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Tiger women

News

Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.22

Richmond Football Club has become the home turf of two high-flying commercial lawyers – Peggy O’Neal at the helm as president and Kerry Ryan on the board.

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When Americans dream of becoming president they imagine having an office at the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington and not the ME Bank Centre on Punt Road, Melbourne.

But Virginian Peggy O’Neal made that unlikely move when she was elected president of Richmond Football Club in October, the first time an AFL club has had a woman at the helm.

Not that her elevation to president had anything to do with intense politicking. It was just reward for years of behind the scenes toil and fund-raising for a club that was on its knees when she arrived in Melbourne in 1989.

The Tigers have been Ms O’Neal’s passion for more than two decades and she has managed to mix her tireless volunteer work for the club with a high-powered career as a commercial lawyer.

Ms O’Neal, who has been a Richmond board member for eight years, said it was “deeply humbling” to become the AFL’s first female president and an acknowledgement of the important role played by women in the competition.

She could be forgiven for feeling the burden of expectation but she carries it lightly, thanks to a mixture of humour, an impeccable legal and commercial background and good old American get up and go.

“When you are in America and you’re caught up in everything American you never expect anything like this”, Ms O’Neal told the LIJ. “But I’ve always loved sports. When I was in high school it was typical of small town America. I was always in the cheer squad. I followed a lot of college sports when I went away to university. I played girls gridiron football for a little while and loved basketball.”

Ms O’Neal, an expert in financial services, employee benefits and pensions, was a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills for 14 years and is currently a consultant with Lander & Rogers. She serves on a number of boards as a non-executive director and her legal expertise led to her appointment as a consultant to the Cooper Review of Australia’s superannuation system.

In the same month that Ms O’Neal became Richmond club president, Kerry Ryan, also a commercial lawyer, was elected to fill a casual vacancy on the club’s board.

Both Ms O’Neal and Ms Ryan praise the progressive attitude at Punt Road and the determination of the club’s hierarchy to be as inclusive of women and as many diverse groups as possible.

After graduation from the University of Virginia Ms O’Neal worked as a lawyer in the US for several years before coming to Australia. Her first taste of footy was watching the classic 1989 Hawthorn-Geelong grand final on television and although this strange sport confused her it also captivated her.

Tired of hearing the traditional Melbourne social ice-breaker “Who do you barrack for?” she plumped for Richmond, mainly because she lived in the suburb and it was only a short walk to the MCG. She loved the community feel around footy and within a short time she was attending every home game and becoming involved in the Save Our Skins campaign which raised a million dollars in a few months and saved Richmond from extinction.

“Footy is just a great game,” Ms O’Neal said. “So I fell in love with the game first and just got more and more involved over time with things around the club and found there is always a job for a volunteer if you are willing to take it on.

“Little by little I got involved in different levels of sponsorship and different levels of membership and helped set up one of the coteries. People said, ‘you should have been here in the ’70s. They used to be good’. I didn’t know what that meant. I now understand what that means.”

Ms O’Neal accepts the focus on her gender and she is happy to be a role model for women.

“A lot of young women have written to me saying that it inspires them to think they could have a role,” she said. “I’m hoping that if people were holding back thinking that there’s no place for them this might give them a little nudge.

“As with lots of organisations you start to feel more comfortable if you see people like you involved. That’s the whole thing about diversity. It’s not just gender, it’s race, religion and age and all of those sorts of things.”

Ms O’Neal has become president at an exciting time for Richmond. The club has gone decades without a premiership but played its first final in 12 years in 2013. Debt has been wiped out, membership has topped 60,000 and finally there is hope that the club might return to the glory days of those “Tigers of old”.

Ms Ryan’s involvement with Richmond Football Club goes back to her childhood. She comes from a family of Tigers supporters and she and her three sisters are all passionate about the club. As a schoolgirl her favourite player was Geoff Raines and she wore a jumper with number four on the back.

“I didn’t have a duffle coat. I just had a jumper and a scarf,” Ms Ryan said. “It is a generational thing for me. I grew up barracking for Richmond and going to the games and developed a love of football from that.”

Ms Ryan has more than 20 years experience as a commercial lawyer, both domestically and internationally, including nine years as partner with Norton Rose Fulbright.

Ms Ryan stepped down as a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright in 2009 and continued to work for the firm as special counsel, consulting in various areas of the business. Earlier this year she ended that association to concentrate on a full time board career. She has been on the board of CPA Australia since 2007 and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

“My engagement with the club has been through the Tommy Hafey Club and Tigers at Law and more recently the Richmond in Business Initiative. It provides an avenue to network with others who have an interest in the Tigers and the success of the club,” Ms Ryan said.

Like her board colleague, Ms Ryan believes that diversity at the higher echelons of Richmond is a major plus for the club they both love.

“I think diversity at board level is a good thing. And I don’t just mean gender diversity. Diversity in terms of ethnicity and different perspectives,” Ms Ryan said. “Richmond is very progressive in that it embraces diversity and that is something I support.”

And her legal training will also be useful at board level.

“A legal background equips you well as a director in certain areas,” she said. “Having an understanding of corporate law and directors duties helps and also I think it is particularly useful for duties around corporate governance, risk management and compliance.”

Norrie Ross

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