Mark Sesnan, the charismatic managing director of GLL, has come a long way since I first interviewed him in 2005 for Leisure Management's sister publication, Sports Management. GLL (formerly Greenwich Leisure) has grown into the UK’s leading operator of local authority leisure facilities, with a turnover of £111m and management of more than 100 facilities.
A lot has been happening at GLL’s late-Georgian, Grade II-listed headquarters in London’s Woolwich Arsenal. As well as growing the number of leisure centres the team manages in London – the company's traditional heartland – a carefully-judged growth plan has taken them as far north as York and into the Chilterns and Surrey.
Add to this expansion into library and play-centre management and wholly-owned businesses such as budget gyms, the creation of local operating partnerships and winning the contract to run two London 2012 venues post-Olympics, and you can see why it may have been a considerable challenge for Sesnan to maintain his deceptively laid-back persona.
“As a charitable social enterprise, we’re showing that it isn’t all about profit – we’re on a mission,” Sesnan says. “Currently, about a third of UK leisure centres are still run by the public sector, even in big cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds.” When I ask why, he pauses. “I could be provocative and say it’s about self-interest or trade-union influence, but I’m much more generous than that – I think it’s just local choice,” he says.
WORKING IN PARTNERSHIP
The way forward for GLL’s core leisure centre business includes forming operating partnerships with smaller local leisure trusts, such as Freedom Leisure in southern England and the Hereford-based Halo Leisure Trust.
Sesnan says: “Local authorities outside London were asking us to bid to operate their centres. We said that if we could find a way of doing it and help other trusts to get business it'd make sense. We work with the trusts to win the business, but they deliver the services and staff the centres themselves, which provides a local feel. We give councils security that they wouldn’t get from a smaller organisation and we can influence what goes on in the centres.
“We’re open to discussion with anyone once contracts go to market,” he continues. “Because of our reputation, we can get on shortlists, which smaller trusts often can’t. We do the bid work for them, which we charge for, but the bigger game – and my vision – is to have an affinity community of customers, a block that has some muscle with sponsors and suppliers. But that’s some years away yet.”
With expansion usually comes the thirst to branch out, and Sesnan has his heart set firmly on organic growth. “We need to diversify so we’re not reliant on any one particular income source”, he says. He has a desire to own, as well as operate, leisure facilities with budget gyms top of the list – their first, at Bexleyheath, Kent, is, says Sesnan, “flying”.
“Our plan is to extend the wholly-owned estate and, as a charitable operator rather than a commercial one, we would be looking to see where there are socio-demographic reasons for putting in a gym,” he says. “We can do rich and poor areas so there’s a much wider matrix of sites that we’d consider. We want our gyms to be accessible and have the right look and feel for all sections of the community, including children.” GLL gyms will be 800 – 1,200sq m, with online sign-up only, self-admission and what Sesnan calls “lightly staffed”.
WINNING OLYMPIC GOLD
With legacy at the core of the Olympic mission, Sesnan is justly proud to have won the bid, which he spent most of 2011 spearheading, to operate two Olympic Park venues – the Aquatics Centre and the Multi-Use Arena (better known as the Copper Box). “We bid for both”, he says, “as we believe you need one to subsidise the other.”
After the Paralympic Games, when the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) got the keys to the park, builders began to transform the venues. If it all goes to Sesnan’s plans, the arena will open on 27th July 2013 – a year to the day after the Olympics opening ceremony. The Aquatics centre, where seating will be reduced from 17,500 to 2,500, is scheduled to open at Easter in 2014.
Sesnan is naturally enthusiastic about winning Olympic gold. The Aquatics Centre boasts not one, but two, 50m pools – the one that saw the likes of Michael Phelps make Olympic history and the hidden practice pool. Both, along with the 25m diving pool, were designed with moveable floors to enable the depth to be reconfigured at the touch of a button.
“The legacy brief for the Aquatics Centre was to provide community use and cater for schools, clubs and people with kids at the weekends, as well as to be a tourist attraction and a site for international sporting events,” says Sesnan. “This way, we can make the dive pool 2ft deep and use it for swimming lessons and have an international event going on in the main pools. We’ll be working with British Swimming and the synchro-swimming, diving and water-polo bodies.”
The Multi-Use Arena is the size of three sports halls and will be home to the British Basketball League’s London Lions. “It can be used to host rock concerts, community sport and corporate events,” Sesnan explains. “The bleachers are electric-powered and can be moved back and forth to adjust spectator capacity.
“Originally we were looking to partner with AEG [US-based owner of the O2 Arena] for this venue,” he says. “But they got involved in the stadium bidding and things got confused. We want to work closely with AEG because a 7,000-seat rock venue seems to fit their family. And it’s newer, shinier and easier to get to than Wembley Arena.”
As operator of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, Sesnan is interested in the outcome of the Olympic stadium wrangle. “We have a 20,000-seat athletics stadium at Crystal Palace, which we believe is serviceable. But if you have one in east London, you don’t need both.
"GLL’s strategy for the Olympic venues is based on what you lose in one venue, you make in the other," he explains. "The pool has a mass of water which needs heating and treating and lifeguards. To keep swimming accessible, you have to keep the prices down – the real cost of swimming is between £7 and £9 per session, which people won’t pay here.
"To have these venues is the coming of age for us,” he says, “and changes us from local to national. It ups the ante and increases the challenge. We’d have loved the Velodrome, so eventually maybe we can talk to Lea Valley about that. We’d like to work with Rio 2016, too," he adds. "We met with the Brazilians during the Games when they were stabled up the road at Crystal Palace. No one’s yet got legacy rights, so if we deliver it would be interesting to get involved.”
As to the Games themselves, Sesnan says: “I don’t think we could have wished for better. It exposed people to a wide range of sports, not just the usual suspects. To see women’s boxing, for example, was fantastic. The organisers, the construction people, the athletes – everyone did us proud.”
He also hails the focus on sport inspired by the Games. “Because we are in so many London boroughs we’ve noticed things getting done that wouldn’t have normally. In Greenwich, for instance, there are two completely new school sports centres, much bigger than any school would previously have had. There will now be seven 50m pools in London, up from only two 10 years ago. Applications for everything for the under-14s is up, especially gymnastics. And you only have to go out on the street to see how many more cyclists and runners there are now – that’s good for us. We call it ‘the Jess effect’.”
GLL is branching out into other areas of service provision, most notably library management. It currently operates all Greenwich libraries, including those at Belmarsh prison, hospitals and a mobile facility. When I suggest this to be a significant diversion, Sesnan disagrees. “Libraries are a part of the cultural block within local authorities,” he says. “We’re open to talk to any council where we already have an interest about integrating their other cultural operations. You’d want your library to be open seven days a week, to be accessible, to have a crèche, a café, a car park and to be friendly and bright – which is the same specification as for a leisure centre.
“Apart from a few shining examples, libraries tend not to be like that," he continues. "They’re suffering from cutbacks and the people who run them aren't building managers. We need between two and five library contracts in London to get the savings in the back office in book purchasing and so on. About 80 per cent of book purchasing can be centralised, which is in the local authorities’ interest.”
Sesnan views early-age customers as so vital – both to his business and in the war on child obesity – that children over 11 can use GLL centres’ adult facilities from 3.30pm until 6pm for free. “Getting kids to enjoy activity will deal with obesity – they’ll do it because they want to, not because they’ve been told to,” he says, though he admits that “no one has yet got their head around pricing for kids.”
By virtue of operating more swimming pools in the UK than anyone else, Sesnan finds that getting the balance between safety and fun is difficult. “Kids want to enjoy swimming, but the insurers and health and safety people tell us not to let them run, shout or dive,” he says. “But if they’re not having fun, they’ll go back to playing computer games.”
A CHANGE OF IMAGE
GLL has recently undergone a major reimaging. The public face of the business now operates under the Better brand. “Our advertising and publicity material had become a big logo-fest,” says Sesnan. “There was a need for something distinct and recognisable – we wanted to brighten it up. My challenge to our marketing people was that we run 110 centres and yet no one has heard of us, but they know of David Lloyd. Better is different, striking and positive. We want it to be recognisable.”
With rebranding costing tens of thousands per venue, Sesnan has invested in changing the interiors of just two as a try-out – Hackney’s Clissold Centre and the Waterfront in Woolwich (which, coincidentally, he used to manage). The process will be gradual says Sesnan – “we’ve got 10,000 staff polo shirts, for example. We won’t be throwing those out overnight!”
Anxious to ensure, at a time when transparency and compliance has never been more important, that GLL is doing all it can to meet expectations, Sesnan has brought in some autonomous assistance. “Salaries, for example, are overseen by an independent sub-committee of non-executive directors”, he says. “Our compliance level is much higher as we seek to converge with traditional charities.”
Of the issues facing GLL going forward, Sesnan immediately refers to the management of expansion while retaining GLL’s core values. “The challenge all the way through for us,” he says, “has been to remind people all the way up and down the chain that we have values they have to live up to. There’s a mass of people out there, particularly in the health and safety field, who are empowered to batter businesses and make our job as difficult as possible, so the true challenge is about our people’s skill-sets. We have run graduate trainee schemes for 15 years, without which we would never have been able to expand.
“As for the industry, we still have much to do, such as sorting out the qualifications structure. We’re only now on the cusp of change. I’m one of the people working on that – and I’ve got the bruises to prove it!”