Interview with Richard Blackledge: Sheffield venues chief's 20 years keeping city active and entertained
Steve Brailey appreciates the trials faced by sporting greats.
For the chief executive of Sheffield International Venues – operator of 17 sites dedicated to activity and entertainment including Ponds Forge, the City Hall and the arena – bravely leaps from the top diving board every week with fellow staff, it turns out.
“When you’re in your swimming trunks and on that diving board it doesn’t matter whether you’re the chief executive, managing director, the guy that sells the food or cleans the toilets. You’re all equal at that point,” he says.
“There’s no backing out and everyone’s watching you. And I can imagine, as an Olympic diver, thinking ‘What a lonely place this is’.”
It’s a practice that shifts perceptions, which is something of a watchword for Steve. The venues boss has been in charge of some of the city’s key sites for more than 20 years, but when he took the job a controversial sporting event still dominated discussion – the World Student Games of 1991.
“I couldn’t believe how negative people were when I arrived in Sheffield,” he says.
“The discussion about the World Student Games was a bit irrelevant – they’d built the facilities, spent the money, and what they needed to do is make the best use of them. Because you can’t turn the clock back, whether it was the right or wrong decision.
“I can still remember it vividly – I went to Hillsborough Leisure Centre and on the front door there were 34 individual notices. Of the 34, 29 told you things you couldn’t do. Everybody was always whinging.”
The city is ‘definitely more positive’ today, Steve feels.
“Within a year, Bob Kerslake took over as chief executive at the city council, and that triggered a different mindset. There was a point where we seemed to bury the argument.”
He adds: “I think Sheffield is still, like the rest of South Yorkshire, still very reluctant to shout about what we do well. It seems to be a natural trait. But slowly but surely the tide has turned.”
Steve grew up near Grimsby. His father was in the RAF and the family ‘moved around a lot’, but he made his way to Sheffield as a teenager to learn hotel and catering management at the Polytechnic, now Hallam University.
An early claim to fame was becoming the country’s youngest licensee aged 20 in 1976, when he ran a pub that had been opened on a barge in Grimsby.
More venues beckoned, many of them with now-defunct First Leisure – he managed squash clubs in Chesterfield and Croydon, oversaw the Marina Centre and Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth, ran the South Sea pier in Portsmouth and then went to the Fylde Coast to take the helm at Blackpool Tower.
The tower had its centenary from 1991 to 1994, during Steve’s tenure, attracting Royal visits from The Queen and Princess Diana. He also led the idea of painting the seafront structure gold to mark the occasion.
Steve then moved to Sheffield from Blackpool. At the time there were only four SIV venues, which had all been built for the 1991 student games – Hillsborough Leisure Centre, the arena, Ponds Forge and Don Valley Stadium.
He accepts that while the other sites have thrived, it was the ‘right decision’ to shut the 25,000-capacity stadium in 2013.
“The stadium itself was built for a specific purpose. It was a big space and required a lot of maintenance. You could stage big concerts, which was great, but overall it was costing quite a lot of money. Time had moved on.”
Two SIV facilities – the English Institute of Sport and iceSheffield – both lie within the Olympic Legacy Park at the Don Valley site, and the venues group has ‘agreed to look at the surrounding land’, says Steve.
Not that SIV has first refusal on new ventures in Sheffield. The council is obliged to tender for contracts when new sites open, a process that meant the Thorncliffe and Graves sports centres at High Green and Norton went to a different operator, Places for People.
“What I suppose is understandable, but disappointing, is that the council, or people within the council, have been forced to simply make decisions based on financial necessity, and in some instances have had to forget their social consciences and values,” Steve says.
“I don’t envy them – it must be really difficult and very challenging.”
Sheffield has been ‘particularly badly hit’ by cuts, he says. “It shows no sign of letting up.”
SIV is the operating arm of the Sheffield City Trust, set up by the council to own and maintain the local venues.
The trust is a charity, a fact SIV - which runs two sites outside of Sheffield, Scarborough Spa and Whitby Pavilion - should have made more ‘explicit’, Steve thinks.
“The trust’s primary objective is the health and wellbeing of the people of Sheffield.
“We don’t pay any dividends, and we don’t pay returns to anyone outside of Sheffield. We’re a big local employer and all the money is reinvested.”
Steve takes a close interest in the up-and-coming stars training at his facilities – ‘We were blessed with Jess Ennis’ – and is a keen supporter of schemes such as Sheffield’s Move More strategy.
“A guy at Concord Sports Centre was something like 24 stone, hadn’t worked for five years, suffered depression, virtually never went of the house – by his own admission, he’d have been dead if he hadn’t done anything.
“But from getting him on the exercise referral scheme, he’s now significantly lighter, he’s got a job and social confidence.
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Last year SIV became the first leisure operator in the UK to put an extra charge on sugary drinks, with the aim of investing in healthy initiatives, a measure Steve says has been ‘really successful’.
“All I’ve had is really positive feedback. We’d encourage lots of other people to follow suit. Our overall sales have gone up, and the consumption of very sugary drinks has gone down. It’s win-win.”
Steve, aged 61, lives at Beauchief with his wife Julie, a HR consultant.
The couple have three grown-up daughters.
Steve is a keen golfer, but dedicating his time to rounds of the game will not be on the cards when retirement looms.
“Because I have such an all-encompassing job I often think ‘What would I do?’
“I can’t imagine not having a purpose.”
Hope over prospect of city centre arena and conference facility
Steve Brailey still holds out hope of a new conference venue in Sheffield – and says the idea of building a new city centre arena for concerts and sport ‘would need investigating properly’, in the wake of Leeds’ success with the First Direct development.
“With locations for arenas generally, there are advantages and disadvantages of being in the city centre. Sheffield Arena, where it is at the moment, has got pretty good access, pretty good parking, and it’s helped regenerate that part of Sheffield.
“But then you can see the advantages in the city centre. It helps restaurants and businesses, as Leeds has. There’s advantages and disadvantages with both. We’d be a long way off from moving the arena. It would need investigating properly.”
He says Liverpool has ‘done really well’ with a convention centre next to its dockside arena.
“They dovetail the two. I’ve always said that having a conference or convention centre next to, or connected to, the arena would be a good business move. We looked at it a few years ago, but the issue is a centre without any public funding doesn’t stack up. Because a lot of the benefits are felt in the regional economy.”
Steve adds: “So while directly the centre will more than likely lose you money, actually you can argue the economic benefits would justify doing it.”