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Bartosz Wolny, Warta Poznan: “We have a nice foundation to build a strong brand”

Warta Poznan is a special club in Poland. A small club, focusing on becoming green, on building a strong brand, on doing things differently. Maybe also because their CEO, Bartosz Wolny, is a former banker and has a different view of how to build and lead an organisation. For this interview we talked to Wolny and Wartas Marketing Director Jaroslaw Żubka.

Warta wants to become a green club. How?

Bartosz Wolny: We did our first audit this year, an environmental one, using an external body that simply measured us – how many buses we drive, how many plastic bottles we use and how many children at the Warta Poznan Academy are brought in by car from different corners of the city, i.e., how much we are harming the planet. We measured this and gained an awareness of how the football club is negatively impacting the environment. We want to methodically change this situation.

So, we have measured starting points. We know, for example, that we use several tens of thousands of plastic bottles per year. We now want to improve this, and the relevant provisions will be included in the signing of the contract with the new water supplier. We have already together with our logistics partner replaced the club bus with one that has lower CO2 emissions.

We are looking at environmentally committed clubs that are already much further along this path. Forest Green Rovers is such a model club for us.

But it also can’t be that we suddenly stop everything and be ‘extreme’ because it can end badly here. We want to achieve the goal gradually, and we give ourselves a few years to improve.

Certainly, the club is already differentiating itself in this respect, it’s just a question of whether this is just an image issue, or it also has some deeper meaning.

Bartosz Wolny: We do not want to do greenwashing, hence the need for an environmental audit and the implementation of the club’s environmental policy.

Image is important – as a club we can and want to inspire, educate. Set processes in motion that will translate into results in the long term. An example – replacing plastic water bottles with large bulk containers and having all our teams use bidons. On an annual basis, that’s several thousand fewer plastic containers as waste from our operations.

We wanted to introduce, let’s call it, a way of managing the club’s water from the ‘bidon’ side earlier, but Covid got in the way a bit when everything had to be sterile, individual, disposable etc.

Ecology doesn’t come cheap.

Bartosz Wolny: That’s it in a nutshell – Eco is not cheap and at the moment we are talking to several big brands about wrapping such a policy with their branding and doing it together, i.e. if they change something and we change it into pro-ecology activities, why can’t we enter into such a cooperation with a partner who in turn can use our communication potential – outreach, outreach channels, ambassadors. 

We are very curious about other foreign and Polish solutions. We are eager to see, to read and to be inspired by the customer. But the fact that we do similar things, we can implement them under one denominator – so why not try it?

Bartosz Wolny, CEO

Jaroslaw Żubka, Marketing Director

Does this also mean that the club’s sponsors, partners will have to buy into this approach of sustainability? Or should you finally translate this into partners as well?

Bartosz Wolny: That is the aim, but it is still a matter of time. We must build up the club’s budget and we can’t afford to dress up in companies at the moment, but there is the idea that the key to establishing partnerships is the business entity’s approach to ecology. This is the direction we want to go in.

Our development and promotion to the Ekstraklasa came at a difficult time for business – first COVID19 and now the war in Ukraine. But as I mentioned we want to move in this direction. Customers are also becoming green. It’s that at a certain point we started to have some partners on our sleeves, on our shirts, in general around the club, who were sensitive to environmental issues. The question was whether they came because we were already there and started talking about it, or whether it was really just that the market was also tilting this way. We are going anyway and the fact that the whole market is going there helps us a little bit.

The German Bundesliga, for example, is beginning to set standards in relation to the construction of new stadiums or the modernisation of existing stadiums under the direction of sustainability.

Bartosz Wolny: We started talking about the stadium – we know what certificates can be used.  For example, BREEAM certificates are used. Unfortunately, implementing all the standardisations makes it very expensive to realise an investment. We have to look for the golden mean. That’s why we need inspiration, we visit different facilities. Our idea for the facility, which we are working on under the working title ‘open stadium’, has several aspects:

The first is licensing issues. It must meet those requirements that are written in the handbook for clubs playing in the highest leagues in Poland.

The second thing: these are our criteria which we want to introduce in the context of the stadium precisely in terms of the eco conditions we are very keen on: e.g. that the façade is green, water recovery, control of energy consumption, photovoltaics, bee hives, etc., which we have already put up in such a distributed formula (we have our own club apiary).

Behind one gate in the new stadium, we will have a wall of greenery that will ‘breathe’. We are in the Wilda district, which is just being revitalised. One green wall won’t save the air in the whole district, but we are trying to move in the right direction.

We have a favourable location for the facility. We are close to the city centre in a long green belt, and we want to fit into that.

The stadium will be built here, next to the club office building?

Bartosz Wolny: Yes. The design of the stadium is currently being developed. There will be three stands, there will be a main stand consisting of several levels and two other stands. One of them is planned without the deeper business facilities. There will also be a building behind the gate, which we want to make a kind of centre, something like an Ecology Centre, a Clean Water Centre, an Energy Recovery Centre. We’ll see what kind of partners we’ll be able to get here, but we want it to go in such an educational and ecological direction. This is the direction we are going in.

The stadium will be for a few thousand seats. We are not saying that suddenly we need 20,000 seats, because we think that an attendance of 5-6 thousand spectators at a match would be optimal.  Anyway, the fan profile is also changing. We want to take care of a few thousand people who will come here not only for the matches, but also to show that they care. We want that fan profile to be engaged, aware. If we can find 5,000-6,000 people who will turn up at the stadium in this format, that’s what we want to achieve.

You want to engage the fan outside the match days?

Bartosz Wolny: I would say, our stadium is even an open facility hence the play on words in the working name ‘otWarty’. The club’s name also has this ambiguity. “Warta” is a river and “warta” is also about standing guard. We want to stand for values. It is supposed to be an education- sports complex.

This is how we position ourselves in communication with the public, with ministerial offices, with the magistrate. We are already looking for money for this investment, but we want this facility to be open all the time, not just once every fortnight for 90 minutes. We are also thinking about a summer cinema, we are even managing it in such a way that this stand will allow entry outside the day of the match. We are very close to the Warta boulevards, where life is returning. The stadium can continue to be a cool leisure activity – recreation for residents.

What about themes like E-sport or gaming?

Bartosz Wolny: Over time, certainly. We are aware that we have grown up a generation for whom these are important issues.

Jaroslaw Żubka: We have already spoken to various entities about this. These are companies that know their stuff. For now, we have said yes to each other – not all at once.

Bartosz Wolny: We have a lot of enquiries from different sides, but not too fast. We just can’t say we’re doing everything. We had a conversation recently about the creation of another section.

We have an amp football team, which has been developing for three years and this is also an important direction for us. In hard times we took on the idea, because here we had to organise a lot, manage it properly, find a budget for it and communicate it well. The project is absorbing, but we found that this is the kind of thing that fits into the club’s policy.

Another project is the women’s football section. This is a need not only in our community but a global trend.

We don’t wait with some topics, but some are still parked and maybe a good moment to start with a particular initiative will be new stadium, because even physically we have to accommodate somewhere with these ideas.

Interest in women’s football is growing. How can these projects translate into attendance?

Bartosz Wolny: We are in a city that already has a big club, uses a big stadium and we have to go down a different path.

We need to go down a path also outside sport, so we said to ourselves that we need an idea for ourselves, to show ourselves from with a different offer. It seems to me that we are reaching a slightly different audience, although there are a lot of fans in Poznań who support both Warta and Lech. And we like that, because we don’t have to do this profiling by force. Although without a stadium it’s hard to build such things.

Jaroslaw Żubka: When we researched the profile of Warta Poznań fans, it turned out, for example, that we have a lot of women among our supporters – 30 percent of the surveyed audience. Our audience are students, because we are surrounded by universities. This is an interesting group for us, because on the one hand they are really aware and searching, and on the other hand they will be working and earning money in a while, so it also makes sense business-wise.

The fact that we will have a stadium with an audience of several thousand will create an aura of uniqueness, of elitism. People may in such a situation strive to be in the stands. Surely this effect of curiosity will come. We will create such a space for ourselves, a niche maybe, just like in the case of FC St. Pauli – where tickets are sold out and people want to be at these matches even though they have a big and more successful club, Hamburger SV, right across their neighbourhood.

Your group of supporters will be a fairly diverse group, which will translate later on for potential Sponsors.

Bartosz Wolny: It used to be said that a Warta fan is so much more, let’s call it – sublime. I say that used to be the case, Warta hadn’t practically been at the premier league level for 25 years, and before that, after the war, it had only been around for a while. The Warta fan has “aged”, and so we need to win over a new group of supporters. But we also look at this social structure in such a way that it is a grandfather who comes with his grandson today or would come if there was a stadium in Poznań, because today this grandfather has to travel to Grodzisk Wlkp. We know that this can be a call.

We can ‘educate’ ourselves with fans, but it will be a process. It will probably take 5-10 years, but we don’t want to lose what was associated with Warta before, that it is such a ‘cultural’, ‘family’ customer. You can see this in many of the photos of the history of the club. What strikes me in these photos is firstly the mass of people, and secondly the fact that they are in white shirts.

We want to go back to that, so that a match is an important event for the people.

What are the ideas to reach the younger generation?

Bartosz Wolny: The aforementioned e-sports is some kind of pathway. We know that the young “consume” a sports spectacle differently, they are less patient – more multimedia.

This year is the club’s 110th anniversary. Our activities here have not focused on some boisterous fireworks, but more on an educational form. An exhibition, a city game, an outdoor campaign, video materials that show the commonly unknown faces of Warta. People do not know, for example, that Warta is a club which to this day is on the 9th place in the all-time medal ranking when it comes to competing for the Polish football championship. Here was the first radio broadcast of a football match in Poland. It was Warta who also played in the first ever match in the country with artificial lighting. We played against the likes of A.C. Milan, PSV Eindhoven, etc. These things will never disappear from history, but need to be remembered. We are now the third oldest club in the Ekstraklasa – after Cracovia and Widzew. We have a nice foundation to build a strong brand, but as has already been mentioned, we also want to build this brand on aspects that are important for our community or, in the case of ecological aspects, thinking globally.

Jaroslaw Żubka: To get back to the question – yes, we are at a stage where everyone is wondering how to attract that younger generation. There is an oversaturation of entertainment. Everything out there is at our fingertips. It needs a holistic approach, not just the match itself. Maybe also a different way for consuming the match e.g., as an essential part of a social event.

Bartosz Wolny: Football clubs focus on the matchday but they should focus on every day of the month. A supporter can live the values that the club professes all the time, and a match day is just on part of it.

The second thing that Jarek and I have been analysing and slowly implementing for a long time, but we are still a long way off, is the Quality Policy. I come from a world where the NPS (net promoter score) was an indicator of the quality of doing business.

If we have a customer or an engaged supporter, he or she will not only talk about the sport but will talk about how he or she perceives the club in general holistically. And we have a lot of touch points with the supporter. The online shop, the entrance to the stadium, what they see on the pitch, the quality of the catering, the quality of our communication – does the fan even understand our message? Are we accessible? There are a lot of such points.

For some reason, people go to Disneyland and don’t go to, for example, to Lunapark. We want to go that level higher, so that it’s not just quality, it’s such a customer experience for the customer. This is a dream for me. But in order to fully plan and realise it, we need to play in Poznań at our facility. When the stadium is ready, our ideas will be implemented.

In such a situation without your own stadium in your own city, digitalisation and digital communication channels become even more important, right?

Bartosz Wolny: Our social media reach continues to grow. We have a relatively small base, but a healthy one because people are engaged.

We did some research. We are doing well in various rankings. We are noticed, we are ‘someone’. We may not be the biggest, but we are appreciated, and we are growing steadily. It seems to me if we were to accelerate too much now, it would break down.

Warta not only has a green image, but the club also has a generally positive image. People like the club for thinking out of the box and being open. 

Bartosz Wolny: I come from the world of banking, where banks competed with each other, but still talked to each other. BLIK came about because it was part of the conversation between banks. In the football environment, I don’t think we talk with each other enough. In Polish football there are more areas for change, for disenchantment, for greater fan involvement. Surely it can be disenchanted a bit that it is already safe in the stadiums.

Jaroslaw Żubka: Just look at Germany and their approach when, for example, Borussia helps Schalke because it builds the value of the league – a big rival across the border from their perspective leads to overall development. In Poland I don’t think there is that kind of thinking. I think it’s still the case that football, sports in general, doesn’t attract people who innovate the organisation. Rather, it grinds on and there is no change. We enter another year and we have had the same thing. There is a lack of other perspectives and reference points.

Bartosz Wolny: And I wouldn’t want to limit it to just supporting. We talk all the time about sport, about football, and that is the most important thing, but we have it written in our documents that 51 per cent of our time is devoted to sport, but still 49 per cent to changing this club into some form.

When we talk to sponsors, frankly, they’re more focused on the latter form, because sport is really all about showing their brand in their mind. It’s known that they care about the Ekstraklasa, because it’s television, but in fact they ask – but what else?

My dream is – it may sound over-ambitious – that Warta should be the second-choice club for everyone in Poland. Let a Górnik fan support Górnik and be a Górnik fanatic in general, etc., but let him check afterwards how Warta did in the match, even if he didn’t watch it. My point is that we should be a bit of a club above the regional one. I think we already have a few projects that could easily work all over Poland. I mean actions and initiatives that you can identify with.

And isn’t the fact that the club’s CEO is from outside the sport more of an asset than a disadvantage?

Bartosz Wolny: I think it’s not about the CEO of the club, it’s about the people in general who are here. It’s a small group of people, but they’re all very committed. The fact that I have a different perspective probably helps a bit with that. But I think the size of the club also helps. The fact that we have the youngest coach, the youngest assistant coach is in his twenties. It’s not about doing things by force, we just have to go our own way, it just happens to us sometimes by accident.

Jaroslaw Żubka: We also have the advantage of not overwhelming pressure from fans. From these surveys that have recently been done it appears that the fan appreciates it for what it is, how we performed last season. Expectations are not immediately inflated. They appreciate us for our management, for being in the ESG area. These are small drops, but it is easier to work when we are not immediately under fire for the bad sporting result.

Many of these decisions and bold projects are unusual and new for the Polish football market, and still you achieved sporting success.

Bartosz Wolny: The previous season was tough. I make no secret of the fact that a few projects had to be postponed. But we will come back to them. We won’t do everything now and at once, we need to stabilise ourselves and the rest will come.

How important is marketing for you?

Bartosz Wolny: Marketing is very important. Good design is communicated on three levels:

Upwards to the Supervisory Board, to project participants and to the Market. This is largely done by the marketing and communications department. When I came here two years ago, our marketing and communications team was three people. And today there are six.

We have reached the point where we are working out the position of a board representative for creative activities and ESG policy. We want to go further, and we want to build an image based on real action.

That’s where some part of the budget goes. The world is brutal and the position of the sports division is still significant; the salaries of the players and the sports department in general. It is a process, but we are also moving towards the development of technology.

In the development of the club for the period 2020-2023 we focus on the following issues:

Infrastructure – mainly the stadium – we are a sports club, so we wanted to build ourselves consciously around sport, quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively with more sections, qualitatively with more quality players, including the leading role of Polish players. Then we have finances, i.e. the structure of revenues, sponsorship in general, commercialisation and so on. Then the community and that’s building a community around the Club, i.e. what kind of supporters we want, where we want to get them from, etc.  The last pillar is the organisation, that is, in short, the digitisation of processes within the company.

It is about building the right structure, about recruiting the right people.

Warta is already well transformed digitally; we’re running on a project management system.

But we are missing the yardsticks. When I don’t have numbers, I don’t know if it’s a lot or a little; if it’s near or far. My bosses always told me – “If a horse can’t see the bar, it doesn’t jump.” I would like to know where that bar is hanging.

Are you working with a CRM system?

Bartosz Wolny: We have a CRM system in place and we run several types of campaigns. We have sales campaigns, quality campaigns, purely information campaigns. That is, in short, we want to sell something, we want to inform about something, we want to build quality, acquire a customer or we just want to inform about something. Such campaigns are happening. But I would say the ambitions are bigger, because I think that maybe we even started too fast and had too high expectations, but I think that in some time this club really can be managed digitally, modern, although a lot of these things are already happening.

What was the biggest success and what the biggest failure of the club and where do you see Warta Poznan in 5 years?

Bartosz Wolny: It seems to me that it is and will be a success for us to ‘not drift away’. However, we have the smallest budget in the Ekstraklasa. When we counted the efficiency of the budget versus the number of points, I think we are always around the first place. The big efficiency of the club is certainly our biggest success.

In my opinion, the next greatest success is that this club through the last years has rebuilt its brand. We are indeed seen as different, but in a positive sense. We have become credible and that is a big value. The value is of course the people. It’s a great success because we are a small team of about 20 people, but these people really give great quality to this club.

And the biggest failure?

Bartosz Wolny: We still don’t have a stadium. For three years we are talking but we are still at the level of projects. The stadium we have now doesn’t meet any criteria, not even for the second tier.

And where do we see yourselves in 5 years?

Jaroslaw Żubka: We’ll see you in five years in the new stadium. Full service, full attendance, full stadium, great, like it’s the Premier League.

Bartosz Wolny: Exactly. And what I want to add: It is great that we play in the Ekstraklasa, but with good management and sensible development of the club the Ekstraklasa is not necessary for Warta to be a strong brand and have supporters.

Interview by Robert Zlotnicki.

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