Andrea Pinchen knows she is not everyone’s identikit view of a leading Premiership rugby union figure. “Let’s not beat around the bush,” says Leicester’s chief executive, reflecting on her lesser-spotted status as one of the league’s only two female chief executives. “I think a lot of people looked at me in a strange way. I totally understand why they would have that image because there aren’t that many women in sport at senior level.”
Nor have many other Premiership CEOs, regardless of gender, had to prove their worth in the Middle East, rising through the ranks with Emirates from cabin crew member to become a specialist in aviation security. “I was very much used to working in a male environment, standing up in front of 50 male pilots talking to them about bombs and hijackings. Going into a rugby club wasn’t really that intimidating.”
Her obvious relish for a challenge is certainly paying off in the east Midlands. When Pinchen took on her current role in May 2020, Leicester were still surveying the debris of a wretched decade, having avoided relegation only because of the salary cap indiscretions of Saracens (who also now possess a female chief executive in Lucy Wray). Now the Tigers are kings of the jungle again, leading the field by six points as they prepare for the visit of the champions Harlequins on Sunday. For the first time in three years Welford Road will be full and the club’s mood has been transformed.
The credit clearly has to be shared with the head coach, Steve Borthwick, his staff, the players and a reshuffled board but Pinchen’s determination to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction has been crucial. A wry laugh is also never far away, perhaps the most heartening Leicester news of all. In the grand old Tigers days it was a defining characteristic: hard and committed, yes, but down to earth and fun with it.
Pinchen gives the impression of being all those things, having grown up locally and worked in the club’s ticket office as far back as 2004. At busy times she would think nothing of yelling at passing players to answer the phone, sometimes resulting in unsuspecting callers finding Martin Johnson on the other end of the line.
Fast forward 17 years and “one of the things that surprised me most” was discovering the straight-talking, tough discussions she routinely had in business were less regular within her local rugby club. “Nobody enjoys having conversations about people’s performance [but] in my experience business people are a lot more used to that. You’re like: ‘Hold on, you’re supposed to be the big testosterone-filled guys, what’s happening?’”
There was certainly much embarrassed stammering the day she visited the training ground at Oval Park, while still the club’s commercial director, and asked the then-coaching staff to share their key performance indicators. “At the time I was putting together a three-year commercial strategy and wanted to talk to the coaches about what their strategy was.” Subsequently she presented a report to the chairman, Peter Tom, calling for a more unified sense of direction. “Peter and I had a pretty honest conversation. I don’t purport to know the in and outs of rugby, that’s not my field, but from a business perspective there were some real areas where I thought we could add value.”
Strategically, in short, the Tigers have been reborn. Four key values – Club First, Tough, Passionate, Driven – were sewn into the collar of the team shirt and Pinchen – “You can’t put ‘tough’ all over your branding if you’re not prepared to be it” – makes no attempt to gloss over Leicester’s stuck-in-a-rut past. “Let’s not shy away from the fact we were pretty much saved from relegation by what happened with Saracens. You’ve got to face facts rather than trying to ignore it and simply plugging along doing the same things. That way lies insanity. Of course we all want to win, otherwise we’d be doing something else. But what are the stepping stones to maintaining it? What happens if you lose a game at some point? You can’t just be floundering around saying: ‘My whole ethos is to win.’”
The next big challenge for all is to confirm a fly-half successor to George Ford, who is off to Sale at the end of this season. “We wanted him to stay, there’s no secret to that. But he’s gone for family reasons which we totally respect.” But can a club who lost £1m a month during lockdown afford a top-drawer marquee replacement? “It’s not a case of: ‘George is leaving, we need to panic.’ The club’s finances are stable. We’ll make sure, as we always have on the rugby side, that we’re spending up to the cap and that we’re as strong as we can be.”
It clearly helps that Pinchen and Borthwick are on the same page. She says she has learned a lot from him – “He’s an amazing person to work with, just in terms of how analytical his brain is” – and has a similarly strong work ethic. Days off – “what are they?” – are rare and the occasional jog from her home near Melton Mowbray is her most relaxing hobby. “My family understand how all-encompassing the job is. And it is, let’s make no bones about that. Sometimes that work-life balance is not always there. But given what the NHS frontline staff have been through recently, I won’t complain about being the CEO of Leicester Tigers. I feel very lucky.”
As she also stresses, though, there remains a long way to go. “When you’ve got something as big as Leicester Tigers that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a case of: ‘Look at us, aren’t we great?’ We’re far from the finished article.” Among the fans, though, faith is returning. “This weekend is our first sell-out since 2018. Did we lose some support when things weren’t going so well? Yes, of course. Those ad hoc ticket purchases, you lose some of that. But our season-ticket holders have stuck with us through thick and thin. It’s really humbling to see the depth of support.”
If nothing else Leicester will find out this Sunday precisely how much of their bounce they have regained. “Quins are the champions, they’re the benchmark,” says Pinchen, her voice hardening slightly. “It’s not an ambition of Leicester just to be there or thereabouts. We want to be at the business end of the table when it matters.”