Introducing Sam Mackenzie, the latest addition to an ever-expanding Altrincham board of directors and only the fourth woman in the club’s history to have the honour bestowed on her.
It has been widely acknowledged that Sam will add an extra layer of expertise to an already multi-talented board after the impact she has made as Head of Partnerships and Sponsorship.
Everyone has seen and appreciated the strengthening of ties between the club and our valued partners since she began that voluntary role. But that was only last September, so what was she up to prior to that and what dynamic can she add to an already-dynamic group of Alty directors?
Sam considered that, and a few other questions, in a chat with press and media officer John Edwards in the Manchester Glass Sponsors’ Lounge at The J.Davidson Stadium.
Q: Much as you are familiar to Alty fans now, they knew little or nothing about you this time last year, so how did the connection with the club come about?
A: We relocated from London with my husband's job roughly 10 years ago. Once we completed the move and settled in properly, we began looking for a team our young son Tom could play for, and we kept hearing fantastic things about Altrincham FC Juniors. We looked around, but the recommendations kept pointing us towards Alty. They all spoke in glowing terms of the junior set-up here, so Alty it was for Tom, and he soon started playing on Saturday mornings at Manor Farm. He has been with them ever since, and he’s 15 now, so that tells you how much he has got out of the experience and how much he has enjoyed it.
So, there was a nice affinity with the club from a very early stage of living here, and it just went on from there. We started coming to games here at The J.Davidson as a family, and we enjoyed the experience so much that, as the children got older and I reached a bit of a crossroads, I just felt I would like to do more and get involved as a volunteer. So I emailed the club and ended up exchanging messages with (co-chairman) Lawrence Looney.
I started off saying I would be happy answering the phone in the office. That would be a way of contributing, and I would have been more than happy to do that, but, during the course of numerous conversations, we talked about my background as a buying and merchandising manager for Selfridges in London and how part of that skill revolved around relationships with partners and how, in turn, that was a hugely relevant and important part of what was being done then and is being done now at Altrincham.
Because of Covid’s impact on matchday revenue, it was more important than ever at the time, so I started getting involved in communicating with sponsors and partners - maintaining contact with them, doing whatever we could for them and making them aware of how much their continued support meant to us.
Basically, it was a case of looking after our top 10-15 stakeholders, and the role started growing and expanding as we went along, due at least partly to their willingness to involve themselves in fund-raising initiatives in much the same way as our incredibly-supportive fan base. It was just amazing to see the response to the Pitch In appeal, for instance, in terms of the work that went into it and the way sponsors and supporters in general got behind it and participated in numbers.
Q: Such are the strides you made in the role, it led to a place on the board - did that come out of the blue?
A: Lawrence phoned me, and he just said ‘I’d like to speak to you about something’, so I thought, right, ok, what’s coming next? Then he said ‘We’ve been talking it through and we wondered how you would feel about becoming a director and joining the board?’ I was overwhelmed, to be honest. Utterly overwhelmed, in a fantastic way. You ask if it came out of the blue, and if I’m being absolutely honest, I would have to say there was part of me that was just beginning to feel that maybe I could make a bit more of a contribution. I was shocked and overwhelmed, but, at the same time, I was thinking I could perhaps make a difference at that level. I do think I have a different voice and bring a different point of view, and I was increasingly being listened to. I was increasingly finding I was able to run initiatives and bring ideas to the table for consideration. They were being picked up on, so, yes, I was starting to think how amazing it would be if I could help and contribute even more. Of course, I was proud and privileged to accept. There was no hesitation. The split-second it was put to me, I knew absolutely it was something I wanted.
Q: What difference will it make being on the board, do you think, as opposed to just being Head of Partnerships and Sponsorship?
A: I would describe it as helping set the agenda and certainly having the opportunity to push things through a bit more. I do feel that, in some respects, if you sit and reflect on the rich history and tradition of this club, it can feel quite daunting and quite an enormous challenge, but that then leads to a place where you realise you are custodians - ambitious custodians but custodians nonetheless - and you become very much aware of that. The process in my mind is that one day we will hand the club over to the next generation, and when we do, it will be in singularly the best shape it has ever been in. We reflect on that responsibility, but we absolutely build on it as well. Our job is to hand over the reins to the grandson who started coming to games because his grandad did.
I love that about the club, and I love it because it is attainable. We have not, by any way, shape or form, exhausted all the possibilities for this club, all the avenues we can go down, the way we can work with partners, the ground facilities and so on. There is still so much to do. We are going to get a huge bounce off making Phil full-time, in line with Neil, and we are working towards doing the same with the players. I love the Puma situation and the brilliant feedback we’ve had about the kit, and it’s massive how John Coyne has grown Alty Direct. There is so much going on, yet there is so much potential for a lot more. Literally nothing is off the table.
Q: There’s an incredible variety of talent on the board now, isn’t there?
A: Absolutely. It is a board full of enterprise, energy and expertise in so many areas, and everything is geared towards success on the pitch. The skill set is tangible, and I can feel that when I attend a board meeting. Everyone is bringing something different, yet it is all complementary. Lawrence and Bill lead it tremendously well, and the creativity just cascades down. Everyone can make a contribution, but there is an astuteness as well in recognising if something is not going to work and pulling back from it. It is an ambitious board, but it’s not blind ambition. Everything is considered and carefully done.
Q: Talk us through that first board meeting you attended - was there a fanfare or at least a round of applause?
A: Not exactly. I walked in, they all said ‘Hi, Sam’ and I sat down! Very businesslike.
Q: You’re the fourth woman to have a seat on the board at Alty - would you like to fly the flag for more female involvement at the club and in football in general?
A: 100 per cent. There is a strong history of women being involved at Altrincham, and I feel honoured to be continuing that, but there is still a lot of scope for that to improve. I would like to see more women volunteers getting involved on matchdays, for instance. Women do bring something very different. We bring a different point of view, and I’m certainly not going to fade into the background because I’m a woman. My point of view is positive, and I will never shy away from expressing it. The fact is, I have found it hugely respected and listened to, which is very gratifying. I would hope more women will see what has happened with my appointment to the board and be encouraged to step forward and get involved themselves. I’m here at the ground most days, I base myself here during the week, so please get in touch and arrange to drop in for a coffee and a chat. I’d be delighted to answer any questions you have.
Q: As well as being a director, you will continue working with the club’s sponsors and partners, presumably?
A: I think we all know we are all working towards the whistle going at 3pm on Saturday. That is the main goal, but I’m also extremely aware that football is a multi-faceted sport. We all come together every kick-off time, but what happens in between is absolutely huge. The principle there is the same whether you are Manchester United or Altrincham. We are all here to support the team, but I am also here to be the voice of our partners, to gauge what we are doing well, what we’re doing not so well and what their needs are.
Attention to detail is so important, and the new Altrincham FC Business Club is a case in point. We looked at some really good models before launching, and the immediate response has been overwhelming. It’s not going to be a sterile format, with people walking into a room with name badges on their lapels. It will be interactive engagement with some fabulous speakers and great events. Basically, everyone I have spoken to so far has joined, and, on top of that, we have secured two outstanding sponsors in Catax and Watersons. We are good to go, and the plan is that guest speakers like Anthony Taylor will be addressing members face-to-face here at the ground, rather than on zoom. I can see it really taking off.
Q: When it comes to keeping sponsors and partners happy, is it down to the knowledge you built up working at Selfridges or having an outgoing personality?
A: Well, I really love people. That’s what drew me to volunteering for this job at Alty. I love being around people, talking to them, finding out what they want to achieve from a partnership with Altrincham and hopefully convincing them we can deliver. I find that very fulfilling. I love the enthusiasm and intelligence of the board, the strategy, and the fact it is always considered, and how they adore the club, like we all do. It’s clear our sponsors and partners feel the same way. So many of them say they admire how we do things and the football the team play. They all talk like that. Invariably, if I have contact with them after a game, they are so complimentary about what they have seen, and I feed that back to Phil. With so many of them, there is a philanthropic element of simply wanting to back the club, which is really heartening and should be cherished. That was evident during Covid when not only did existing backers stay loyal, we actually gained eight new partners. That is truly amazing! On a similar theme, we picked up some new sponsors for Alty TV, because they were tuning into games at home during lockdown and enjoying the coverage so much.
Q: Finally, Sam, tell us a bit about your family background and interests in other sports or pastimes?
A: I grew up in Nottingham with an extremely positive father who was a professional cyclist, so I’ve always been around sport and have always loved it. I played netball and hockey to county standard for Notts, and I have fond memories of supporting Forest and following them around Europe in the Brian Clough era. I go walking as well, but we are very much a football household, with three children who all love football. Now I can follow Alty from the directors’ box, and I have to say I am hugely proud of what I consider an honour and privilege.
The memory of being asked on to the board will stay with me, not least because of the reaction of my daughter Sophie when I told her. She’s 20 and at uni, and she just said: ‘Wow, mum, that’s amazing - and well done them for seeing your potential and valuing a woman.’ I thought that was lovely.