Interview: Team Manager Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart is one of the rare women with a major role in the pro peloton. Her experience of marketing and commerce helped her set up the exciting iteamNova.com squad in late 2001 – one of the first publicly-funded pro teams. After a good debut season, they’ve merged with a Belgian team to form Flanders-iteamNova.com for 2003, and Susan finds herself running an ambitious 2nd Division team aiming for the Tour de France in the next couple of seasons.
When her husband David McKenzie was left jobless after the collapse of the infamous Linda MacCartney team, Susan secured initial funding, signed a team of riders and got the iteamNova.com concept going in only 6 months.
Administered on the web, the team greatly relies on fans becoming subscribing members, so people around the globe can be part of the experience as the team grows. Signing up as a member allows fans to follow the team’s progress through a special website, where they have access to riders’ diaries and a range of internet bonuses.
Before the Australian National Championships and a busy 2003, Susan chatted with us about the team, future and life as a professional racer’s wife.
Pez: How did the merger with Flanders come about?
A mutual associate, Franky van Haesebrouke, had been helping us out in Belgium and is a good friend of Frans Assez (manager of Flanders). Franky realised that we were both after the same goals – to develop the team into being a strong force and saw the potential for the teams to join up. He also felt that we were suited in both working ethos and team philosophy for the merger to be a success. So far he has been right!
The Flanders team brings a strong infrastructure to the merger, and iteamNova brings the development of its unique membership concept, which Flanders is keen to support. Now we have 16 riders and are able to do big races in Europe
Pez: What will be your responsibilities as a co-manager alongside Franz Assez?
I’ll take more of a role in developing and servicing the membership. I guess this has been my area of interest since the concept began. Now I’ll have more time to concentrate on that.
The main development will be to widen our subscription appeal. The website will be in English and Dutch, so riders can contribute in their own language, giving us a better appeal to cycling fans in Europe. We’ll also add a non-Internet membership.
I haven’t worked with Frans before, however, I’ve met him and know him through the time I spent in Belgium. I’ll be involved in the decision-making in selecting the teams, but it will pretty much be our strongest and fittest guys for the upcoming races. Frans will get on with the job of the managing the team, which he knows a lot more about.
I hope to spend some time at the races but I won’t be behind the wheel in the team car (which should bring a sigh of relief from the peloton.)
Pez: How does the merger fit with the iteamNova strategy of aiming for a Tour de France spot?
It gives us a big boost to be a cat 2 team with 16 riders. If a year down the track we’re all happy with the way it’s going, we’ll emerge as a stronger unit and look at developing the team into a bigger one for 2004.
We need the public to get behind what we’re doing and support us to the Tour, because that’s what it’s all about.
Pez: How easy has it been to attract the necessary public subscriptions?
It was difficult. Being completely new, I think a lot of people sat back to wait and see what happened. We learnt a lot in 2002 which has allowed us to refine our packages and our website for 2003 to offer much better benefits.
The difficulty we face is to allow people to feel that they’re part of the team and feel proud of the team’s achievement. It’s not easy and will take some time, but I think we’re on the right track.
We got a lot of emails from our members sharing in the highs and lows of 2002. It helped a lot that people really cared about what we were trying to achieve.
Pez: How does the number of subscribers affect the team’s operating budget?
In 2002 the number of subscribers was directly linked to the operating budget, which did make things a bit stressful. We’ve changed this a bit in 2003.
The membership is a non-profit thing, which means 100% of the membership profit is channelled back into the team.
At least this means that once we reach our break-even point, we may be able to channel more resources into the team. Everyone knows there are many necessities – bikes, equipment, travel, etc – that seem to take up a lot of money, so it would be nice to have some breathing space to give the team the resources it needs to be able to produce better performances on the road.
Pez: You’re still pretty much a rare woman in a pretty male-dominated sport. Have you come across any bad attitudes, or have people been OK?
I think I came across more sexist attitudes in Australia – maybe because I can only understand half of what is being said in Europe!
I think the advantages outweigh the problems. I think people are a bit nicer to me because I am a woman (even if they don’t feel like it), and also I’ve a bit of a different relationship with the team. Women tend to get things out in the open a bit more and so the communication is a bit better.
Pez: Has your role over the last 18 months or so been easy to fit into your personal life? You have a little daughter (and another baby on the way – congratulations!)
It’s been a pretty hard year but also an incredibly rewarding one. Lulu was born in Jan 2001. We’re expecting another baby in July 2003, so it should be an interesting year! I’m lucky to have great support and Lulu is a dream to look after. All the guys that stuck by the team were fantastic. They were the ones that kept the bigger picture in mind. As with anything there have been some testing times, but you just get over it and get on with it.
Most of the logistics for the team were done from Australia last year, but the beauty of the Internet is that it can be operated anywhere, so we’ll be in Europe for most of this year. I’ve been travelling to Europe with Dave (McKenzie, Susan’s husband, and Giro d’ Italia stage winner in 2000) since 1996, anyway.
Pez: Do you have the time to do anything else??
I started studying while living overseas with Dave, just to give me something to do. I was studying Electronic Commerce, so the idea of the team was really a marriage of my event and administrative experience, with the Ecommerce knowledge. I’ve put study on hold with everything else happening.
I guess the only hobby I have time for at the moment is that I am writing a screenplay for a feature film – I’ve set up a small production company to try and get it produced some time in the future (the film has nothing to do with cycling).
Pez: Does being married to a professional racer make you more sympathetic towards what the riders go through? If someone doesn’t get a result, is it easier for you to accept that, than a hard-nosed, old-school European manager?
Yes, I think I’m definitely more sympathetic to the riders.
However, because of my fairly limited knowledge of actual racing cycling, I take a lot of my leads from Dave, which isn’t always a good thing. That’s why we have the DS to bring that hard-nosed aspect into it.
Pez: Which riders will make a big impact in 2003?
To be honest I don’t know a lot about the riders from the Flanders side. I’ve heard that Bert and Staf Scheirlinckx have certainly got some talent. I’m confident that the guys we are bringing to the team are not only good riders, but also good team players. Dave (McKenzie) always manages to pull out some good wins and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Allan Iacuone yet. Trent Wilson is a young rider with a good future. 2003 will be his opportunity to show his stuff.
Pez: Does having seen your husband produce results like a Giro stage win, and seeing the effort he made to do it help you to sell the whole idea of sponsoring a cycling team to people?
Definitely. Most of the sponsors that came on board said that they only did so because I was so passionate about what I was trying to do and I can only be like that because I see what Dave and the other guys go through each and every day to produce those results.
Pez: How passionate are the people who’ve paid up as subscribers?
We had some very passionate people involved in 2002 and I get a lot of feedback from them.
One of the most rewarding emails I got was from a member whose sons had just become involved in cycling.
He said that just from reading about the experiences of the team on the website he’d learnt more about cycling than he had from taking his sons to a race each weekend.
Pez: What can iteamNova.com’s strategy teach Europe about marketing a cycling team?
A couple of teams followed our lead to bring a “membership” side to their team in 2002. I take this as a bit of a compliment that the idea really has merit.
The biggest European teams have massive followings and probably have the same sort of funding opportunities from merchandising, fan clubs, etc, without having to formalise it as a membership/subscription thing. Also, I don’t think a team can just implement this sort of idea thinking it will perpetuate itself. For people to really be a part of the whole thing takes dedication to the philosophy.
Ultimately, fans will benefit from being part of a membership-based team. If teams are competing to attract members, they will be offering better incentives, etc.
Pez: One year from now, what do hope to be able to look back on and celebrate? Where would you like the team to be?
Anyone who has started up a business just celebrates still being in existence as each year passes. That’ll be the first thing. Hopefully we’ll be also be toasting some team wins, perhaps a wild-card “Giro” start…
Pez: Personally, where do you see this new role taking you? What would you most like to achieve?
My ambition for this whole thing is to build an infrastructure that is really solid to support the team.
I’d like to see that it is something that will be on-going, so when a major sponsor decides to withdraw it does not mean the end of the team. I guess this attitude comes from having experienced the downfall of the Linda McCartney team in 2001.
Pez: What’s your cycling background?
When I was at school I went to watch the start of the Herald Sun Tour in the small country town I lived in – Cobram, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales). One of the officials asked me to go and stand in the middle of the bunch and fire the start gun.
I relayed that story to John Craven (director of the Herald Sun Tour) 10 years later and he gave me a job co-ordinating the tour. That was all I knew of cycling before I started working with John Craven.
I went on to work at CycleSport Victoria, which gave me a pretty good knowledge of the administrative side of the sport.
Pez: Susan – thanks so much for talking with us, and best of luck with the season and the team!
Learn more about the new Flanders-iTeamNova at their website: www.iteamnova.com