From the start it was always going to be tough to win over the large field of devotees of Stephen Gough, Fox’s predecessor who held the role for 17 years and became a father figure, friend and advisor to so many of the stadium’s 100-plus full-time employees.
Gough supporters say he embraced every aspect of the institution, which boasts 130,000 members, more than a dozen sporting sections, the National Sports Museum, Yarra Park and regularly hosts major national and international sporting events and concerts.
Fox defenders point to the all-consuming AFL-government deal which punctuated his first year — a deal they say could not have been achieved without him. It was a priority negotiation which perhaps came at a cost to less pressing but still significant areas of the business.
And if some staff had become too comfortable under Gough then they struggled with Fox’s harder management style.
Fox’s supporters insist change was well overdue at the MCG. In recent years the ground has restructured its membership, significantly upgraded its digital and Wi-Fi, introduced a world-class recycling program and in January won an international customer service award. All this while constantly mindful and working to minimise the threat to security of a stadium which holds 100,000.
Said Smith, the recently departed MCC president who signed Fox and who last August instigated an external review into his performance: ‘‘It does take some time to really understand the dynamics of the club that is also a very big business. It does take time.
‘‘And I’m sure Stuart will prove a great leader of this club just like Stephen Gough did.’’
For the anti-Fox camp the situation came to a head one year ago during a normally innocuous but popular charity event, the Melbourne City Mission’s ”Sleep at the ’G”, which is due again next Thursday night and last year saw about 55 MCC staff including Fox take part.
The night left a sour taste in the mouths of many staff and led to two official complaints to committee vice-president Karen Wood, who now chairs the BHP offshoot South32. Then president Smith denied the external review subsequently held into Fox’s performance came as a result of events that night but said it was one ‘‘prompt’’ to examine the new CEO.
The committee’s executive did feel compelled to examine the drinking that took place in a suite on what is traditionally an alcohol-fee night and led to drunkenness involving two to three staff including one contractor.
There is no suggestion that Fox, who was also dealing with a family illness that night, was drunk but he did host staff drinks at the end of the work day and later attended the suite. This upset some staff who were not included. A week later Fox apologised to his team for the drinking, which he conceded was not appropriate.
The apology was not enough for some who were also disappointed Fox did not complete the sleep out — which, in fairness, Gough never attempted.
Smith confirmed the review came three months later and was overseen by the committee’s five-member executive with MCC treasurer Michael Andrew — the former global CEO of KPMG international — taking part.
Fox saw the results of that review as largely positive although he did address some shortcomings later with his executive team.
According to the committee executive Fox told his management team he would attempt to be more inclusive. Those in that regular meeting confirmed Fox said he was taking the feedback on board to improve his leadership presence and grow his appreciation of all parts of the business.
The multi-layered complexities at the MCG run deeper than the challenges over the vexed question of the members’ reserve and the changing structures therein. And the organisation remains deeply sensitive to personal scrutiny. On Friday morning new president Michael Happell told his committee that The Age was reporting on Fox’s two-year tenure.
Fox has also spoken with his management team and key stakeholders. Upon reflection, Fox would not be directly drawn on any dissent among the ranks. He told The Age: “I am clear in the direction the committee and management have set for our club.
“Progress and innovation whilst maintaining our heritage are clearly on our agenda to be the best sporting club in the world and the best ground managers for this iconic stadium.”
Fox, 48, is rebuilding his executive team, having 18 months ago begun forming his new guard with the appointment of Jennifer Watt — the AFL’s Graeme Samuel Scholarship winner and former executive at Melbourne Football Club, where she worked for 14 years — to the dual role of commercial operations and partnerships.
This year notable departures include events and security boss Gerard Griffin after 14 years, Scott Butler, the general manager of memberships and heritage (20 years), security chief Sue Wilkinson and the communications manager Shane Brown, who worked at the MCC for almost 18 years.
Wilkinson, who headed the London Olympic Games intelligence for the British government, has accepted a position with the T20 World Cup and will soon be replaced by Michael Roberts, who comes from a role as Interpol project stadia program manager.
Griffin will on Monday assume the role of CEO at the Kardinia Park Trust replacing Michael Brown while Shane Brown has moved to Rail Projects Victoria and been replaced by Sophie Henderson from the AFL.
Butler — one who spoke up and was unhappy with what took place at the Sleep at the ’G — left earlier this year after two decades, with the departure subject to a confidentiality agreement.
Fox’s sudden resignation from Hawthorn shortly before Christmas 2016 caused some brief bad feeling at that club because he was contracted but in the end heleft with the board’s blessing after seven years in the role which had delivered three premierships and record profits.
Steven Smith has denied he deliberately installed Fox as a change agent but there is no doubt Fox sees himself that way, inevitably given his predecessor had been in the role for close to two decades.
Fox — still popular among AFL club chiefs and well regarded by Gillon McLachlan — worked successfully at Hawthorn with a challenging president Jeff Kennett in his early years in that job and for seven years with the brilliant but demanding Alastair Clarkson.
His many admirers at Hawthorn point to his leadership at the club in the premiership season of 2014 when Clarkson missed five games after being diagnosed with the nerve-paralysing Guillain-Barré syndrome and Clarkson’s assistant Brett Ratten’s son was killed in a car accident.
Some of the sensitivities behind the scenes that year never came to light but the club prevailed. Fox, only the seventh Melbourne Cricket Club secretary/CEO in 138 years, now faces an entirely different set of challenges as he works to blend club with corporate and the old school tie with the digital age.
Caroline Wilson was previously chief football writer for The Age. She has won numerous awards, including the Melbourne Press Club’s Graham Perkin award in 2014 as Australian journalist of the year.