The food sold in the ground. Everyone expects changes when new owners take over at a football club. Most of the time this means replacing the manager, bringing in some new people and perhaps looking at refreshing the club’s commercial work.
The menu and what food’s on sale during matchdays is not among the things they focus on. Nor do you typically find them giving a lot of consideration to their source of electricity or the impact the club is having on the environment. And yet those were among the early tangible signs that there was a new owner at Forest Green Rovers.
Then again Dale Vince, who has now been in charge at the Gloucestershire club for over a decade, is not like your typical football owner. He is not like your typical entrepreneur, either.
Vince left school at 15 – “the day I left school was the happiest day of my life … suddenly, I had freedom – it was a wonderful day,” he recounted – and spent time doing odd jobs. His desire for freedom led him to follow a migratory lifestyle, often pitching up at environmental campaigns.
And yet he did not fit into the image typically attributed to New Age travellers; there was an enterprising side to him. He had fitted a wind turbine on top of his lorry to have a clean source of energy and, in 1991, he had his ‘aha!’ moment whilst on top of a hill in Stroud. On that day he decided to build his own wind farm. This eventually led to Ecotricity, a company that specialises in green energy and which had revenues of close to £200m in 2019.
Whilst his path to entrepreneurship was far from typical, the one which led Vince to taking over Forest Green Rovers is fairly more conventional. In 2009, with the club was on the verge of relegation from the Conference and bankruptcy likely to follow soon after, Vince was asked to come in to save the club.
Up until that point, he had been an occasional sponsor who had never really given much thought to the possibility of owning a football club. Having seen the role it played within the community, however, his social conscience told him that letting it disappear was not really an option. And so, in 2010 he became the club’s majority shareholder and its chairman a few months later.
Typical of someone who has built his business from the ground up, the challenge of going into a completely new industry was never a daunting one for Vince. His approach was the same as every time he began working on a new idea. “Trial and error,” he tells These Football Times when asked how he got to grips with running a football club. “You just get on with it, using logic and not worrying too much about what the rules are, certainly not in the way things have traditionally been done.
“I approach everything with a blank sheet. Obviously in football there are rules that have to be followed but you don’t have to follow convention.”
Not following convention certainly describes how Vince has been running Forest Green Rovers. He has carried over the green ethos of his other business to the club and over the years has made a number of significant changes, from having a wind turbine to power the stadium’s electricity to having a solar-powered robot to cut the grass.
Most of those changes were (and to an extent, still are) looked upon with suspicion. When he first introduced vegetarian-only menus at Forest Green Rovers, The S*n promptly labelled it as a “red meat ban”. Similar scepticism has surrounded many other changes that he has helped push through.
This has not deterred him. As the changes kept on coming so too has the recognition, with the United Nations awarding them carbon neutral certification, and they have also received the United Nations Environment Programme’s Momentum of Change climate action award. Practically every article or story referencing them includes the claim that they are the greenest football club in the world.
Of course, all of this is borne out of Vince’s personal conviction of the need for sustainable practices. Yet it makes sense from a commercial point of view.
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the way most businesses are run; from looking to maximise shareholders’ values to being purpose-driven. Making money will always be important but there has been a growing realisation that this can be better achieved if there is a greater purpose that drives the business.
The classic example is that of Patagonia, which is very much focused on delivering long-lasting products that are sourced ethically, consistent with their vision of a world with greater sustainability. But even other businesses are looking for and establishing purposes to drive their behaviour.
Forest Green Rovers might not be as successful as Patagonia but their purpose-driven approach is clearly having an impact. “We have a hundred different fan clubs set up in twenty different countries across the world,” Vince explains. “I would say that’s the best example of us attracting a global audience for what we’ve done and a global fanbase actually. And what these people tell us is that there’s an appreciation for our stance.”
Crucially, they are also willing to contribute financially. “When we launch a new shirt, 50 per cent of the sales go abroad. In fact, a significant chunk of all the sales go abroad every year. We have visiting groups of fans – or we did before the pandemic – that every year would come from France, Germany and Norway, that kind of support. We also have fans who want to be shareholders. So yes, these are people who want to contribute.”
One of those who put forward a desire to be a shareholder was the socially conscious Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin, who invested in the club late last year, stating, “Forest Green are showing others the way. So many people feel there’s no solution to the world’s problems, but Forest Green are already doing plenty.”
Whilst all of this is great, Bellerin would be among the first to point out that simply promoting an environmentally conscious agenda is not enough for a football club; that ultimately it is there to win games. Vince himself appreciates this: “It has always been my experience that when you want to introduce something that is green or alternative then it has to be at least as good as the alternative. It is vital for its credibility.
“I think that it is the same in football. You have to be good at football because otherwise there will be an impact on the rest of our message and mission. It is the same thing as if you’re making an electric car – it has to offer the same experience as a traditional car.
“[Even so] I don’t see that the green element of our mission is secondary. I see it as being on equal footing with the football side of things. The way that I see it, because we are a green football club and we have these green ambitions, then the football has to be good because otherwise it diminishes the message. It is a symbiotic relationship between the two.”
Forest Green Rovers have certainly lived up to that belief on the pitch. When Vince took over, only a last-minute reprieve saved them from relegation from the Conference, but they ahven’t looked back since then. In 2017 they achieved promotion to the Football League through the playoffs, after a number of heartbreaks at that stage in previous seasons.
Back in 2015, Vince had claimed that the club’s ultimate ambition was to make it to the Championship. A key element in achieving that ambition rests on a new stadium that, after considerable delay, was approved in 2019. “We want a better place to play our football, that is easier to get to for our fans, where we can grow and move into the Championship. But it will also make us more sustainable as a football club,” Vince explains.
Designed by Zaha Hadid’s architectural design firm, this proposal has a sleek look and will be made completely out of timber. Again, this reflects the club values, with Vince clarifying, “From an environmental point of view, 75 per cent of the carbon footprint of all stadia in their entire lifetime comes from the materials they’re made from. It’s not about the energy used to run them, it’s embedded on day one.”
Eco Park will be able to host 5,000 fans with space for 1,700 cars, with two additional football pitches, including one with an all-weather 4G surface adjacent to it. It will also be surrounded by some 500 trees and two kilometres of hedgerows that will be planted at the site to promote biodiversity.
For all the desirable aspects of this stadium, it was still a hard slog to get approval. The reality remains that not many people want a football stadium in their back ard, which largely explains why it took years to get the necessary buy-in. That their current home was only opened in 2006 – after controversy about it sitting on school playing fields – didn’t help in the most recent application. Tellingly, however, the New Lawn Stadium is to be demolished and replaced with zero-carbon affordable houses.
There is a certain degree of irony that a football club that is positioning itself so differently is going down the well-trodden route of building a new stadium to increase revenues. And yet, whilst the new stadium will be in a much more accessible location, the fact that it has been conceived from such a solid, environmentally-conscious foundation will only enhance its attraction among those who follow the club for its green stance.
In short, it will allow Forest Green Rovers to back down on a purpose-driven strategy that so far seems to be working. In their last published accounts covering 2019, their revenues topped the £5m mark for the first time ever and the club is bringing in around £2.5m from commercial activities each year.
Even so, it made a significant loss (£785,000), which was mainly down to the collapse of a mooted transfer of Christian Doidge to Bolton for £1m (Doidge did leave a few months after the end of the financial year, joining Motherwell for £250,000). Without a man of Vince’s resources, the club would be struggling.
That, however, is besides the point. What Vince has done at Forest Green Rovers is show that a football club can aspire to be something more; that it can progress and tap into new revenues if it starts doing things differently. Their green stand is driven by his own personal conviction of the need to make a change in how we are doing things. It is not done merely to tap into the pockets of those who share a similar belief – but that side effect is a welcome one.
When asked if he feels that anyone taking over after him would continue in a similar vein, Vince says, “Not sure. Everyone has their own beliefs on how to run things.” He’s right, but the culture that he has been fostering over the past decade has become so entwined with the very essence of the club that, somehow, it is hard seeing Forest Green Rovers as anything other than one of the most environmentally friendly clubs around.
By Paul Grech @paul_grech