Elise Lombard in the driving chair, at the Titans cricket franchise, in Centurion, Gauteng. Photo: Supplied

As the country’s only woman CEO in cricket administration, Elise Lombard doesn’t shy away from attention to detail with a focus on consistent hard work, and her efforts have lead to her nomination as the 2008 Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year Award, among other notable achievements.

But Elise is a down-to-earth administrator who has patiently worked her way up through the ranks, starting with the Nashua Titans as much as 17 years ago, as a bookkeeper. Careful to acknowledge the valued input of the superiors who have guided her through the years, she doesn’t shy away from well-deserved acclaim.

In charge of what is arguably the most family-friendly and popular outdoor sports venue in the country, Elise was quick to recognise that the Centurion stadium’s success lay in establishing key differentiators from established competitors, like Wanderers Stadium, close by in Johannesburg.

A hands-on approach typifies this dynamic cricket administrator, and she has made significant contributions to the Union’s many successes, both on the field, and off. With the love of rugby as the start of her sporting career, Elise is keen on ensuring that winning ways continue to reward the efforts of her dedicated staff.

Introducing gsport’s November Woman of the Month, Elise Lombard!

The country's only woman CEO in cricket administration, Elise Lombard, with her Titans cricket team. Photo: Supplied

How does it feel to be the first and only woman CEO in cricket administration in South Africa?

You know, probably, it’s come to me without me being totally aware of it (laughs), and I’ve been in cricket so long, that for me, it’s just a very natural position. But I guess, people always tell me that I shouldn’t under—sell myself – I guess, it is great!

You’ve been with the Titans for a long time- you started there, didn’t you?

Yes, I started in 1981, I started with the Titans, and I started as a bookkeeper, and soon progressed to various titles along the way. But from the position of General Manager, I’ve been in charge of the office, always reporting to an executive committee, and the President.

Has your financial background assisted you to be a better manager?

Yes, I do indeed. I think that if one has a financial grasp, it arms you much better to make sure that the business is on a sound footing.

And how long have you been in management now, Elise?

First of all I was Administration Manager, and then General Manager, then Executive Director, and then the position of CEO. So, there have been various managerial positions along the way. I became Administration Manager in, probably 1983, and when we moved to Supersport Park from Berea Park in ‘86, I was then General Manager. I held that position for quite some time until I became Executive Director, and then it was CEO in … 2000? Somewhere around there.

What is your leadership philosophy, and how has it assisted your staff to build your vision?

My leadership style is one of integrity, and one of being fair, and also being very consistent, … and, very professional. I believe, and for me it has worked, ‘cause you have to deal with many many stakeholders out there, and you need to make sure that you don’t create precedents that you cannot withstand in the future. So, it’s always being fair, but very consistent, being able to handle stress very well, I think another attribute that goes with the job (laughs).

What is your vision for the Nashua Titans, in the next five years?

If you had asked me that question about three or four years ago, I would have said to win many more trophies, but I think that in the last four years we have won five trophies, so part of that vision is beginning to realise (laughs). Previously, we were always there and there-abouts, but never quite got the trophy. And sometimes we were known as ‘chokers’, but I think that the team has really… And I must give credit to our coach, Richard Pybus; I think he’s taught the team really how to win, ah, the important matches. Play consistently, but win the important matches. And that has brought five trophies in four years! So, very proud of that!

That’s for the team – then for the stadium – is really to build the stadium so that it is a world-class stadium, and to make it a venue that people really want to come to, and really enjoy their cricket. We have on board plans to develop the southern part of the ground, very carefully so as not to make it into a concrete jungle, but we are busy with that with council at the moment, establishing certain rights, and that would also be for me an accomplishment – to see the stadium really complete. Because the southern end has always been incomplete, as far as I’m concerned. So, we’ve gone a long way, in establishing the venue as a world-class facility. In terns of our nets, and our Presidency Suite, and the media centre, I think we’re there.

We’ve recently upgraded our lights – from four poles to six poles – we also built those new embankment suites on the western embankment, which is really special, which was a special project for me, and is successful and well-received in the community. We’ve also upgraded our catering facilities, and a further upgrade to our toilet facilities in the ablutions block is in sight.

Photo: SuppliedWhen talking to media from around the world, they always mention a special admiration and fondness, and they say that the atmosphere created at Supersport Park is unique, practically, in international cricket.

Oh, I welcome that. I think we do something special … Being so close to Wanderers, we’ve always been mindful that we mustn’t become a second Wanderers, that is not our aim, we believe that we’ve got our niche’, and that’s what we’ve wanted to develop. It’s a very family-friendly orientated venue to come to and watch cricket, and I’m very pedantic about making sure that everything comes together to make the experience for the spectator.

In other words, you’ve got to make sure that your parking facilities are up-to-standard, and available, secondly you need to make sure that your officials and ushers – those are the first people in line to deal with the spectators – and you need to make sure that they are top-notch, and then there’s the facilities inside the ground, like the catering, and ablution facilities … For people to come and sit here for eight hours on a stretch, and be subjected to sub-standard facilities, it just does not make sense to me, if you really want to grow your spectator base.

So those are the things that I think count, alongside that, we’ve had a wonderful ground curator in Hilbert Smith, he’s been with us also for 21 years, and we’ve had a wonderful working relationship where he cares about Supersport Park as much as I do, and which is actually all I can ask for. His preparation of the pitch and the oval and the grass embankments, is really top standard!

Two approaches that Supersport has taken that indicate a desire to include women as much as possible, the one which the guys will probably enjoy much more are your dancers who welcome the players onto the ground, but then you’ve also mentioned this family-focus of yours, to ensure that there’s a safe and enjoyable space in your ground for all spectators to enjoy.

Absolutely, yes, we’re very conscious of making sure that we can service everybody, and for me its always so lovely when you’re at an ODI when the ground is at capacity, to walk around the ground, and really, half the people are watching cricket, and the other half are just having fun! Whether it’s on the giant slide, or whether it’s the kiddies in the jumping castle, or whether it’s under the mist-tunnel, there’s just a lot of fun to be had. When, of course, the weather is fine (laughs).

Elise, where does your love for cricket come from?

You’re going to laugh, but I actually come from a rugby family. My brother was in the first team, and I absolutely adored him, and we supported the Sharks – I lived in KZN at that stage – and my husband was an avid rugby player and fan. However, I was always intrigued by listening to Charles Forture, he just drew me to the radio those days.

When I started at Berea Park, I really knew very little about cricket, and soon realised that cricket has got a lot of nuances, and I recall sitting alongside the Vice-President at that stage, and I know that Anton Ferreira was bowling, and I can’t recall who we were playing against, but they were hitting him out of the park. And I said to the Vice-President, “Goodness gracious! Why doesn’t he just change his bowling style, you know, so that they don’t hit him!” But I’ve come a long way since those days (laughs).

Now, you’ve mentioned rugby and cricket; what are your other favourite spectator sports?

Tennis! I love watching tennis. I’ve had the privilege of going to Wimbledon, sitting at Centre Court, so, ja, that was very very special.

Among the women players, is there anyone you follow in particular?

I think that Sharapova is just such a like-to-watch (laughs), for men and women, because she’s a hard-hitter, and she plays the game hard, but she’s so feminine, and that’s lovely. And Martina (Navratilova) and Steffi Graf, those players were just all very special. And then, in their day.

The icons live will always be there.

Yes. And McEnroe was one of my favourites (laughs). I can remember a commentator asking him once, “Now John, tell me, when you’re finished, don’t you want to become a umpire?” “Well, you know,” answers McEnroe, “Actually, I always thought I was an umpire when I was playing!” (laughs).

Who are your favourite sports stars?

Other than cricket players? I must say, our Blue Bulls, I look up to Victor Matfield and Brian Habana, as rugby players as well as human beings, people, I just think they’re absolutely … The way they respond to the public, it’s really just great! Then, John Smit, I really hold in high regard as well, he’s always just been such a great ambassador for South Africa.

Elise, on a personal note, do you have a fitness regime or health regime that you stick to? Any particular diet you like to follow.

No, unfortunately not (laughs). No, look, I’m not a health-crazy fanatic, however I am a very healthy person, so I eat very balanced, I’ve always been landed with a bit of a weight problem, but you know, with me, it’s the package, I always said to my husband, you get the package! Not just the body (laughs)! I am what I am! As part of my eating habits, I don’t drink any fizzy cold drinks, I’m not a sweet person, but I love good food! Good food!

Elise Lombard: SuppliedMany people rate SuperSport Park highly as a host venue for international cricket. How do you keep the fans happy?

You know, I’ve got an open policy book, and I invite people to write to me, if they’ve found something not to their satisfaction, we’ve recently established a season ticket-holder forum, and had a function with them recently where we engage with them, as to where to improve, because, its very important that you see the ground from an outsider’s perspective. And, in a small way, we hope that we can reach them, and we really want them to become ambassadors for the stadium.

I’ve always found in the past that if people understand and know what’s going on in the background, and know the operation, something more of the operation, then they are much more accessible to …, and reluctant to criticize, because they know what goes into it. And I think that very few people really know what goes into staging an international match, for instance.

It must work, you know, it must come together, and a five-day test is especially gruesome, because you must make sure that you maintain the same standard on day five, that you had on day one. To motivate your staff, to keep going, because it’s a grueling time, a five-day test.

It’s an interesting thing, most test tours to South Africa, Supersport Park always seems to get the last Test.

Yes, very much so, we generally do.

That’s quite a benefit, because you get the highlight of the result happening at your venue.

Yes, and the final presentation, and that’s lovely to have. And going into this season, it’s the first year that we’re hosting an international Pro20 match. The Titans are going to participate in the Champions League,

Congrats on that! One of two teams from South Africa! It’s going to be a huge event, surely?

Oh, hopefully, yes! Definitely (laughs). And we’re really excited about that, I know that the players are excited, especially about the money that’s on offer, the purse is just huge. But I think that the stature of domestic cricket on an international front now, that’s really exciting!

That’s been the success of other sporting codes, like soccer and rugby … Well, I’m bragging a little bit now (laughs), but we’ve got more or less six players in the national team!

You mentioned wanting more trophies a few years ago, but in recent years the Titans have been emulating the success of the Blue Bulls, in domestic cricket.

Yes, I’m very pleased to acknowledge that, and we’ve been a solid team, and we’ve produced new players that have come in to the Titans, when the national players move in and out, and that’s very exciting.

Do you have a specific strategy of buying players who already have an existing record, and alongside that, developing new players who are unknown?

Yes, I think in the past, but we’ve sort of moved away from that, because when you say ‘buy’ players, we’ve got, for instance, a Martin van Jaarsveld, who’s a Kolpak player, and his worth on the field and in the change-room is absolutely invaluable. And he’s never been a high-profile South African and-or international player.

Previously, I can remember when we bought Richie Richardson, and we had Brian Lara for a short spell here, I think one must always have regard to what those players bring to the change-room. I’ve never sat in the change-room, you know, I’ve never done that part, but I’ve been told and taken through just exactly their worth, change-room worth, as opposed to just always on the field, where they are actually judged, you know.

What are you looking forward to most this season?

Well, top of the mind, I know the team is very keen to win back the Supersport trophy, that four-day competition, it is after all the basis of cricket, sadly it doesn’t enjoy the profile it should – I think – in South African cricket, for commercial reasons which one can understand.

And then, of course, the Champions League, wouldn’t that be just great, if we could come away with the trophy? We’re up against some very very tough teams, but we’re up for it, we’re really up for the challenge.

How has Twenty20 cricket changed the landscape of the game internationally?

It really is on a different level. And we all know that cricket – as we have known it in the past – we know how the numbers in test cricket has dwindled, we know how the 45-over cricket, it seems to have from those early days of the Benson & Hedges, has just dwindled.

We’ve never got up to those attendance figures, for various reasons. In our area in particular, we’ve just got so much on offer in the entertainment world, and that’s the industry we’re in. And if you just look at the Gauteng area, you’ve got four huge major stadiums.

You don’t have a separate rugby crowd, and a separate cricket crowd, it’s really a sport-loving crowd that comes to matches. So we understand that, but for cricket to commercially be where it probably should be, I think the innovation of Twenty20 cricket has been great. I think that there were a lot of critics who were writing it off as a hit-and-giggle, but I think its stretched players, more than anything else.

Some of the scores we’ve been seeing, and some of the fielding, I mean, it’s just been phenomenal! So I think that it’s brought something vibrant and energetic back into cricket, without doing away with the traditional stuff, because that is the basis of cricket. There’s a place for everything.

The Titans have won a host of trophies over the years. What do you attribute to the success of the team?

You know, I think it’s a process. I don’t think one can isolate any one incident. I think it’s been a process. If we go back to when Dave Nosworthy was our coach for five years, and there was a process of building up the structures. We’ve got to have sound amateur structures in place, in terms of school cricket, in terms of club cricket, and in terms of the academy, or schools of excellence.

You’ve got to have sound structures in place. Cricket just costs such a lot of money, it really is an expensive sport. I believe that what we’ve put in place is sustainable, and I think that has allowed us to bring players through from our structures, and I think our structures are very sound.

They are producing …, we could produce more black cricketers, but you know, the demographics of the country don’t always assist in that. Our development programme essentially started in 1992, so to have produced players like Ethi (Mbalathi?), Aron Mpongisa, who captains the amateur provincial team, we’ve really brought some promising players through, and there are quite a few on the horizon, who are coming through at under-19 level, and U17 level.

Elise Lombard: Supplied

But you have to nurture them properly. That’s been part of our success. We’ve got a very good system in making sure that, when a player achieves Titan-status, he’s ready for it. He’s not exposed, and he’s not pushed into that position when he’s not ready for it.

It’s been a challenge for us, as well, but I think we’ve done exceptionally well. I can just take little Roelof van der Merwe, you know, he’s been in the system for quite a while, and at the right time, when he was ready to go through to franchise cricket, as opposed to maybe pushing them through a little bit too early.

I must say that our facilities are excellent, excellent nets facilities, excellent indoor centre, an excellent gym for the guys, so they really have got everything that opens and shuts to aid them, which is what our job is, to make sure that we equip them properly, if we want them to perform consistently well.

What is the best career advice you’ve received?

I served under Dr Willie Basson, and he was President for nine years, and I served under him for all of those years. What I learned from him was (1) integrity in what you do, (2) hard graft, and I’ve had to work much much harder than a male counterpart, to get into this position.

However, I do believe that I deserve the respect of all my male colleagues across the country, and within my own stakeholder base. So, it’s been very rewarding. What it goes to for me is integrity, hard work and to be professional in anything that you do. If you make a cup of tea, do it and serve it professionally, and that’s what I like to instill in my staff. Get the basics right, and the rest will follow.

What are the challenges you have faced as a woman in this position, and how do you deal with them?

I don’t even think about them anymore, I guess that in the beginning it was … You know, not having played the game, and not being one of the boys, but I’ve just always chugged along, done the right thing, and made sure that I was consistent in whatever I did, and it’s just worked for me!

But there have been many challenges, but you accept where you need assistance, and I have made, obviously it’s very important for me to have a good coach on board, and also an excellent groundsman. And in business, such a lot depends on relationships. I’ve made sure that I build those relationships, so that it comes to a situation of, “I won’t disappoint you, and I’m going to do everything I can to work alongside you,” for all the right reasons.

gsport strives to celebrate femininity. How would you define femininity, and what role does it play in your life?

It plays a big role for me. I’ve actually seen it happen, if you adopt an attitude that, “I’m one of you guys,” you’re going to lose the battle, because there’s no appreciation for that. Femininity is for me, in whatever you do, whether it’s your language, your appearance, it’s to maintain that femininity, and that, in itself, earns you a lot of respect.

It’s not that I’m a prude, but it never flowed for me, bad language, etcetera, I don’t encourage it and I don’t accept it in my working environment. That’s one thing I’m a little pedantic about. If you’re serving tea, and you’re serving it in our library, then you serve it with a doily, you know, those sort of touches. A little bit of attention to details comes in to it, that probably are lacking a bit at other venues.

Once you're immortalized in cartoon, you know you've made it! Image: Supplied

Who are some of the individuals who have supported you throughout your career?

Oh, the one right up there is Dr. Ali Bacher, he’s just absolutely been a stalwart, so supportive when he was in that position, you know, nothing to do with Gerald (Majola), everyone’s got their own style, but Dr Bacher. If you were hosting an international match, you can be sure you’d get a call at half-past six in the morning, “Elise, how’re you? Everything all right? Have the tickets sold, what’s the weather looking like?” and then, sometimes, not even your own presidents do that, but it really was a special touch.

He has been very supportive of me, Gerald Majola has been very supportive of me, I also serve on the CSA FINCO (Finance Committee), and he’s been really supportive of me, and my efforts, and very appreciative. Gerald has got a fine appreciation for how you stage a match, and he appreciates the finer things, and will notice them as well.

All the presidents I’ve served under have been really supportive, and have allowed me to handle the operation, you now, and have had faith in me to handle the operation, and we’ve had really great presidents. They’ve lead the Union, I mean, ultimately they’re responsible, and though we report into various committees.

Another individual that I have a very high regard for, it (Supersport head) Imtiaz Patel, you know, he served at the then United Cricket Board. I have a huge appreciation for his business acumen, and he’s a straight-talking man. He gets on with the job, and he’s very astute.

What inspires you?

I’m a very positive person. I very seldom have negative thoughts. I just love Supersport Park and the team, the Titans team, and to come to work is a blessing. I just drive up, and park right up against the front door, I’ve got lovely gardens, and you just think that you are blessed to do this on a daily basis.

What inspires me the most is that I’ve got people who actually care about where the team goes, what happens at the stadium, and whether you are the cleaner picking up the rubbish, it’s to know that I’ve got a team of workers who really are giving their best, its to always want to develop, not just to be happy with your achievements, it’s to develop the stadium, to know everything’s in place.

Then, also what inspires me, is to know that it’s a sound business, that is very important for me. I don’t think I’d cope very well if we were hugely in debt, and didn’t know where the next month’s salary was going to come from. I mean, that would really get to me.

Who are your role models?

Definitely, Dr Basson, for his vision. I’m a bit of a workaholic as well, so I relate to that, as well. Dr Bacher, again, for the insight that he has, for where to place cricket in South Africa. I think we’re reaping the benefits of those decisions in the early day. One other person, that I would like to acknowledge, is our deputy chairman. What I admire about him is his ability to no to become too hands-on. In sport you have that happen very often. I know where he stands, and what he expects of me. He leaves us all to get on with the job, and be accountable. I like being accountable, so that people can measure you.

The tireless Elise Lombard, always on about making the iconic Supersport Park better. Photo: gsport

What is your greatest ambition?

On top of my mind is to see the southern end development up and running, whatever that entails. Currently it’s offices and hotel, restaurants and additional conference facilities, so that for me, I would really love to see.

And then, I would just love to still be the CEO when the spectator shift just increases. You know, so that we have good crowds. Now, I know that Twenty20 is doing something in that regard, ‘cause it’s exposing cricket to a community out there that has probably never come to the stadium. That’s what I hope that Twenty20 is also going to do.