Meet the Sydney Bulldogs' Kiwi CEO

Last updated 05:00 24/11/2014

Kiwi Raelene Castle is the NRL’s second ever female boss.

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Surely, it wasn't in the job description. But moments after the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs lost last month's grand final of the 2014 National Rugby League premiership, the club's CEO Raelene Castle walked out on to the field at Sydney's ANZ Stadium and embraced each of her devastated players.

"It was amazing to share tears with a six foot five, 120kg man," says Castle, standing 5ft 7in (1.7m) in her designer heels. "I was concerned for them. And that's when leadership comes to the fore."

The fact that these bone-crushing hard men hugged and sobbed with her was a mark of the respect the Bulldogs hold for their Kiwi female boss. 

The former chief of Netball New Zealand feels "100% accepted", both as the first woman CEO in the league club's 80-year history and as a New Zealander running an Australian institution: "Apart from them mercilessly taking the mickey out of my accent." 

Passionate Doggies fans also claim some ownership of her. Castle was born in the New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga, where her father, former New Zealand rugby league captain Bruce Castle, was coaching the local Turvey Park team. She moved to New Zealand at three months old. 

"They say, 'Well, she really is an Australian at heart'," the 43-year-old laughs. 

"The other, more important, thing has been their realisation that I genuinely respect and believe in rugby league. If I was a Johnny-come-lately sports administrator, using the NRL as a stepping stone in my career, they would have smelled it 1000 miles away. Having a baseline knowledge of the game was an incredible strength coming into this role."

Adjusting to life in Sydney over the past 16 months hasn't been difficult, other than the challenge of rebuilding her business networks. 

"I spent 20 years in Auckland building up my go-to people, advice people, and people to have a glass of wine with," she says. "A chief executive role can be quite lonely, so you need that network - a safe environment to go and discuss crazy ideas or challenging situations. It's been slow, but I've found people I'm comfortable sharing ideas with."

Her biggest support comes from partner, Greg Jones. A former buyer for The Warehouse, he moved to Sydney with Castle, but travels regularly back to New Zealand, working in property development. 

The first female CEO in the NRL since fellow Kiwi Liz Dawson (chief executive of the Adelaide Rams in 1997), Castle suspects fewer eyebrows would have been raised in New Zealand had she been appointed in a significant male sporting code here. "New Zealand needs to celebrate its gender diversity," she says. 

"There is still a level of curiosity in Australia, which is in no way disrespectful. For one thing, I dress differently to everyone else."

It's not unusual for coaches and players to walk into Castle's office at the Belmore Sports Ground, 15km south-west of Sydney's CBD, as she's applying bright lipstick. "I think it's hilarious. I don't want to be anything different from that. My love of fashion is as strong as my love of football." 

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She has the credentials: a six-year stint as Netball NZ's CEO, after heading business marketing at Telecom, and marketing and communications positions at Fuji Xerox, Southern Cross and BNZ.

"My experience working with the Silver Ferns has allowed me to have credible conversations about high performance sport, which I couldn't have had coming straight out of the commercial world. Not many people have developed commercial and high performance skills side-by-side," she says.

Since she's been at the end of the Bulldogs' lead, Castle has stamped her mark, sometimes controversially. There was a fan outcry when she evolved the Bulldog Belles cheerleaders to more modestly-attired "club ambassadors". Keen to do more for the female league audience (a significant 45% following), she's negotiating with a cosmetics firm to produce nail polish in the club's signature blue and white. 

Early in her tenure, she didn't dodge a volley of club crises, like claims of a cover-up of domestic violence allegations involving star Ben Barba. "I had a chance to step up and take on some difficult situations, and I took it as an opportunity to give people in our organisation the confidence that I was capable of leading through situations."

Castle also tackles "feedback" she cops regularly from Bulldogs fans through Twitter. "Sometimes it's really challenging and confronting, but if you take a positive view, you quickly get an awareness of how the fans are feeling, and use that to ultimately help manage the business," she says.

She's built a solid relationship with gruff Bulldogs coach Des Hasler, helping recruit players and run a football department capable of winning the NRL. "We overachieved in everything but winning the grand final this year," Castle says. 

It's also her job to maintain a stable financial base (with a $24 million annual income, it is one of the more fiscally sound clubs in the league), and see that "The Family Club" gives back to the community, promoting learning to read, anti-bullying and party-safe messages. 

A wall of glass separating Castle's desk from the gymnasium at Belmore serves as a two-way insight into the Bulldogs' operation.

"I see the players and members of the football department there every day, and it's really important that they also recognise if it wasn't for the hard work the back office and the commercial guys put in, they wouldn't be able to play football," she says. 

For 40 weeks of the year, it's a 6.5 day-a-week job. "It's very full-on, but when you're part of an extraordinary game of footie, you think 'Wow, this is why I'm involved'," says Castle.  The drawback is the former New Zealand mixed pairs lawn bowls champion hasn't stepped on a bowling green since arriving in Sydney.

"But I love my job. I still pinch myself often. The Bulldogs are such an iconic brand in the NRL, with the reputation of a very staunch culture. For me to lead them is truly incredible."  

- Unlimited

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