As the first non-Victorian to umpire in the Australian Football League (AFL), it is safe to say that Grant Vernon (77-81) has a story or two to share. Grant’s umpiring was juggled alongside his career in business, a career that has seen him hold multiple executive positions, including in Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Group. We caught up with Grant, who is currently a member of the College Council, for this most recent edition of the Corner Office.
What sort of memories do you have from your time at Wesley?
I loved Wesley and I have only happy memories from my time here. Even before I started at Wesley, I was looking forward to it as my dad was an Old Collegian. I remember the first day I came. I had been a student at Roleystone Primary so I didn’t know anyone. My nanna lived 200 metres away from Wesley so my dad would drive me to school and then pick me up from my nanna’s on the way home from work. As I got further into school, I became more of a boarder at my nanna’s because I was doing a lot of co-curricular activities.
I had only one English teacher for whole five years at Wesley – Mrs Jean Bamford . She was a bit of a legend. I was a very shy child and she gave me the belief to do Debating and Drama. We had the same Debating team from Year 8 until the end of Year 12. We did well which was awesome. Wesley gave me the confidence to do things that I could never have imagined later in life. Mum says that Mrs Bamford was the making of me!
Wesley has been so important in my life. I loved being involved with other Wesley boys through sport, like seeing Earl Spalding at Carlton and Dean Nalder at South Fremantle. I have always been proud to be a Wesley boy. To be honest, early in my professional career, I think there were jobs that I got just because I was a Wesley Old Collegian and there were senior people who respected Wesley or in one case was an Old Collegian as well.
What did you initially do upon leaving Wesley?
I studied Commerce at the University of Western Australia. While I was at university, I worked for KPMG during the holidays and when I graduated, I just stayed on and worked there.
It was whilst I was at university that I got into umpiring. Gary Lethridge (77-81), who has been my best friend since school, umpired the East Fremantle juniors. He told me you could earn $30 cash umpiring a game on a Sunday morning doing under 15s. I could do a couple of games on the weekend, so for a uni student it was pretty good money and we had a lot of fun.
I had always loved football and I wanted to join the West Australian Football League (WAFL) umpiring panel. Max Freeman, who was coaching the umpires down at East Fremantle, said ‘No, I want you to do another year but while you’re doing another year of juniors, we will get you some experience umpiring men’. I umpired at an amateur level, and even umpired some G-grade games. There were blokes running around barefoot and there was only one umpire back then. You would be wondering how you would get back to the car!
How did you make it to Victorian Football League (VFL) level?
In 1987 when the Eagles joined the VFL (as the AFL was known back then), I was lucky to have been taken to a pre-season camp with the two guys who umpired the Grand Final the year before in the WAFL. I stayed with Dennis Rich and his family for three weeks while we were trialled in pre-season games and trained with the VFL umpires. Dennis and I are still very close, and I was very lucky that I was placed with his family, as they really looked after me. I learnt a lot from Dennis, especially as he had umpired three Grand Finals.
That May, I made my debut and became the first non-Victorian based umpire to umpire a game in the VFL.
Was it difficult being a non-Victorian umpire at that time?
I would travel a lot, racing from work to catch a plane almost every Friday afternoon and then would fly back after the game. Until The Dockers started in 1994, there was only the West Coast Eagles in Western Australia, so there was a game in Perth only every second week. They didn’t want to give me too many Eagles games so I would travel for maybe 18 games and do three or four games at home.
The Victorian umpires didn’t really want non-Victorians umpiring their games, so there was some jealousy and resentment, but I kept thinking how lucky I was to be getting a game. It all just happened at the right time for me. I ended up umpiring more than 200 AFL games and the WAFL inducted me into the WA Football Hall of Fame – I would never have imagined that when I was back at school.
How did you manage working full-time while also umpiring?
I wasn’t prepared to give up anything, so I learnt to be ruthless with my time. In the early days I was umpiring, working full time at KPMG and studying to become a Chartered Accountant.
The AFL expected that umpiring was the most important thing; you had to go to the training sessions and the games at their direction. I would treat them like business appointments.
It is amazing how you can get things done when you know the limits you have on your time. I was lucky to have had employers who were happy to support that. I’ve seen a lot of young people sacrifice their other interests, and even relationships, for their working career. I have never seen that as necessary. Life is always about compromises. Don’t let your work come at the expense of your sporting interests or your hobbies or anything like that. Those things have enriched my life so much.
I look back now and I think that the success I have enjoyed professionally has been because of the diversity of things with which I have been involved. Umpiring helped enormously because I grew so much from that as a person and it gave me a profile, but other things that I have done voluntarily just give a different perspective and you meet some amazing people.
What were the highlights of your umpiring career?
The highlight that everyone always talks about – and it’s so true – is the friendships. The great thing about sport is that it is a leveller. You have a broad mixture of genuine people who share a common purpose.
There were some real characters in the game and some funny moments. I have a couple of photos at home – one where Craig Bradley from Carlton has me in a full embrace and was pretending to cry about a decision and another that a friend at Channel 7 gave me where Tim Watson is nose to nose staring down at me going nuts and Tim has signed it ‘Dear Grant. You have beautiful eyes.’
In terms of individual moments that I remember the most, I always think about an ANZAC Day game (Collingwood v Essendon) when the ball was kicked straight to the goal square after the first bounce. It was a two umpire system in those days, so I had bounced the ball to start the game and then sprinted toward the goal square where there was a marking contest. Half the crowd – of 100,000 people – thought it was a mark, half a free kick. It was just an explosion of noise. Only five minutes earlier there had been the national anthem and you could hear a pin drop.
What is the most interesting role you have had in your business career?
I have been lucky to have had some fantastic roles and have really enjoyed everything I have done. I’ve spent the last 20 years in different executive roles in public companies or in family entities where the senior family member is the Chief Executive Officer or Managing Director and you become that right-hand person and adviser.
Working with families gives me the greatest pleasure because you almost become part of the family and trust has to be absolute. I was Chief Operating Officer in Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Minderoo Group for a period when we did some amazing things like negotiating deals at the Vatican to bring religious leaders together to end slavery. That was an incredible experience.
The Mazur family with whom I am now working with are wonderful people and we have a great team culture. I also own William Grant Financial Consulting with two other friends and it gives us a lot of pleasure looking after our clients’ interests as if they are family.
What lessons did you take from your umpiring career into your business career?
I really think that sport, in general, is a crash course in life. Especially in finals, when it becomes so important to people. For an umpire, it’s whether you get certain games or not. For players, it is whether you are in the team or not, or winning or not. If it goes your way or if it doesn’t go your way, you learn pretty quickly from it because you will be surrounded by people who – even if you’re successful yourself – are disappointed or vice versa.
You learn not to celebrate too much or get down in the dumps too much – it’s just a moment in time and we move forward. You need to enjoy it for what it is. I look back on my career now and it’s not about the big games you get to do; it’s about the whole process.
The two things that I always remembered whilst umpiring is the importance of composure under pressure and not worrying about things you can’t change. It often happens in a professional context, when someone is angry or there is a disagreement. It is important to not get emotional – just stay calm and composed. There are so many things that happen in life, and certainly in sport, that you can’t control. Worry about what you can control and make those decisions well.
As an umpire, you would have had fans not agree with your decisions and that would be the same in the business world. How do you deal with that?
You have to make hard decisions – whether that is in umpiring, business or life. It’s important to believe that you are making the right decision for the right reasons and if you make a mistake, admit that you’ve made a mistake. The easiest way to make no mistakes is to do nothing – but that means you would never achieve anything. If you try to cover up mistakes and blame something else, no one respects that.
If I go back to umpiring, for example, sometimes it’s obvious that you’ve made a mistake. There is no point in pretending that it wasn’t! I would say to the players – and sometimes you’re not sure – ‘you might be right, but I can’t change it; let’s just move on and accept it’.
Of all the things that you’ve achieved so far in your life, what are most proud of?
Chris and I have three children, Melissa, Mitch (05-12) and Cassie, and I have always said to them that getting along with people is the most important thing in life. You can achieve anything if you can get along and work with others. I look at my children and they’re all good people and that’s what I am most proud of. They are all grounded.
It’s not for me to judge, but I would like to think most people who know me would think reasonably well of me. Whatever your personal brand is, at the end of the day your reputation is all you really have. What does success mean? Ultimately, I think success means being a good person who is well-regarded by the people who really know you.
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