Even as he steps down as New Zealand Rugby League chief executive, Phil Holden has shown the same integrity he brought to the role for almost three years.
Holden tendered his resignation this week, essentially putting family ahead of career. He and wife Jen have two daughters, Lila (5) and Evie (2).
“When I was appointed, this was really a dream job for me,” he reflects. “Becoming CEO of a national sporting organisation was always something I aspired to, especially New Zealand Rugby League, given my past interaction with the game and many of its stakeholders.
“It has been everything I expected and more, but I also have a young family that I want to give more of my attention and energy to. As a family, we now have a great opportunity to make a lifestyle choice that will set us up as our girls get older and beyond.
“It’s obviously a difficult decision from a career perspective, but I want to explore more of a portfolio of work options that will provide the right harmony between family and work.
“As an organisation, we always say we are about whanau and family comes first, so for me, this is very consistent with those values.”
The Holdens have sold their house in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert and will move to Greytown in the Wairarapa early in the new year.
When he arrived at NZRL in early 2013, Holden, a former provincial hockey representative, brought a marketing and commercial background that had culminated in six years as chief executive of The Lion Foundation.
One of those previous positions was marketing manager at Auckland Rugby Union and he had also served as chairman of the Auckland Diamonds netball franchise.
Holden found an organisation that had rebuilt its reputation and influence after a dramatic Sport NZ-mandated restructure in 2009.
Holden’s values-based approach has moved rugby league to the next level. Under his watch, he has managed a shift in culture within the game, NZRL and its marquee national men’s team, the NZ Kiwis.
Based on his “Te Iwi Kiwi” vision, the Playbook (2013-17) strategic plan draws on league’s multi-cultural roots, utilising its unique standing in the community to bring wider social benefits.
During his tenure, the Kiwis lost their World Cup title, but regrouped to inflict three successive defeats on champions Australia and snatch the world #1 ranking for the first time. New Zealand has also secured the rights to co-host the next Rugby League World Cup with Australia.
NZRL has brought the women’s programme under its high performance umbrella, showcasing rugby league as a viable sporting pathway for females through the exploits of the Kiwi Ferns on the international stage.
At the same time, Holden and his staff have grappled with how best to develop the sport at grassroots, while also preparing our young players for potential professional careers.
“One of Phil’s biggest contributions during his time has been strengthening our relationship with zone boards, where he dramatically lifted communications and engagement,” observes NZRL board chairman Garry Fissenden.
Holden has also worked hard to reshape a funding model that has relied too heavily on returns from Kiwis tests, and one of his greatest achievements has been forging stronger ties with key partners in central government and the Australian NRL.
His pragmatism in that regard seems about to pay dividends.
The NZRL board has appointed long-standing chief financial officer Alex Hayton as interim CEO, while the role is advertised publicly.
“One of the key messages we’ve received from all our key stakeholders is their confidence in NZRL leadership,” says Fissenden. “Alex has been with us through all of our issues – he is totally across all of our strategies and knows all of our key stakeholders.
“He is perfectly equipped to ensure we stay on track while we find a new CEO.”