As our veterans fall, a new sun rises

SCOTT YEOMAN
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2014

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At 5.40PM on this particular Wednesday evening, the Howick RSA feels forgotten.

There is an elderly man sitting by himself in the restaurant area, sipping his handle of beer while he waits for the kitchen to open. Sky Sport is muted on two flat-screen TVs and, over it, Coast FM is playing quietly in the background.

A few punters float around in the pokies area.

A middle-aged couple finish up a game of pool and leave with a friendly wave to a small group of men nursing drinks by the bar.

This scene is not entirely unexpected - the New Zealand Returned Serviceman's Association (RSA) has been struggling for years.

It lost more than 11,500 members nationwide between 2010 and 2012 - a devastating drop that led to some unwise business decisions by RSAs attempting to cover their losses.

Palmerston North RSA invested in a motel business and lost tens of thousands of dollars within the first year. Johnsonville moved to bigger clubrooms in an attempt to expand but was caught at the wrong time in the financial crisis.

Others such as Takapuna and Wainuiomata were simply unable to attract new customers or upgrade out-dated facilities.

All four were forced to close as their debt became too big - Palmerston North and Wainuiomata in 2012, and Johnsonville and Takapuna earlier this year.

Of all RSA membership lost between 2010 and 2012, veterans account for 38 percent of it. This is despite them making up only an average of 15 percent of total membership during those three years.

This "natural attrition", as Howick RSA president Mike Cole calls it, has meant RSAs have had to change fast in order to survive. Cole says his club, in the eastern suburbs of Auckland, has re-evaluated things.

"You cannot run this sort of thing as an old ‘meet and greet' anymore," he says. "It has got to be a business first. If we don't make a profit, we can't do our main job - which is to look after our old guys."

This new business-before-club philosophy has trickled down from the national office in Wellington and appears to be turning things around.

It started with a changing of the guard at the beginning of last year. The revamp of RSA national management saw many long-time employees replaced and new roles introduced.

Five new people entered the national office, including David Moger as business development manager in March 2013. By December, he had replaced chief executive Dr Stephen Clarke, who had been top dog for five years.

Clarke had initiated a market research project in 2010 to find out what the public's perception of the RSA was. The results led to a rebranding in 2011 and then a structural transformation of the national body soon after.

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But the process was costly and, with membership falling by the thousands and the New Zealand hospitality sector still feeling the effects of the global financial crisis, the RSA was unable to cover its costs.

By June 2013 the incorporated society was sitting with a $637,777 deficit and a recruitment process was undertaken to hire people who could turn things around.

Moger brought with him an impressive business background, both in the commercial sector as well as in some big not-for-profit organisations, including Habitat for Humanity and World Vision.

The 50-year-old Englishman says the deficit he arrived to was the result of an "unfortunate" but "necessarily expensive" process.

He admits the replacing of old staff was difficult but necessary to help push forward a changed perception of the 98-year-old organisation.

"It had got to a point of the RSA being regarded as a bit of a closed door, a fairly old-fashioned and outdated model - so it was about updating and changing those perceptions."

To do this, Moger and his team have begun introducing a number of initiatives to attract new customers.

Moger talks like an excited salesman when explaining the RSA's new projects, using jargon-filled sentences about "creating new revenue streams" and "marketing and developing appropriate products".

He mentions a new tap beer the RSA will be introducing soon called Forces Ale, which has been developed in partnership with Independent Liquor.

There will also be updated merchandise - bearing a new logo - which will be available to buy from the RSAs around the country. He even hints at possible Outward Bound grants for members of returned or service families.

Moger also describes a potential craft beer partnership, which will involve tasting events at local RSAs and special discounts for members.

"If you are very dependent on one particular set of customers, income stream or product set, then that is a risk to your business," he says.

This also means changing the idea of RSA membership - a concept that has been around since the beginning.

"At the moment if you want to join, you have to join a local RSA. But people may not have an association or an interest at their local RSA or there may not even be one in their area."

Moger says the answer is the soon-to-be-launched RSA National Association.

This new initiative will be run online through the website, as well as social media, and will offer all the benefits of being a normal member without being tied to a local RSA.

All these individual projects serve the overall goal of changing perceptions and gaining new members, Moger says.

"There's no one silver bullet - there isn't a one-piece action that will radically change things. Predominantly, it's about creating a year-round connection to the RSA."

But are these new business ventures straining the historic connection our war veterans have to the RSA?

World War II veteran Jack Redman joined the Navy when he was 17 years old and fought and served for New Zealand around the world. The 90-year-old has been a member of the Howick RSA since arriving in the area in 1957. But he does not go to the clubrooms anymore.

He says this is mainly because his "old cobbers", who used to join him, have died.

"When we were younger there were a lot more of them but they're all dead now. I don't think I know any [of the veterans] who still go."

Redman thinks veteran membership will unfortunately "pass away quicker and quicker as every year goes by".

But despite this steady loss of veterans, Moger believes the identity of the RSA is not disappearing.

"We are still about the area of remembrance but we are also about championing the Anzac spirit," he says.

He believes this requires changing the old perception of "the RSA being only for ex-service personnel".

Mike Cole agrees, and says the basis of the RSA will always remain the same, even if its members are changing.

"You don't have to be a war member anymore or have anything to do with war. All you need to do is have an affinity, to want to join the RSA and what it stands for, that hasn't changed.

Almost half of Howick's members now fall under the "associate" category, which means they do not come from a military or service background.

But with live bands, beauty pageants, kids' discos, and a variety of other new initiatives aimed at appealing to a younger crowd, this traditional meeting place is changing for veterans.

Redman says he and his wife still went to the RSA for an occasional meal up until not that long ago, but a loud experience put them off.

But he accepts change is inevitable.

Cole says while some veterans have struggled to accept the changes, RSAs have to turn things around.

" It's no longer just a home to go up and drink beer and tell war stories - that's gone."

Moger says the veterans he has spoken to are becoming more aware of why the changes are necessary and want to be able to pass something on to others.

"They can see that what they fought for isn't just for their lifetime. The RSA is part of the legacy of being able to pass it on."

Redman's father was a Gallipoli veteran and it was this family legacy that caused Redman to join the RSA .

He says he will always remain a member because he believes the RSA is important "from the point of view of keeping the memories alive, sort of a tribute to the blokes who have done their bit".

Moger believes a similar passion is shared by most young New Zealanders.

"On Anzac Day the numbers are increasing massively and that's across New Zealand and it is particularly young people and young families."

He says the interest being generated by the World War I centenary next year has him confident the RSA is safe in the hands of the next generation.

"We are fielding a huge volume of interest - a huge percentage of the New Zealand population has got a connection to the RSA and so our relevancy is still huge."

This appeal to a younger audience has previously been a weak point of the RSA.

"Our promise has always been, ‘We will be there for you when you need us, when you're old and grey', and that kind of pension marketing doesn't work with youngsters."

In an attempt to change this, Moger has met the chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, to discuss new ways to encourage current personnel to join the RSA. He says he is also working with the New Zealand Cadet Force, and has had some initial discussions with the New Zealand Police.

But Private Lucas Peterson, who joined the New Zealand army in August last year, says the RSA is rarely mentioned at his barracks at Linton Army Camp, near Palmerston North.

"I don't think many people really know too much about it, because no-one really goes out of their way to push it."

The 19-year-old says he has been to the RSA a couple of times since joining the Army and says it feels different now he is a soldier.

"After going there a few times, you start to see the other side of it as well - the community part."

He thinks a change in perception is a good idea for the RSA.

"I used to think it was just about the old veterans - a place for them to catch up. And even if they are going away from that, it's still a means of keeping it how it was.

"They are trying to keep that memory alive but the only way they can do that is by reaching for a new demographic."

He says perceptions might change but the iconic institution will not.

"When we do go, we will understand that it's still about the fallen soldiers and all those people who have served."

The New Zealand RSA's next annual report, which shows the membership and financial figures for 2014, will be released in the next couple of months.

An overall drop in membership is still forecast but Moger says it is "only in the low thousands". He says the loss has been stemmed with the almost $700,000 deficit turned into a "substantial surplus".

The RSA is also in the process of re-establishing its Palmerston North and Wainuiomata clubs.

Moger's fresh business focus appears to have spread nationwide and is starting to show results.

By 6.40pm at the Howick RSA that Wednesday night there were hardly any tables left in the restaurant and people were still streaming in.

It was not forgotten after all. My first perception was wrong - I had just arrived too early.

- Sunday Star Times

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