An interview with Matthew Rivett, Club Secretary of the Oriental Club

by Bee Heller
February 2, 2017

Matthew Rivett has been Club Secretary at the Oriental Club for the last 4.5 years. In that time he’s overseen a transformation in the Club’s fortunes, much of which he attributes to the culture he’s helped to create. 

I recently met with Matthew to talk about the journey the Club has been on in the last five years, the approach he took to turning things around, the management practices he thinks are vital to the Club’s ongoing success and his vision of the future.

Bee Heller: What was the position of the Club 5 years ago?

Matthew Rivett: The Club had been losing money for 12 years and membership had declined by around 50% during that time. We were withdrawing from cash reserves in order to continue to operate. The fact that we owned our building and had other assets may have given Members a false sense of security that the Club would always be here – it had taken over a decade of decline for Members to realise that the Club was in serious trouble. 

The fact that it’s such a friendly Club was a double-edged sword – for years Members hadn’t wanted to rock the boat or complain but equally it was the Members’ loyalty that had kept the Club going for so long. 

BH: What was the catalyst for change? 

MR: There was a general fear of change, which is natural and for anything to happen it needed someone with the willingness and capability to step up and do the hard work that was required to turn things around.  It is the old adage that if you want things to stay the same, something will have to change.  Roger Drage became Chairman after two years as Vice Chairman and for many years had seen the issues facing the Club. As Chairman he was finally in a position to do something about it and he set out with a mission to change things. Initially he hired external consultants and I was appointed as a consequence of their review.  He was well supported by his Committee and the Club Trustees and he had a strong mandate from the Membership with whom he had communicated with total transparency.  I could not have achieved any of the success for the Club without this support behind me.

BH: How would you describe the culture of the Club when you arrived?

MR: Among the Staff it was everyone for themselves. There was a silo culture to the extreme – every single person had a different way of doing things and no one cared what their colleagues were doing.  There was no management leadership whatsoever. There was a complacency and sense that the Club would always be here. Things were very comfortable for the Staff. They were on 35 hour per week contracts earning double time for hours over this, triple time for working weekends and quadruple time for working bank holidays. People received pay rises every year regardless of performance. Members were seen as an inconvenience. People weren’t unhappy but it was a gloomy place – life was easy but boring. The average length of service for Staff was 17 years. The average age of Members was 67.

BH: How did you go about changing things?

MR: The first thing I did was spell out a clear and ambitious vision for the future. I then gave people the option of either getting on board with it or leaving. The management team generally fell into one of three categories: not willing to support the vision; incapable of supporting the vision; willing to support the vision and perhaps capable… 

The first two categories left almost immediately. In the end, those that fell into the third category also ended up leaving and within six months we had an entirely new management team. 

BH: What happened?

MR: Initially things got worse! (Which I expected). The food got worse. Service got worse. The Members became much less happy.  From 53 Staff we went down to just 30. However, given how busy (or quiet) we were this was still enough people to keep the operation going. Shaking up the team had broken some really close relationships between a few members and a few long-serving staff and so these people weren’t happy. But these few relationships weren’t enough to sustain a healthy Club. 

I knew we needed to show Members how things could be different and better before they would realise what they’d been missing. I needed to establish the level we wanted to operate at – what was our distinctive culture and service going to be.

BH: What do you think was key to your eventual success?

MR: I took time choosing the right people. When recruiting I spent (and still do spend) as much time selling ourselves as finding out about the person being interviewed. It’s in the interests of both parties to make sure the fit is right. We want people who fit in with our culture and who get on well with our Members. Most of our Members are between 35 to 70 but our Staff tend to be younger now. It’s important they can have a good conversation and develop strong relationships with our Members. 

BH: And what do you think you do that continues to improve things?

MR: We have a strong storytelling culture. Departments ‘report’ to me three times a day – I walk around, everyone shares what’s going on and we share this information between departments. For me it matters that the guy working in the kitchen knows what’s happening with maintenance and that the reception team hear about a tough lunchtime in the dining room. Openness is what’s most important. Mistakes happen – that’s ok – as long as people learn from them and don’t hide anything. The only time I get irritated is if I discover a mistake that someone’s tried to hide – and I usually do discover them!

We share all the good things too and personal information (sensitively). It creates an environment where we take pride in our success and care about each other. Everyone knows that they can come to me at anytime – they know my values, what pressures I’m under. 

It helps that we have a flat management structure – there’s only 2.5 levels between me and the front line. We have a low turnover, particularly amongst management, and I’ve worked with my managers to encourage a consistent, communication style. 

We have a team of 73 people now – there’s a little bit of slack in the system so we can still get busier and cope but it’s also a small enough team that this style of communication and informal reporting works well.

I am most proud of the consistency of food, service and ambience we now deliver. We’ve been performing well for the last 18 months and on our ‘A Game’ for the last year. 

BH: What are your aspirations for the Oriental Club?

MR: To be financially sustainable so we can keep going for another 200 years… I see us as the custodians of this Club – each management team and set of Members is looking after it for the next generation.

I think we’ve carved out a niche for the Club – we fit in the middle between the traditional old London Clubs that have been around as long as us and attract a particular type of Member, and the modern proprietorial Clubs that suit others. We strike a balance between our history, elegance and charm and our continuous gentle innovation and tolerance of diverse views. 

BH: What does success look like for you?

MR: When the team is happy, our Members are happy and the numbers look good. Our strength and ongoing success rests on the quality of our Members. We’re reliant on the long established Members to keep steering a steady ship, at the same time we want to attract new Members and especially recommendations from existing Members. Balancing these elements is what I believe makes for a healthy club and if we keep achieving this balance I’m confident of the Oriental Club’s continuing success.

Enjoyed this blog? Sign up to our monthly newsletter to receive more great content just like this.