Interview with Robert Wilks, CEO Powerlifting Australia

In today’s challenging environment, PA media officer Mia Zhang cornered Robert Wilks to put to the CEO some of the big questions everyone is asking.  Here’s how we will all work our way through to the next chapter in Powerlifting history –

MZ       Everything is so up in the air at the moment.  How do you cope with being in the hot seat of the one making the decisions when everything is so uncertain?

RW      Yes, right now we’ve got a blooming, buzzing confusion of Federal government directives, which each State puts into law in different ways, which can change seemingly every day. Then there’s a cackle of commentators in every form of media predicting everything from the end of the world through to it all being a hoax which will go away any day now.  Down on the ground the average PA member can easily get bamboozled and either slough into despair or demand that someone gives them a certainty that isn’t there.  As the frequent sounding-board for those concerns I need to have forebearance for those anxieties but also keep the foot on the pedal for Powerlifting Australia to keep going as much as can be done in the meantime and to be as ready for as early a start as is possible within the parameters of what is legal and reasonable.  So, the answer to how to cope?  It’s to accept that what it is is, that plans are going to have to change but what’s best for everybody is to keep going down the path of getting ready to bounce back as well or better than any other sport or organization.


MZ       So what actual arrangements have been made so far to accommodate everything that’s gone on?

RW      Well it’s a pretty out-there situation when the government says no contests, no gyms, virtually no training, so the changes necessarily have been rather gross.  If you trace back just about any sport’s News or Facebook feed, you’ll see plans and changes announced then falling over a few days later, then new plans emerging and so on.  We have been no exception and we scaled down events as the various distancing rules became tighter and tighter.  But pretty soon we got to cancelling local contests through to late May and postponing major events.  Members who had entered contests were written to directly and offered credit or refund on entry fee, the great majority going for credit on a later contest.  But the message is we are preparing for an asap return and have set mid July as the optimistic side of a realistic target.

What is a big yawn to most people, except the few who’ve been involved in claims, is insurance.  There are horror stories out there of insurance companies pulling the pin on small sports and community bodies and that would be it, you close the doors, no Director or office-bearer can risk the personal liability.  However our brokers, V Insurance, have done good work in negotiations with our various insurers and we have been able to get not only continuance of our policies but extension to cover the former taboos of on-line coaching (by our accredited coaches only, of course) and equipment loan out.  This took a bit of work and was a make or break situation, but we got that through with our premiums maintained at a modest, more or less, $25,000 for the year. Some 2020 membership renewals are still coming through, almost all from Coaches who’ve twigged that $135 isn’t too bad after all for $20 million of coverage they won’t get elsewhere.

So, there’s a lot that’s been done that’s pretty obvious in terms of juggling events but there’s also been a lot done behind the scenes.  Aside from insurance, there’s been tasks involved in exiting, renegotiating and setting new contracts for venues and so on. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of costs that are totally sunk, such as airfares and hirings for major events, but so be it.  However, we also continue on the front foot and such projects as our new website, a new apparel range and so on are still being processed.

MZ       What about the Clubs though, how are they coping?  Do you think all of them will make it through?

RW      There aren’t too many Powerlifting club owners who drive Rolls Royces and that humble business standing may yet turn out to be a blessing for many.  The typical Powerlifting/strength gym is 200-250 square metres, has only a certain overhead and almost all Clubs have quickly arrived at the standard practice of leasing out equipment to members and coaching on-line. Combined with JobKeeper and the coming rental relief laws, that will help quite a few. There’s also some smarties who’ve sold off equipment at what can politely be described as bullish prices, to general fitness people and used the funds to order a refurb ready for reopening day. Simon from Samtek offers a prayer of thanks to those canny folk every night.

But that’s not to understate the difficulties for some and the number of Train At Joe’s t-shirts already seen in the Centrelink queues will only grow. Powerlifting Australia can only do it’s part for Clubs by getting our system up and going as soon as feasible. As some are finally realizing, it’s the target of competitions that keep clients training and hence the monthly debits ticking over and of course those clients in turn getting health and well-being benefits, so we all want our proven system up and running.

Up there in the 400 square metre and above gym zone, with bigger rents, more heavy-duty landlords, often a debt burden and not just addicted Powerlifters but a more diverse and less committed client population, there could well be a world of pain coming.

MZ       In all that, right here and now, we’ve got two lots of Nationals looming, not to mention the Pacific Fitness big event we know already is moved.  What specifically is going on with those?

RW      We’ve just announced that we will work on the positive end of the hope spectrum and that we’ve rescheduled the whole lot for July 10 – 12, being as at least centred in Melbourne.  Now I’m not Dana White looking for an Indian reservation, we’ve hedged bets quite a bit in setting that as our target.  Firstly, we’re not taking any more actual entries until we’re sure that the whole show can go on and in what format.  The advantage Powerlifting as a sport has is that it can be split across venues cities apart, you can’t split 100 metre race runners or two boxers, for most sports everyone’s got to be in one spot.  So if travel is still restricted, we may use multiple venues. Indeed we’ve just had confirmed that the New Zealand Nationals have also been scheduled for July 10-12 and almost certainly the Pacific element will be simulvented with an Auckland location. If partial distancing is in force in July there may be no audience, view via streaming only and so on.

However, if there is still a near total shutdown looking likely for July, for one thing we’ll all have a lot more than Powerlifting to worry about, but there can be another rescheduling.  The next time zone is September to October.  Fitness Show Sydney has been announced publicly as re-set for September 25-27 and we have renegotiated our contract to be there for all 3 days, whilst Fitness Show Melbourne is still set for October 24 – 25, another big showcase.  Maybe small local contests will be possible in July but not a Nationals in any form and the majors could be put back to one or both of those Fitness Show dates.  Nothing is off the table and as has been the case for two months now, we can only adapt as circumstances change. Mid May will be a decision point and more will be announced then.

MZ       With all this re-organizing, new contracts, new venues, expenses rolling on and so on, where do you see Powerlifting Australia ending up in late 2020 and into 2021, when presumably things will be different but more stable?

RW      We’ll be broke, as we always are, but a happy broke as we always are.  Powerlifting Australia has boomed, in its own humble way, in the last few years.  We are legally and in practice a not-for-profit body par excellence, with no cash reserves and reliant mostly on volunteer labour; staying solvent while the expenses of expansion come in ahead of the revenue thereof is a feat of prestidigitation we have become well practiced in.  In the early months of 2020 membership was up 10-15% over the same time in 2019 and I would expect that once things have settled, be that mid 2020, late 2020 or 2021 the trend of Powerlifting Australia taking more and more market share will continue. The overall size of that Powerlifting market remains to be seen as we all pick our way through the ruins of the economy, but our USPs of genuinely doping controlled, professionally run events and systems will ensure our success whatever the sport and fitness landscape might be at that point.

MZ       Finally, what about the international scene?  World Powerlifting seemed to get good traction last year, can the momentum be maintained through and post virus?

RW      Yes, the world scene is more complicated.  For one thing, I can see that international travel will be one of the last things to normalize. After the Canada Worlds last year World Powerlifting went on quite a recruiting drive, with nations from almost every continent getting involved, with the Melbourne Worlds 2020 a target for all. But some of those nations have been hit harder than Australia by the pandemic. Right now the Worlds at Fitness Show Melbourne October 23-25 and the World Juniors/Masters/Bench Press in New Zealand December 13-15 are in place and we will monitor developments as they unfold. However the big picture is that in 2021 we expect the World Powerlifting story to be similar to that with Powerlifting Australia i.e. the fundamentals that have taken us forward thus far nationally will also continue to drive gains for us in world wide market share. We have various bidders to run regional and world championships in 2021 and the international Calendar will only be bigger next year. If you look at you’ll see the World Referee roster has been boosted, the drug-test list is getting longer and longer and in 2021 the PA NCAS will go international. You can’t stop progress.

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