Q&A: Richard Sunderland

Jane Thompson puts some questions to the new president of Equestrian Sport NZ, Richard Sunderland

IMG_9656Richard Sunderland was elected as President of ESNZ in September 2015. As part of the elections process, information was provided on the candidates seeking to win the position.  Richard’s manifesto said that he wanted all members, officials and competitors to feel empowered, to be part of a great, positive community and to know they are valued. 

He promised that he would be at competitions, open and ready to engage. We therefore took up this opportunity to engage with Richard at the National Showjumping Championships on February 7. Richard graciously spent some time answering the many questions we had for him, living up to his promise of wanting to engage.

Before we get into the Q&A, you might like to know a bit more about the man from Tauranga who heads up Equestrian Sports NZ. Richard has been involved in horse sports since 1975 in a wide variety of roles from chairman, selector, team manager, FEI official, judge, course designer and High Performance leader. 

Career-wise, Richard has been a farmer and run his own freight and logistics company. His CV states he has a proven successful track record of multi-stakeholder engagement, and successful ongoing leadership, inspiring and developing teams and organisations through significant change. 

He describes himself as being “energised by tough challenges, able to stay the course through positive and challenging times” and is a “non-nonsense fact-based self-starter.”

That sounds impressive and there are certainly challenges ahead for the national sports body. We were keen to find out more about how Richard was adjusting to his new role.   

You have been chairman of ESNZ now for nearly six months, how have you found it so far?

It has been very interesting for a start. You need to work yourself over the honour part of it. I was probably one of the few people who knew the original president, Duncan Holden, and I am one of those generation who has the time. I have known every president since.  The honour thing is a huge part of it. Those people were massive in the sport and so I doubt whether someone like myself can do those people justice, so we are having to do the sport justice rather than the people justice. 

You came in campaigning for change, how are you going with that?

I have some ideas. But we will just work through the process. You can’t change things straight away, you have to learn who is who and how things fit. I am a believer that you don’t want to tread on toes. I want to steer and turn rather than just have full frontal attacks; they don’t work.

What do you feel you have achieved so far?

Not a lot yet. Because we have had, like, three meetings. But I think one of the things is that people, our athletes, can associate with me because I have come right up from the bottom and that gives me confidence that that is how they are thinking. But whether I can deliver or not….

Do you think there is a good relationship between ESNZ and the riders?

Aaaaahhh, that’s one of the things that hopefully I am working on. To a lot of riders, they don’t care. A lot of sports are like that too. Rugby clubs, rugby players playing third grade rugby, they don’t really care who the president of the Rugby Union is. There is a lot of that. But people who are active in the sport, no.

There has been a lot of publicity about Andrew Nicholson and ESNZ. Have you had a chance to talk to Andrew?

Yes, it is work in progress. That is one of the things I would like to do, to smooth some of the waves back into ripples.   

You are going over to Switzerland to the FEI Sports Forum in April. Will you take an opportunity to see some of the overseas based riders then?

I certainly will. We have young Steffi Whittaker going to the FEI World Show Jumping Challenge in Morocco. I will go to that. If I can work in a visit to Andrew, I will, but it becomes quite expensive when you have to flit off to find people. I will talk with Andrew. I have known him for donkey’s years.

What do you think the immediate challenges are now for ESNZ?

I think it is a whole communication thing, and a social media thing. People want instant news, instant decisions, instant everything because they are used to having it. While I recognise that is what they want, I know nothing about social media. That is a personal challenge for me. I think we are starting to get systems in place to take care of it for the sport. Our administrators are a lot more aware of this.

What are the more strategic challenges? What things do you think the sport needs to overcome that you will be focusing on for the next few years?

One of the main things is to get the disciplines more involved in promoting their High Performance part of their sport. When the indoor building goes up in Taupo, it will be a huge, huge asset as a training centre. I can see horses being trained there 12 months of the year whereas up until now we haven’t been able to do that. So it will be nice to get the disciplines more actively involved during the winter. Traditionally we have put all our horses out and gone hunting or shearing sheep or something.   

How have you found relationships with the staff, and getting to understand the systems, databases etc in head office.  Do you have to get involved in that side of things?

I just get involved in the people. I don’t think one person can learn how to do everything, so that is what you have staff for. They are all very very good, and once you get to know them, they are very nice people.

Your CEO, Vicki Glynn, is contracted until the Rio Olympics. What are the plans in regard to that?

It is under negotiation at the moment. Yes, there is a possibility that she may stay on, but anything could happen; we will go from there.

How are things in the finance department?

Always hard, always difficult. Every sport has the same issues. Sponsorship is the key thing, how you deal with them, how you handle them, how you give to them what they need not what we think they need. Finances in voluntary sports are always tough, always.

The Olympics are coming up, are you going?

It is very difficult to get accreditation for everyone who needs to be accredited and while I am a sports nut, I would hate to think that I would take a position that the team needs, so we will see what happens. I may be on the couch watching it. They may need their technical people there so I would step aside.

Richard Sunderland: hasn't been shot yet!
Richard Sunderland: not shot yet!

Have you enjoyed your time as President so far?

Yes, so far, I haven’t been shot yet! 

Were you expecting to be?

Well you never know. Probably got some arrows in my back.

In show jumping there are a few issues with the database administration, is there progress being made on that?

Absolutely there is. We need to identify actually what the problem is and there are always ongoing things, but I think once we get the new on-line registration system up and running in June, then people can then register at any time of the day or night. I understand that showjumping make up 61% of our sport, and the on-line registration will make Jumping’s life so much easier.   

We hear there are some changes coming up in Jumping Administration?

Dana [Kirkpatrick, the Jumping Director] has some huge skills that Jumping are not utilising and ESNZ needs someone with her communication skills so it is a good move for everybody. 

The plan is that 25% of her administration time will be Jumping, so she will continue directing the Jumping staff and then she goes into the ESNZ. Yes, she will probably be in Wellington more often.