Date posted: 2/10/2017 10 min read

CA turns CEO for Parramatta Eels

In a compelling interview, Bernie Gurr CA reveals how he lived the dream by mixing sport and business and turned fortunes around for troubled rugby club Parramatta Eels.

In Brief

  • Gurr has made a career out of mixing sport and business.
  • Chartered accounting taught him that managing people is important everywhere.
  • His years as an auditor in Sydney and LA gave him a good understanding of business.

By Steve Lewis

When Bernie Gurr CA returned to Australia in late 2016 to take the helm of one of the nation’s best-known sporting franchises, he was taking on one of the toughest jobs in professional sport.

The chartered accountant and self-confessed rugby league fanatic was leaving a lucrative role in the United States to become chief executive of the Parramatta Eels. The Eels, a four-time rugby league premiership-winning franchise with a massive supporter base, were down for the count.

A salary cap scandal – involving the use of inflated invoices to secretly pay players – had seen the team stripped of competition points. As well, the entire board had been sacked and the Parramatta club placed into administration, under Ferrier Hodgson’s Max Donnelly. The situation was grim.

But a year later, Parramatta is performing well, on and off the sporting field. “The journey is going definitely in the right trajectory,” Gurr says of a sporting team that he calls the “sleeping giants” of the National Rugby League. Parramatta – indeed the entire NRL competition – has a bright future, Gurr argues, though he does not underestimate the challenge of growing revenues and attracting audiences in a crowded marketplace.

(Pictured: Eels players after a Cowboys try during the NRL Semi Final match between the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys at ANZ Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images.)

“The opportunity for rugby league is still enormous, our ability to grow the game is still enormous,” he says. “We have got challenges – the AFL is spending a lot of money in our heartland areas of western Sydney and south-east Queensland – but I think a strong Parramatta is a key pillar to fight that.”

Sports pedigree

Before we get too far into the future though, let’s return to the past. 

How did a bright accounting student – who graduated in accounting and business from the University of New South Wales in 1979, and who got his first job as an audit officer with Arthur Young (now Ernst & Young) – become the chief executive of a sporting franchise like the Eels?

While Gurr was undertaking his “professional year” from June 1981 to June 1982 he was also playing for the Sydney Roosters rugby league team. 

“I was graded in 1978 and then I had six years with the Roosters in grade football. I only played around three first grade games but I played a ton of lower grades and I just loved it. I loved the game and loved being part of it all.”

But as the years wore on it became harder to combine the passion for sport with the long hours required to build business skills to ensure a lucrative and long-term career. “About halfway through 1983, it just got too much,” Gurr recalls. “I was earning only minimal money out of it; I wanted a business career and it certainly wasn’t like I was playing regular first grade.”

The boots were hung up for good. Gurr moved to Los Angeles in 1987 with Arthur Young before switching to a role with a large California hardware business in 1989. Then, in 1993, the sporting world came calling and Gurr was appointed director of finance of the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

Shortly after the final, Gurr was approached to head up the Sydney Roosters and he returned to Australia for nearly ten years. After a return to the US in 2004, where he worked for two corporations, he was enticed back to run the Eels in late 2016, on a three-year contract. “Soon after I got my CA, I decided that it was what I wanted to do, I wanted to mix the sports and the business,” he says.

I learned a lot about business through chartered accounting
Bernie Gurr CA CEO of Parramatta Eels

Of course, many chartered accountants have reached the helm of corporate and other organisations and Gurr believes the training he received while working in his early years at Arthur Young set him up for a successful business career.

“The chartered accounting training you get – for me working at Ernst & Young for nine years, seven years in the Sydney office and then two years in Los Angeles – it is terrific business training and it still is today,” Gurr says. 

(Pictured: Bernie Gurr CA CEO of Parramatta Eels. Photo by Phil Hillyard)

“I was in the audit department and that really gives you a very good understanding of business. You get around and you see big companies, small companies, good companies, bad companies, well-run companies, poorly-run companies. 

“You get exposed to a very broad range of business activity. To me that was an awesome learning curve. I learned a lot about business, I also learned a lot about people.”

Those skills, he says, are transferrable across the business chain. “At the end of the day, no matter what kind of business it is – whether it’s Ernst & Young or the local widget company or BHP or running Parramatta Eels – it gets back to managing people when you get in those senior positions.

"I learned a lot about business through chartered accounting, and I also learned a lot about how managers manage people and I think those two pieces – the technical business and the people management – were the two things I carried out of my nine years in chartered accounting.”

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Now the challenge is to help Parramatta Eels continue its growth in the populous western suburbs of Sydney at a time when AFL and soccer are encroaching on rugby league’s geographic stronghold.

Despite the recent success of AFL’s Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants and football’s Western Sydney Wanderers (which shared the Eels’ home ground of Pirtek Stadium before it was demolished as part of a planned redevelopment), Gurr argues that Australia can sustain a number of professional winter sports, including rugby union and league.

“Yeah, I think we can but they have to live within their means. The reality is that for a country of nearly 25 million people trying to sustain four professional football codes in the winter – AFL, league, union, football – I mean, it is very difficult.”

The Australian Rugby Union, in particular, has made some strategic errors over the past ten or 15 years, by tending to focus on what he calls the “pointy end of the pyramid” while ignoring the grassroots of the game. With limited corporate support available, the Parramatta boss argues that “everyone has to live within their means”. 

“That is a challenge for all sports because it is a limited corporate market place in Australia," he says. 

The emergence of new sporting competitions only adds to this pressure. “You are getting a proliferation of new sports. You are getting the (cricket) Big Bash, you are getting the womens’ sport, which is a good thing, but again they have got their hand out to corporate Australia and that doesn’t even mention the charities and the philanthropic organisations, they have got their hands out to corporate Australia too.” 

Womens' sports on the up

And while it appears that sport in western Sydney is going through a golden age it surely will make it harder for the Eels to grow and prosper in this market. Gurr though remains optimistic that Parramatta can not only survive but build its supporter base and expand into areas such as women playing professional rugby league within several years.

“A senior womens’ competition is definitely on the agenda and I think it will be very exciting,” he says. 

While the AFL has done a very good job in broadening its supporter base – and in particular appointing women to senior administrative roles – rugby league appears to be lagging in this regard. Gurr agrees that rugby league needs to work on ways to broaden its appeal across the gender divide but at the same time is proud of Parramatta’s supporter base.

“Our percentage of members who are female is the highest in the NRL so we are very conscious of that. You want all of the community embracing your game, and that is male and female.” 

Still a way to go

Nearly a year after taking the helm, Bernie Gurr can point to some outstanding successes both on and off the field.

However there is a long way to go and he is loath to promise too much too early.

“I have told our fans that we are not going to guarantee wins, losses, premierships. That is ridiculous because it is a very volatile game in a sense," he says. 

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Steve Lewis is a journalist, author and senior adviser with Newgate Communications.     

Photography by Phil Hillyard