we can showcase the health and nutrition benefits alongside the enjoyment of playing.”


This article features in the July/August edition of Business Network magazine. Read the online edition here.