Interview: Helen Taylor, CEO of Forest Green Rovers
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Helen Taylor is one of the few female chief executives in the traditional football world. Here she tells Katie Jarvis about her Cotswold Life
Helen Taylor spent much of her early career in the dairy industry – something of an irony, considering she now runs Forest Green Rovers, the only vegan football club in the world. She first approached its owner, Dale Vince, some eight years ago, in a bid to learn more about his work in sustainability. The two instantly clicked, and he had no hesitation in appointing her as one of the few women chief executives in a distinctly man’s world.
Since then, there’s been no looking back for either. Last May, Forest Green beat Tranmere Rovers in the National League final at Wembley, winning promotion to the English Football League for the first time in their 128-year history. What’s more, hailing from Nailsworth – with its population of under 6,000 - they’re the smallest club ever to have competed at that level. Helen and her team of staff regularly have to manage matches of several thousand spectators, and an ever-growing fan-base. “We have a wonderful mix of fans,” she says, “from bouncy teenagers to much older supporters, some of whom themselves once played for the club. We’ve even got a very posh lady who gets extremely animated when things don’t go quite to plan!”
Helen also works with Dale’s other business, the green-energy supplier Ecotricity, running its charity, the Green Britain Foundation.
Where do you live and why?
I live in Bradford on Avon, which isn’t the Cotswolds… but (to use a football term) I’m a huge Cotswold supporter! It’s not far from where I was brought up - in Norton St Philip, near Bath. My dad, who died when I was 16, was a writer for Punch magazine; I used to sit opposite him, in his little boiler house at the back of our 300-year-old cottage, while he did his articles (a lot of them on cricket), and I wrote endless stories about getting a pony. I did eventually get a chestnut mare called Nellie, after saving up everything I had. Sadly, on our fourth day together, her foot went down a rabbit-hole and that was the end of my dream.
Mum was an artist, who had awful rheumatoid arthritis from the age of 21, which meant she struggled to walk. She was lovely: incredibly organized and hard-working. As a result of her illness, my sister and I grew up to be very independent.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
I’ve worked here for seven-and-a-half years. When I initially reached out to Dale, I was at the Soil Association in Bristol, overseeing the certification of organic food, beauty and textiles. I’d already met Dale two or three times previously and was intrigued; he seemed the real deal. My main motivation was to learn new things, especially about renewable energy, but I also had skills I thought could contribute to his vision.
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What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
I’d come down to Nailsworth with my partner, Nick Rogers, on a Friday and book into Wild Garlic [a bistro with rooms] and maybe eat at Wilder [the sister restaurant]: we went to Wilder recently and it was amazing. Saturday morning, we’d call into Hobbs café or the Canteen, before making our way up to the football ground at lunchtime, just as the stewards are being briefed. I always enjoy meeting special guests there, such as Guy Watson – the founder of Riverford Foods - and his wife, Geetie, who have become real friends. In my ideal world, the sun would go down as the match was still being played, which turns the sky a beautiful and dramatic pink.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I’d build a little cottage on the top of Rodborough Common, next to Winstones Ice Cream shop. It’s another world up there. But I’d also use the cash to invest even more in the Green Britain Foundation. The charity aims to encourage more sustainable living by focusing on energy, transport, food, and making space for nature. If people were to make one change – and this isn’t biased – they should look at where their energy comes from. Fossil fuels use far too much of your carbon footprint.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Just down the road from Forest Green Rovers, simply because I’m a bit of a workaholic.
Where’s the best place to eat in the area?
Here, at Forest Green Rovers! We went fully vegan two years ago, on the Vegan Society’s birthday. When we first took meat off the menu, there was a bit of ‘Who do you think you are?’ but we made a point of producing the most amazing food. We work with Star Anise – Dale’s favourite café in Stroud – who appointed Em Franklin to cook for us. The footballers love the food and we’ve run cooking sessions for them (which all but the French players needed!). It’s not a requirement but Dale Bennett, who has been in the squad the longest, has become vegan, and other players have significantly reduced their meat consumption. They’ve seen the health and performance benefits.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
The Upper Lock Café is my second office when I’m in Stroud because I never get round to booking a meeting room. (And they’re very lovely in there.)
What would you do for a special occasion?
The most exciting occasion, without a doubt, was being promoted to League Two. We’d been to Wembley the previous year and were ousted by Grimsby, which was devastating. As a result, it was very hard to go back again last year… but absolutely unbelievable when we won. I organized an after-party in the Sky Bar at the Hilton, which was so crazy that we ended up being thrown out! It makes me cry with happiness to look at the pictures.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The scenery, the stone, the cottages, the farming, the sunset.
... and the worst?
The biting wind you get up here. We not only the smallest club in the league; we’re also one of the highest.
Which shop could you not live without?
We have our own retail space here at the ground, where we sell our replica shirts, socks, woolly hats, badges and mugs. These sales are significant not only in terms of income but also of branding. When we went vegan, we had people from all over the world – China, Australia, America – buying our shirts because they liked the ethos. One group of Norwegian fans comes over regularly as much for the food as the football.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
That, here in the Cotswolds, we’re leading the world in sustainable sport. We’re the only club in Britain with an organic pitch, which we aerate to activate the microorganisms, nourish with seaweed, and water with rain that we harvest. We have a battery-operated grounds kit charged by 100 percent green energy; and anyone can use our electric points for powering vehicles. We’ve share a lot of our practices through our charity Sustainability in Sport, a joint venture between Dale and Gary Neville. When Gary retired from Manchester United, he began building an eco-home and became very interested in sustainability.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
A Forest Green Rovers supporter (of course)!
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
The salads here are amazing, so we’d start with a panzanella – tomato and croutons – followed by a Q pie: vegan Quorn pieces in a leek sauce with puff pastry. For pudding, it’s got to be one of Em’s cakes – probably my favourite, the chocolate biscuit cake.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
When we were young, my sister and I used to stay on Cranham Common for a week each summer, where our grandparents lived. We’d go to Prinknash; to the cheese-rolling at Cooper’s Hill; and to Cavendish House with my step-grandmother (who was very posh!). I remember finding big puffballs on the common, and exploring the beautiful wood behind their house. When I was little, it seemed like the highest place in the world.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds.
Sunshine: we always seem to win when it’s sunny, and it helps our solar-power;
Water: the rain keeps the grass smooth so the ball can glide;
And summer, when our rare orchids flower attracting all kinds of insects and birds.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
My favourite building WILL be the wooden stadium we’re planning to build at Junction 13 – Stroud District Council should be considering our plans early in the New Year. It’s Zaha Hadid-designed, using sustainably-sourced wood: high conservation, low impact. We’ll have all our training pitches there – currently our players train in Chippenham, an hour away – as well as providing a home for our youth academy: everything on one site. It should be finished three or four years from the granting of planning permission.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I’d never think twice about having a woman in charge of a football club, even though there aren’t that many of us in the English Football League. When I was first appointed, Forest Green were such a small club - known for doing things differently - that no one took much notice. But, since then, we seem to have done all right! A typical game, including away fans, is around 2,700. It’s still small compared to the Lutons and the Grimsbys, but we punch above our weight.
Starter homes or executive properties?
In any beautiful place, you tend to find the next generation can’t buy property, which is incredibly sad. Part of the onus has to be on employers to make sure young people get a decent wage. We employ nearly 900 people at Ecotricity, and I would hope we give many of them a reasonable springboard for getting onto the property ladder.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
In terms of regular fans: Birmingham, Bristol, Stonehouse and Swindon.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
I’d say an FGR scarf, except for the fact that I’d choose somewhere warm. So it would have to be a football for the beach. I do play with family but I’m rubbish. (Just don’t tell the players that.)
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
We get a lot of players coming to us who are new to the Cotswolds. Some, such as Omar Bugiel [a Lebanese footballer] come from abroad; others, like our goalkeeper Sam Russell, are from elsewhere in this country. My advice is always to explore the beauty and discover the friendliness.
And which book should they read?
Anything by Jilly Cooper. We know she’s writing a book about football – Tackle! - and we’re awaiting it with bated breath It’s not about Forest Green but she’s learned a lot from us, including accompanying us to Wembley twice. She loves the football world – she’s constantly asking about how a club runs and the psychology of the sport; she also worries about the players’ welfare and how they feel if they aren’t picked for the team.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
We own a field above the pitch, just opposite the [Ecotricity] windmill, where we host a party for people who work for us. I love walking there in the lull just before everyone arrives. The view is phenomenal.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Stroud Fringe, which seems typical of everything Stroud represents and values: fun, music, water, engagement.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I sometimes think I am invisible. Being a woman who doesn’t come from the football world, I often watch games – such as when we played Swindon recently – without anyone knowing who I am. All the attention is on Dale, and that can be very useful. I get to see things from a different angle.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To Dale Vince, of course! He’s an entrepreneur with a vision, who does things for the right reason. He’s made a lot of people’s lives richer, and I don’t just mean financially.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
Just as they are.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I would have said Gary Neville, but I’ve already shared a few drinks with him! (I love his story: how, from the age of five, all he wanted to do was to play for Manchester United.) So, instead, it would be Sir Alex Ferguson: an incredible manager. To think of him bringing on the Class of ’92 [David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes] is absolutely phenomenal. I’d like to know his secret.
Forest Green Rovers are based at The New Lawn, Another Way, Nailsworth GL6 0FG.
For details of upcoming matches, visit the Forest Green Rovers website.