December 12, 2013

A revhead for business

From property development to motorsports, Betty Saunders Klimenko is used to changing landscapes with an entrepreneurial spirit, a business mentality and people power. The colourful owner of the Erebus Motorsports team discusses the business of motorsports.

Doing the impossible is Betty Saunders Klimenko’s forte. As the first woman to own a motorsports team in Australia, entrepreneur Klimenko, has achieved great success through her hard-nosed approach and hard work.

When Erebus, the Greek God of darkness, sent his daughter Nyx into the gloomy pre-creation void she appeared as a streak of lightning. It’s a scene not dissimilar to watching Betty Saunders Klimenko, the colourful owner of the Erebus Motorsport team, light up the track with her pink, purple and blonde highlights. “I’m the first woman to own a motorsports team in Australia and I’m the reason there’s finally a women’s toilet within 15 minutes walk of the V8 garage,” she comments. “So I’d say my forte is doing the impossible.”

Klimenko is no stranger to the impossible. After 16 years participating in motorsports as a sponsor in the Forumla 3 and GT categories, she purchased the Stone Brothers Racing outfit in 2013 – along with one of its racing Entitlement Contracts – making her the first woman to head a GT and a V8 motorsports racing team.

The renamed Erebus Motorsport team achieved outstanding success in the GT class with Australian GT Championship driver Peter Hackett, and was the first organisation outside Europe to purchase the AMG Customer Sports SLS AMG GT3 Gullwing it races in the GT Championship. “I was the first woman to win a major title on the mountain at the Bathurst 12-Hour,” she comments – justifiably proud.

But it wasn’t enough. V8 – Europe’s version of DTM – was only ever a satellite race in Australia, but there was real potential for the circuit to be developed properly here. Klimenko wasn’t deterred by the lack of spare part transporters or tech support on track for V8s in Australia and she decided to go straight to the top when she saw the opportunity to do something new in Australian motorsports. “I wanted Mercedes-Benz AMG – I loved the brand, the cars and I thought they could do so much for the Australian sport,” explains Klimenko.

Klimenko and her team met with Norbert Haug, Mercedes-Benz’s former head of motorsport in Stuttgart, and presented an in-depth technical overview of Erebus’ capabilities. “Norbert simply asked me, who is paying? And the deal was done.” Under the terms of the deal, the engines are handcrafted for Erebus Motorsport. With the introduction of Mercedes-Benz AMG to V8, Klimenko achieved yet another first – the first woman to bring a manufacturer to V8 to sit beside incumbents Holden, Ford and Nissan.

Klimenko’s achievements are more than just breakthroughs for Australian women in sports – they represent a significant advancement for the entire Australian sports business landscape. Bringing a major global manufacturer to the Australian market is a stunning success born of hard work, the right team and a hard-nosed approach to the business end of racing.

More than an open wallet

The feat highlights that Klimenko is far more than an enthusiastic hobbyist – and she herself is adamant that it’s business methodology that defines her approach. “When I first moved into team ownership there was a perception that I’d open my wallet and money would endlessly flow,” she explains. “But this is a business. I’ve paid for the IP and the IT, and now it’s up to the team to keep the business going.”

Klimenko is drawing on a lifetime of lessons as a commercial property developer to shape both the Erebus team and the Australian motorsports landscape. As the daughter of John Saunders, co-founder of Westfield Group with Frank Lowy and founder of the Terrace

Tower Group, she’s had a unique education at her father’s knee. But she’s also progressed as a businesswoman in her own right, currently acting as Joint Deputy Chairman of the Terrace Tower Group. “I literally grew up in Westfield and took to Terrace Tower a real understanding of how to tell a story and put on a show – that’s the absolute heart of great marketing and promotion,” she comments.

That showmanship is equally important in the business of motorsport. “The business absolutely relies on sponsors and ultimately the ability to attract them is based on your ability to create a meaningful story for them about why they should invest,” says Klimenko.

While working with sponsors was an entirely different paradigm for Klimenko, the relationship management skills required to work in the property development sphere are similar to those she needs to bring manufacturers, sponsors and fans together. The Terrace Tower Group spans retail, commercial, industrial and residential sectors across Australia and the US. So building anything needs patience, a strong vision about the outcome and highly developed people skills. Klimenko certainly has the last two in spades, which along with a good dose of impatience has been the ingredients needed to get things moving.

“Working with the manufacturer, sponsors and fans is like negotiating a four-way marriage,” she says. “You need to balance everyone’s needs, but in the end they’ll reflect the passion that you have for the business.”

Fanning the flames

While Klimenko is acutely aware of the importance of Mercedes-Benz and the team’s sponsors, it’s the fan engagement that she sees as so crucial to the future of her business and the sport itself. And it’s been in this arena that she’s worked the hardest to effect change. “I am fighting the system by bringing the fans closer to the sport,” she comments. For Erebus, this was particularly important. “Because we were a new team with a new manufacturer we didn’t have an established fan base – we’ve had to generate new fans,” says Klimenko.

Given fans are the heartbeat of the sport and the lifeblood of the business, Klimenko knew they needed a fresh approach. “Traditionally the fans have been much further away, but I didn’t grow up with a V8 mentality – I grew up with a retail mindset, which was all about engaging with people,” she explains.

Consequently Klimenko has introduced a slate of initiatives to keep the fans close, including a social media campaign via Twitter and Facebook, new merchandise releases, such as the Betty T-shirt and ‘Berebus’ the bear, and more personal appearances by drivers and Klimenko herself. “When you’re building a brand you have to be accessible,” she emphasises. “You also have to create things that attract different audiences. The Berebus bear is hardly a traditional motorsports type of merchandise, but within 24 hours it had almost 1,000 likes on Facebook,” says Klimenko. “This shows that it’s appealing to a different demographic and hopefully creating a new generation and type of fan.”

Beneficial boundaries

Keeping financial and personal boundaries has also been an important lesson. Klimenko committed to covering 50 percent of the team’s costs for two years, with the other 50 percent to be sourced from sponsors. And she’s absolutely committed to maintaining the line between her personal finances and the team’s. “It’s hard to separate one from the other, but absolutely necessary,” she comments.

At the same time, having realistic expectations about her return on investment is critical. “While this is a business that will need to pay for itself, you have to be prepared to fund the start-up stage and not walk away if things get tough,” she emphasises. In the meantime, Klimenko and team are focused on setting up the systems that will enable the team to pay its own way within that two-year period. In appointing Ryan Maddison as CEO and taking on the Stone Brothers outfit, she’s inherited the business infrastructure she needs to help safeguard her investment.

To maintain those all-important boundaries and to keep her own business skills sharpened, Klimenko maintains other business interests including her directorship of Terrace Tower Group. This, together with having a trusted management team, has enabled Klimenko to become a consumer of her own product. “In taking a step back I’m able to experience it as a fan, which means I can bring a unique perspective to the team and to the business,” she says.

It’s this perspective that makes Klimenko such a visionary. She’s determined to keep developing the sport and her business through even better fan engagement. With a new season approaching, she has big plans to open an Erebus Motorsport Club that Klimenko believes will be different to any other club in the world. While she’s reluctant to give too much away, it will be both an online and a physical club, to be soft launched before the Bathurst 12-Hour in 2014. “To keep people interested you’ve got to keep moving,” she comments. It’s a great motto for Erebus, and for Betty herself.

This article was published in Business View magazine.  For more from Betty Saunders Klimenko, including footage of the interview, download the iPad edition for free via our new app NAB Think.

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