Sydney CEO Tom Harley, North Melbourne CEO Jen Watt and Richmond CEO Brendon Gale. Pictures: AFL Photos

THEY run the club you love. They are the face of the business. The buck stops with them when it comes to generating revenue and building the membership base. But how did they actually reach the top?

While the senior coach is the connector between supporters and the team, clearly the most visible pillar at each club, and the head of football has one of the most important roles, usually hidden from view, the CEO brings a skillset from outside football to the club.

>> Win $25,000 in the official AFL Tipping comp! Sign up NOW

Brendon Gale, Ameet Bains and Craig Vozzo all started their professional careers as lawyers. Greg Swann was a chartered accountant, while Craig Kelly was one of the most influential player agents in Australian sport and Tom Harley provided special comments for Channel Seven on Friday night footy. 

Progress inside clubland isn't always linear, but Port Adelaide chief executive Matthew Richardson has risen from the marketing department with the SANFL club to the main office at Alberton over the course of two decades.

Jen Watt also climbed the ranks at Melbourne before becoming only the second woman to become a club CEO when she was appointed to the position at North Melbourne, following a stint on the executive at the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Steve Hocking and Mark Evans landed senior roles in the football operations departments at Geelong and Hawthorn, respectively, before eventually being poached by the AFL to run the football operations department inside League headquarters.

06:15

Brian Cook is the longest-serving club CEO in the history of the VFL/AFL and, like Swann, is now running his third AFL club. Gary Pert and Simon Garlick are both at second clubs in CEO positions, while Don Pyke has now added CEO to a football resume that includes premiership player, senior coach, assistant coach and board member.

Carl Dilena is currently the interim CEO at St Kilda following the departure of Simon Lethlean earlier this season.

AFL.com.au has tracked how each club CEO has progressed to the position.

Tim Silvers

Silvers has spent the past two decades inside AFL clubs, dating back to his start at Hawthorn when he was the payroll manager based inside a tiny office at Glenferrie Oval. He led the Hawks' relocation to Waverley Park and ended up spending 17 years at the club during a period where the club recovered from near financial ruin to win four premierships under Alastair Clarkson. Silvers spent the last 11 years on the executive at Hawthorn after being promoted to finance manager to chief financial officer to chief operating officer. When Stuart Fox was away for two months in 2016, Silvers stepped up as acting CEO in 2016. He missed out on the top job to Justin Reeves in 2017, but went about increasing his involvement in football with the Box Hill Hawks to enhance his chances of getting a gig down the track. That opportunity arrived in 2021 when Adelaide appointed him as Andrew Fagan's successor. Silvers' sister is Trisha Squires, the former CEO of AFL Tasmania and current head of AFL Queensland.

Adelaide CEO Tim Silvers after being appointed in 2021. Picture: Adelaide FC

Greg Swann

Horse racing was calling when Swann left his post at Carlton midway through 2014 following seven years as the Blues CEO, but then Gill McLachlan came calling. Brisbane was in disarray at the time and the newly appointed AFL CEO needed an experienced club boss to help steady the ship in Queensland. Ironically, it wasn't Swann's first dealing with the Lions. When he was working as a chartered accountant in 1996, Swann was part of the administrator that wound up Fitzroy Football Club. By the time the former VFA and WAFL defender joined the Lions, Swann was one of the most experienced CEOs in the caper having led Collingwood between 2000 and 2007 when the Magpies relocated their training and administration base to Olympic Boulevard and became a force again under Mick Malthouse and Eddie McGuire, who helped get him to the club. At that point, Swann had been president of Williamstown in the VFL at the age of 28 and helped stop a merger with Werribee in 1998. While coaches and footy managers have housed players over the years, Swann is one of the rare CEOs who has had players live with him and his wife Leonie over the journey, in a simple but telling part of his leadership.

Brisbane CEO Greg Swann speaks with reporters in November 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Brian Cook

No one in the history of the game has held club CEO roles for as long as Cook. This year will mark 35 consecutive seasons as the helm, dating back to his start at West Coast in 1990. Cook was born in Scotland but moved to Australia at the age of two and played four games for Melbourne in 1977 before moving to Western Australia to study a Master of Education. His first job was as a development officer at Little Athletics, before positions at the Australian Sports Commission, WA Football Commission and then as WAFL CEO ahead of his stint at the Eagles. After nine seasons at the Eagles, Cook moved to Geelong in 1999 and played a key role in the famous era under Mark Thompson and then Chris Scott. Frank Costa became president in the same year and became a close confidante during his 12 years in the post, while Colin Carter was also an ally across his decade as president. Under his watch, colleagues Trevor Nisbett, Steve Hocking, Tom Harley and Justin Reeves have become club CEOs. Cook signalled his intent to retire in 2021 and helped pave the way for Steve Hocking to return to the Cattery, but realised he had more in the tank when Carlton president Luke Sayers picked up the phone that year to offer him the CEO position. At 69, Cook still swims five mornings a week and has just signed on until the end of 2025.

Brian Cook and Michael Voss at Carlton's photo day on February 7, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Craig Kelly

When the end of his playing career was approaching at Collingwood, Kelly negotiated a final contract with a difference with then-footy manager Graeme 'Gubby' Allan. He wanted an office on the third floor of the Bob Rose Stand at Victoria Park to start building his business. By that stage, the 1990 premiership defender had been combining his playing career with working in sponsorship, corporate and membership departments of the Magpies. He launched player management company Pro Squad which became Elite Sports Properties (ESP) in 1996 when he merged with former Olympic swimmer Rob Woodhouse, after dabbling in special comments for Optus but quickly realising it wasn't his bread and butter. ESP quickly built a phenomenal stable and expanded into memorabilia and marketing, with the pair cashing in when they sold the company for $17.5 million in the early 2000s before buying it back for just $2 million. TLA Worldwide bought ESP for $25.5 million in 2015 and retained Kelly, while acquiring Stride Sports. Kelly has been one of the most powerful figures in football for a long time, with deep ties to head office and Collingwood. After 26 years in player management, the South Australian returned to the Magpies as CEO at the start of 2023 ahead of a premiership season for the club. Legendary figure Leigh Matthews has been a grandfather figure for Kelly along one of the most interesting careers in the AFL era.  

Craig Kelly (right) embraces Jordan De Goey after Collingwood's win in the 2023 AFL Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Craig Vozzo

Before he was lured across to clubland, Vozzo spent the first 20 years of his professional career as a commercial lawyer in Adelaide, where he also played for West Adelaide and Port Adelaide in the SANFL. He became a player agent in 1994 and combined that work, predominantly at Stride Sports Management, with his law practice in South Australia. Vozzo wasn't considering a move to a club, especially not one based in Perth, but then the opportunity presented to join West Coast as list and contract manager in 2010. When Neale Daniher stood down from his role as the Eagles GM of football operations in 2013 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Vozzo stepped up, with the former Melbourne senior coach helping him transition across the next 12 months. Vozzo became West Coast's general counsel in 2021, working closely with CEO Trevor Nisbett, who along with Daniher helped put him on a path to becoming a CEO. It was at that time when a CEO role became something he wanted. Both South Australian clubs had showed interest in him as CEO at different stages, but the opportunity at Essendon opened in 2022, following the resignation of Andrew Thorburn after just one day.

Essendon CEO Craig Vozzo. Picture: Essendon FC

 Simon Garlick

After calling time on his 181-game career for the Western Bulldogs and Sydney, Garlick returned to the Kennel as chief commercial offer before being appointed CEO in 2010 after two years. The Victorian resigned from the position at the start of 2015, amid a period of widespread change at the club. He then became general manager of sports marketing firm Bastion, which has involved former AFL CEOs Andrew Demetriou and Gillon McLachlan across the journey and was founded by former Crow and Saint Fergus Watts. Garlick returned to the Western Bulldogs in 2018 as football director on the board but left that position in October 2019 when he replaced long-time Dockers CEO Steve Rosich, returning to clubland in the west.

Fremantle CEO Simon Garlick at the club's season launch on February 22, 2024. Picture: Fremantle FC

Steve Hocking

When Hocking retired after the 1994 Grand Final on 199 games, life after football was supposed to involve running his own business. That's what he did during his playing career, first as a bricklayer, then running a picture-framing business in Geelong. He coached Newtown Chilwell in the Geelong Football League for a couple of years, but realised coaching wasn't for him. But when Mark Thompson dropped into the store unannounced one day and offered him a part-time role as chairman of selectors, Hocking returned to the Cats, three years after Brian Cook unsuccessfully tried luring him back. Within 18 months, Hocking was appointed football operations manager, starting a long stint in this area of the business. He didn't realise it at the time, but a 14-month stint as the Cats' GM of commercial in 2014 and 2015 put him on a path to becoming a CEO. When Neil Balme, who along with Gill McLachlan have been two of the most influential figures in his career, stepped down as head of football in 2015, Hocking returned to the football department to run the operations. Two years later he decided to leave the shadow of Geelong and move to League headquarters as the AFL's GM of football, covering a wide remit that included umpires, match review panel, rules, pathways and more. Hocking's career at Geelong came full circle in 2021 when he was lured back down the highway to replace Cook as CEO.

Geelong CEO Steve Hocking looks on during a clash against West Coast in round 23, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Mark Evans

A member of Hawthorn's long-running group of teachers turned key figures in the game, Evans first landed a role in the AFL in 1999 when he joined Melbourne. By that stage, Evans had spent more than a decade teaching at Mount Lilydale Mercy College while coaching Croydon in the Eastern Football League. He wanted to get into development coaching and joined the Demons as communications manager, progressing to welfare manager before Hawthorn recruited him as GM in 2004, starting weeks after Tim Silvers joined the club in payroll. Evans spent a decade at the Hawks working alongside four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson during a transformational period for the club, spending the final 18 months as deputy CEO behind Stuart Fox. Andrew Demetriou brought him across to the AFL to replace Adrian Anderson as GM of football, where AFLW, equalisation measures, umpiring and MRO were all part of his remit. Gill McLachlan and Tony Cochrane orchestrated the move up north at a time when the Suns were struggling with a raft of on-field and off-field issues. After living the Hawthorn experience, the challenge of building a club from scratch on the Gold Coast appealed to Evans, who has now been in Queensland for seven years.

Gold Coast CEO Mark Evans, coach Damien Hardwick and chairman Bob East on August 21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Dave Matthews

The role was supposed to be for three months but has ended up lasting more than 13 years. Before Matthews became Greater Western Sydney CEO on Melbourne Cup Day in 2011, his start was as the first full-time employee of the Geelong Football League. Don Mathieson OAM appointed him to the role in 1993 and served as a source of inspiration across a journey that led to the AFL when Wayne Jackson brought him in to run Auskick nationally in 1998. By 2004, Andrew Demetriou elevated Matthews to the AFL executive as GM of Development. The former League CEO, who has been a constant presence in Matthews' career, sent him to Sydney first as GM of national and international development, where the formation of the Giants and Gold Coast was part of his remit, before he stepped in as interim GWS CEO for three months in 2011. That was extended to 12 months, which has become more than a decade in charge of the AFL's youngest club, working closely with inaugural chairman Tony Shepherd. Dave's brother Simon is Richmond's chief marketing officer and has spent the past 14 years at Punt Road after a decade at Essendon. 

Greater Western Sydney CEO Dave Matthews speaks to the media on August 23, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Ash Klein

Klein grew up a Hawthorn supporter and used to go to Waverley Park with his mum and brother to watch the Hawks as a kid. Even when he was interim CEO last year, he didn't imagine running the club until Andy Gowers asked him to consider being part of the process. By that stage, Klein had been at the club since 2018 and inside clubland for more than 15 years, and had won the support of the building. Former CEO Justin Reeves brought him across from Collingwood, where Klein spent 11 years in the commercial department dating back to 2007, when he joined around the same time as Gary Pert became CEO. Veteran administrator Geoff Walsh was head of football at the Magpies, who along with Reeves and Pert, helped put Klein on this path, after initially cutting his teeth at the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. The 47-year-old joined the Hawks as chief commercial officer and has become the latest executive at the club to ascend to a club boss after Tim Silvers joined Adelaide in 2021, five years after Mark Evans landed the gig at Gold Coast.

Ash Klein after being appointed Hawthorn CEO on September 19, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Gary Pert

After calling time on his 233-game career for Fitzroy and Collingwood, Pert climbed the corporate ladder post-footy, becoming general manager of Triple M and Fox FM, managing director of Channel Nine and a long-term board member at SEN 1116. Pert joined Collingwood's board in 2005 and was considered as an option to replace Eddie McGuire as president in 2006 when the then-Nine CEO contemplated relinquishing the title due to his hectic work schedule and living arrangements. Instead, McGuire remained president and Pert replaced Greg Swann as CEO midway through 2007 after then-Carlton president Dick Pratt poached the administrator. After 11 seasons at the Magpies, Pert resigned in 2017 but was then offered the top job at Melbourne the following year to replace Peter Jackson. The Demons won their first premiership in 57 years in 2021.

Melbourne CEO Gary Pert during the match against Brisbane in R15, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Jen Watt

The bank teller has ended up running the bank. That is how Watt frames it, and it is an apt analogy. Before Watt became only the second woman to be appointed a club CEO, the Mornington Peninsula product started at Melbourne Football Club in 2003 as membership coordinator. By that stage, Watt had worked briefly for Flying Start Management and wanted to get into clubland, after completing a commerce degree, majoring in sport management. It didn't take her long to start climbing the ranks at the Demons, progressing through memberships, retail and events to eventually land a role on the executive as general manager of marketing and communications. Heading into 2017, Watt was offered the GM of commercial partnerships position at the MCC, but was also approached by the AFL regarding the head of women's football position. She chose to swap sides of the MCG – the Demons office is based in the Shane Warne Stand – where MCC CEO Stuart Fox became a close mentor and helped prod her in the right direction when the Kangaroos spot was up for grabs at the end of 2022. Melbourne great and current North GM Todd Viney has been a constant presence and mentor across the journey, as has former Demons and Essendon CEO Peter Jackson. After Tracey Gaudry's short stint at Hawthorn, Watt's appointment has been crucial.

CEO Jen Watt and president Sonja Hood at a North Melbourne press conference on May 18, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Matthew Richardson

Not many inside club land have spent 23 consecutive years at the same club, but Richardson has, albeit with a slight difference. He joined Port Adelaide in a marketing role for the SANFL side back in 2001 and one of his first tasks was to organise the greatest team from 1870 to 2000 event. Before then, Richardson did a PE degree and planned on becoming a PE teacher while playing grade cricket in Adelaide. He then decided marketing was his preferred pursuit, so he studied marketing and started a sports marketing company called Impact Sports Management with a few friends. Richardson was promoted to Port Adelaide Magpies CEO in 2004 and spent five years in the role before moving to the Power in a strategy role as GM of marketing and consumer business, focusing on Adelaide Oval and unifying the divide between the SANFL and AFL clubs. By 2017, Richardson was promoted to executive general manager and after an exhaustive search in 2020 to find Keith Thomas' successor, Port Adelaide opted to promote from within, settling on a man who has been at Alberton since the turn of the century. Thomas gave notice 12 months before he departed, and it was only in that time that Richardson contemplated the position, despite his steady rise internally.

Port Adelaide CEO Matthew Richardson. Picture: Port Adelaide

Brendon Gale

Like Craig Kelly, Steve Hocking, Gary Pert and now Don Pyke, Gale has gone from playing for the club to running the club. Drafted out of Burnie in 1987, Gale played 244 games in yellow and black, becoming a life member in 1997. But it is what he has done for Richmond since then which has been more significant. Gale studied law at Monash University during his playing career and became a delegate with the AFL Players' Association before he'd played a game. After practising law at commercial firm, King Wood Mallesons, Gale served as CEO of the AFLPA from 2005 to 2009, where the exposure to how all 16 clubs ran put him on a path to what was next. That was a return to where it started. When Steven Wright announced he was stepped down for health reasons, Gale was appointed Richmond CEO at the end of 2009. Since then, Richmond has soared from 36,000 members to above 100,000 for each of the past six seasons, on the back of ending a 37-year premiership drought in 2017 and then winning two more during the dynasty under Damien Hardwick.

Brendon Gale speaks to the media during a Richmond press conference on September 22, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Carl Dilena is the interim CEO at St Kilda following the departure of Simon Lethlean in February this year.

Tom Harley

Weeks after leading Geelong to his second premiership in 2009, Harley retired after 198 games and relocated to New South Wales to be with his Sydney-based wife. The former Cats captain worked for Channel 7 on Friday night football in his first couple of years out of the game, before moving from a consulting role to a full-time position at AFL NSW-ACT. Dave Matthews appointed him as GM weeks before landing the CEO gig at Greater Western Sydney, following a period where Harley decided media wasn't for him. Veteran administrator Andrew Ireland was Swans CEO at the time and lured Harley across to the Swans as head of football at the end of 2014. It was just enough breathing room from the Cats for the South Australian – who played one game for Port Adelaide before moving to Kardinia Park – to join another club. Within less than three years, Sydney laid out the blueprint for another succession plan at the club. This time, Ireland would hand over the baton to Harley across 12 months to help him transition to the other end of the business by 2019. Brian Cook became a friend during Harley's time at Geelong and has guided him through the post-playing phase of his life, while Sydney president Andrew Pridham has been a near-daily sounding board. Neil Balme and Steve Hocking have also been key figures in the journey. Harley completed a Bachelor of Commerce across eight years during his time at the Cats – 33 Geelong players started the course, only three finished – but it is the footy education that comes from being a club captain and being immersed in a club like Geelong that also helped pave the way to becoming a CEO.

Sydney CEO Tom Harley speaks to the media on July 30, 2020. Picture: Getty Images

Don Pyke

Player, assistant coach, senior coach, board member and now chief executive. Pyke has performed almost every highly coveted role in footy across 35 years in the game. Pyke was the first American-born player in the AFL and played in West Coast's two premierships under Mick Malthouse in 1992 and 1994, before returning to the club as a director in 2001 while carving out a successful career in business and investments. He coached Claremont in 1999 and 2000 then spent a couple of years as Neil Craig's assistant at Adelaide before focusing on business for seven years. Then Adam Simpson lured him back to coaching in 2013 before the Crows appointed him as senior coach at the end of 2015 to replace the late Phil Walsh. After a year out of the game, Pyke joined John Longmire's coaching panel in Sydney at the end of 2020, but it was only a matter of time before a club landed him as CEO. West Coast made the move last November after Trevor Nisbett's long stint at the helm, completing a remarkable circle for Pyke at the Eagles.

West Coast CEO Don Pyke. Picture: West Coast Eagles

Ameet Bains

In a different life, Bains would be a managing partner in a law firm by now. Instead, he has spent more than a decade inside two AFL clubs. After spending the first five years of his professional career as a lawyer at leading firm Minter Ellison, Bains moved to Toyota and ran the in-house legal department, gaining exposure to the AFL and the Adelaide Crows. In the weeks after St Kilda lost the 2010 Grand Final, Adrian Anderson called one night and told him to consider a new role at St Kilda – GM of player list and legal affairs – before Saints CEO Michael Nettlefold reached out. Managing the salary cap and contracts was the primary role to start with, while managing the recruiting team. When Matt Finnis arrived in 2014, he promoted Bains to chief commercial officer, putting him on a path the becoming a CEO. Contracts were still part of his remit, but major projects like Moorabbin and New Zealand became his realm, along with media and communications. The Western Bulldogs appointed Bains to the top role at the Whitten Oval in late 2017, following a period where the club had four CEOs in three seasons, either side of the drought breaking premiership win in 2016.

Western Bulldogs CEO Ameet Bains poses for a photo on February 28, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos