Chris Welton just moved into the corner office of the U.S. Equestrian Federation headquarters six months ago as the new CEO, but he knew coming into the USEF Annual Meeting, held Jan. 14-17 in Lexington, Ky., that that excuse wasn’t going to hold water.
For the first time in 10 years the budget was showing a deficit instead of a surplus. Federation growth and income has plateaued. And the national disciplines and breeds affiliates were feeling restless over a government restructure last year that left them with less representation on the board of directors.
Welton began addressing these challenges with an educational campaign. He set up introductory lunchtime presentations with two new key staff members: Will Connell, director of sport, and Josh Taylor, chief commercial officer. He joined meeting after meeting to get to know the members better and answer their questions. And he sat down with the BOD for a lengthy closed door planning session on the last day of the annual meeting to draw up a new mission statement, vision statement and plan for the future of the Federation.
“I took this job because I saw tremendous potential for equestrian sport and the USEF as a leader in equestrian sport,” said Welton, a former attorney out of Atlanta, who has an extensive marketing background, including working as the exclusive marketing representative of the International Olympic Committee and running an international sport marketing consultancy. “These meetings have just reaffirmed that optimism that I have and what I think is a tremendous opportunity.”
The concerns over budget, restructure and membership stagnation were linked in a circular fashion. Last year, a government restructure reduced the unwieldy BOD from more than 50 members to 19 using a precise model for representation. The idea was to put more of the rule change work and technical business of running the sports into the hands of those who were closer to it and leave the big picture strategic planning to the reduced BOD.
But at that same meeting, high performance riders and drivers spoke up about how they desperately needed more funds to be serious contenders at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in France. So the decision was made to come up with that money by using surplus and savings, a radical departure from previous years, when the Federation has always been in the black.
So when this year’s meeting rolled around, the non-FEI disciplines and breed affiliates were feeling a bit left out in the cold. The planned deficit of about $700,000 had grown to $1.3 million thanks to a variety of unplanned costs, many of which were related to the World Games, while the national breeds and disciplines actually ran a surplus thanks to some unexpected income from a saddleseat championship and the USEF high school equestrian athlete program. Add that to the change in representation on the BOD, and it led to worry that the tiny sliver of high performance athletes were getting far too much of the pie when it came to USEF resources.
Setting things to rights began with a serious closed-door meeting between USEF President Chrystine Tauber, Welton, Taylor, Connell and the members of the National Breeds and Disciplines Council. “It was a very honest, forthright dialogue,” said U.S. Hunter Jumper Association President Bill Moroney. “It was a good back and forth.”
Moroney said that representation, or lack thereof, on the BOD was a major sticking point.
“All logic says we should all be able to [let go of breed or discipline bias], but even if we can, the perception of a great number of people is we can’t,” he said. “Sometimes you have to acknowledge that and be willing to say that’s something we may not be able to overcome or change in its entirety, so maybe we need to make a few structural tweaks in order that it doesn’t derail us and distract us from doing the right thing.”
He suggested looking at the bylaws to see if the representation could be tweaked. While the Ted Stevens Act requires 20 percent athlete representation on the BOD, that doesn’t mean they can’t also hold other positions. Chester Weber is the new BOD secretary/treasurer, but he’s also a high performance athlete, so he could count toward the 20 percent quota, and someone from the national side could take a superfluous athlete spot.
The other thing that calmed worried members was Welton’s insistence that the deficit of 2014 was the result of a building year and not a pattern for the future.
“I’m calling 2015 a foundation year,” he said. “If you take a snapshot of the organization, it’s very healthy. But the fact that we lost money last year, and we’re dipping into reserves to have a balanced budget this year—not reserves, but what we call surplus—that’s not a trend that you want to see. I want to reverse that trend, first of all.”
And that’s where his marketing expertise will come in handy. Welton has plans to make a major push to grow USEF membership in order to create more resources and support for everyone.
“Virtually all of our revenue numbers, our entry numbers, our membership numbers, are slightly down,” he said. “By every metric we’re flatlining. You put them on a screen and say this metric is going like this, this metric is going like this, and over and over again you realize we’re stagnant. Our membership is aging. The over-50 portion of our membership is increasing, and the under-21 portion of our membership is decreasing. We’ve got to reverse that, not just for the organization, but for the sport.”
Part of his plan to reverse this trend involves hiring outside marketing consultants to help reach new markets and sponsors.
“If you look at 30 million households out there that have some affinity for horses, it doesn’t take very many of them to grow our membership,” he said. “As we take our network and improve it and encourage others to take their networks and improve them and get more equestrian media, the big thing for me is also getting a robust sponsor program where we’ve got commercial brands and consumer brands leveraging against equestrian. You do that, and they start communicating on your behalf.”
He used that last-day multi-hour planning session with the BOD to lay out a plan, starting with a very clear definition of the USEF’s mission, vision and goals for growth.
“You could see a clear bonding on the national and international side and with the breeds,” said Tauber. “Everybody is very excited now about the new plan that we have for moving forward and the collaboration that we’re going to have with the breeds and various affiliates.
“It’s a wonderful new direction that we’re going in by having a plan and having goals that we’re going to achieve that are measurable and move forward,” she continued. “This is going to move us in the direction of what they’ve referred to as synergy. [Welton] tied it all in from winning medals to bringing in sponsor dollars to having more programs that filter all the way down and around to the national side. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
While Welton talked about concrete goals for the organization, he said he had one very specific goal for himself. “That is that at this time next year when we come to this meeting, we’ve validated ourselves,” he said. “We’re back on track to reverse the downward trend in both memberships and finances. When I came here at the start of the week there was a certain amount of negativity because people have heard a lot of things before, and I hear that this meeting has often been Groundhog Day. I want next year not to be Groundhog Day. I want people to come in sort of excited that we are doing what we need to do to get on the right track.”
To read a more in depth account of the USEF Annual Meeting including details on new rule changes and award winners, be sure to check out the Feb. 9 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.