DRIVEN. Tireless. Passionate. Caring. Community-minded.
They are all words that were used to describe Mark Penaluna by his Werribee staff members who nominated him to join the hallowed ranks of VFL Life Members on Thursday night.
Penaluna, the competition's longest-serving club official with 18 years as general manager and CEO of the Tigers, received the honour on Thursday night’s VFL awards stream.
According to those who nominated him, he has taken the club from a "financially fledgling" organisation in a three-way AFL alignment with the Western Bulldogs and Williamstown, to a strong standalone entity with some of the best facilities in the competition at Chirnside Park.
Penaluna grew the Tigers from that starting point in October 2003 through the end of the Bulldogs’ alignment into a similar three-way link with North Melbourne and North Ballarat, then a lone agreement with the Kangaroos and finally in 2018 to a standalone club that is respected across the VFL.
He was one of the driving forces behind the $11.75 million Avalon Airport Oval redevelopment that has taken the club's facilities to a state-level benchmark, hosting AFLW and AFL pre-season games and this year's NAB League Girls Grand Final.
He drove the eradication of a $675,000 debt, announced an operating profit in 14 of the 15 years before the COVID pandemic and was instrumental in securing $975,000 in funding for VFL clubs to help deal with the pandemic fall-out.
Under Penaluna's watch, Werribee was also the first VFL club to employ a full-time community development officer to promote the game to children in Wyndham and fostered a relationship with the Western Region League to host that competition’s finals.
They are all achievements he looks back on fondly.
"We've been building for a long, long time. When I started we were heavily in debt and it has always been the idea about building the financial stability and the facilities to ultimately have a standalone club like we are now," Penaluna said.
"It is something I'm very proud of and I think the board, the staff and the volunteers have worked so hard as a collective – we’re very much in there for the long term as far as being a strong and powerful club in 2022 and hopefully for many, many years to come.
"The important thing in anything, but especially in footy, is the ability to work with different types of people, whether you're a volunteer or Julia Gillard (who we had) as our club patron when she was prime minister of Australia and everybody in between – you've got to be able to work with all those sorts of people.
"The importance is transparency and honesty … (and) working towards the best result we can get in those environments."
The life membership submission from Werribee said Penaluna was much more than just a CEO.
"Though the title of CEO evokes imagery of a suit who is responsible for managerial decision-making, ‘Pena’ is often the one in the trenches lending his hand to any role that requires it,” it stated.
"Whether it's getting icy poles for the players following a pre-season session, speaking to the octogenarian in the street about how the boys are travelling or putting the covers on the centre wicket, 'Pena' is an everyman.
"In his 18 years he has effectively undertaken every role that exists in the football club short of coaching or pulling on a Big W jumper (though he'd fancy himself at both)."
Penaluna marvelled at how far the VFL has come since he arrived in 2003 – and not just at Werribee – but lamented the past two years that have largely been lost without anybody being able to do anything about it.
"I hark back to where all the club facilities were (in 2003) and they've all improved. You see the recent development at Coburg, a little bit with the Bullants, certainly Williamstown and Port Melbourne as well as ourselves and some of the AFL/VFL aligned clubs – that’s one big area of focus we need to continue to pursue and improve the facilities," he said.
"The standard of the footy has increased dramatically, the maturity of the players never ceases to amaze me what (they) go through to be playing against AFL-listed players every week.
"It is wonderful we're now playing in three states and giving our players the opportunity to show their wares, whether it is against the Brisbane Lions or the Sydney Swans – and in a unique year we had players play for Gold Coast, Sydney and Werribee all in the one year.
"It is a wonderful opportunity for these guys to show their wares and hopefully reach the ultimate, but in between be staunch Werribee Football Club players for hopefully many years.
"(Dealing with COVID) has been pretty darn difficult for a CEO’s role at club level working remotely, the most challenging aspect has been not understanding what your individual staff are going through.
"The day-to-day involvement I would normally have with staff, looking at their body language, understanding what personal challenges they each might have and not be able to manage them as well as I'd like.
"They've each given up so much at all the clubs in the VFL on reduced hours, reduced payments – a lot of them were on JobKeeper last year and are now on disaster payments.
"I've used this analogy a few times, Nige (awards host Nigel Carmody), but you and I might run around and we're 15 or 20 goals up and still get a kick, but you really learn a lot from people in these situations or when you're 10 points down with five minutes to go.
"I've learnt so much about Werribee people, but also people in VFL land … all the general managers have worked hard as a collective to keep everyone abreast of what we’re each going through and how we learn from each other to get through."