An Insider's View
In professional cycling, as with most pro sports, there is a very distinct (legal and operational) line between the sponsors and the athletes. Typically the athletes are employed by a “sports company”. Sponsors provide the financial muscle to run a sports team and in return expect to have their company logo prominently displayed on jerseys, shorts, equipment and team cars and busses.
Manolo Saiz is the owner of Active Bay Sports. He built teams and managed every detail of their daily operations. For 15 years ONCE partnered with Active Bay . When ONCE withdrew their sponsorship Liberty Mutual stepped in and sponsored Active Bay through its Spanish/Latin American brand Liberty Seguros.
Fabio Selvig was the only Liberty Mutual employee engaged to work full time on the sponsorship program and this was to focus on marketing and PR. In this interview with Fabio we cover his three years with the team.
Graham Jones . Fabio lets start at the beginning. How did you become involved with the Liberty Seguros cycling team?
Fabio Selvig. In January, 2004 I was working with Belmont Wheelworks ( Boston ) multisport triathlon team. It was at this time that Liberty Mutual was starting to set up a new team structure under the name of its Spanish and Latin American operations (Liberty Seguros). One morning I received a call from a head hunter who told me that he had a great opportunity and asked if we could meet the next morning. Naturally, I was very intrigued and quickly did some research, which confirmed my guess that it was to do with the Liberty Seguros cycling team. Apparently, within the space of five days Liberty Mutual had decided to sign the contract as the leading sponsor of the former ONCE team. They quickly realized that they needed somebody to leverage sponsorship, marketing and PR. So they engaged a headhunter, and I was the lucky guy.
G.J. I know that, you have a very strong resume in sales and marketing but what made you stand out from the crowd?
F.S. I'm fluent in four languages, English, French, Italian and Spanish. This was the big clincher.
G.J. How quick was the transition to your new job?
F.S. Two weeks after securing my new position I'm on a corporate jet, with the president of Liberty Mutual International, Tom Ramey, and Steve Sullivan, who was responsible for company external communications and branding.
G.J. What happened to you, after signing the contract with Liberty Mutual?
F.S. I moved to Madrid with my wife and started working with the marketing team and Spanish office of Liberty Seguros. They had done a lot of institutional marketing (like mass mailings, and billboards). I helped them move forward with customized marketing focused on promoting the team.
G.J. When I met Tom Ramey I learned how he worked with the team and that he had quickly built up a fantastic rapport with the riders and team support staff. Was it really that way, or was that PR?
F.S. It was true, before Liberty Seguros ONCE had sponsored the team for 15 years and not once had one of the sponsor company directors or company associates come out on bikes to ride with the team. Tom did this two or three times per year and the riders just loved it! For the team they were seeing a major corporate president who was passionate about cycling, passionate about his team and who was responsible for making the whole thing come to reality. And they certainly truly appreciated that.
G.J. As a corporate president, running a multi-billion dollar business, Tom was known to keep a high end, carbon fiber racing bike in his office. Is this true?
F.S. Yes, the bike was a gift from the team in appreciation for Tom's vision and work in creating the Liberty Seguros team. Basically Tom was seen as a passionate savior, who came along and saved Spain 's most beloved cycling team.
In the Beginning:
G.J. I vividly recall Tom telling me that at first Manolo Saiz saw very little value in your job function. Was that correct?
F.S. Well, the interesting thing was that Manolo was very used to being his own boss. He does not respond well to somebody telling him that his way is no longer valid and that he might need to change. So initially there were some difficult moments, but these were balanced by some great moments as well. It was the classic situation in a corporation or large business, where a new guy rolls up representing the boss and tries to implement the new ways. Such situations are guaranteed to create friction.
G.J. When I met Manolo he proved to be evasive and distant in the interview situation. He seemed to be a very private man. I found him reluctant to speak and almost impossible to interview.
F.S. Yup, that was very true!
G.J. Looking back with hindsight and knowing what we now know, do you think that some of that “ distance ” was Manolo's way to protect his secret environment?
F.S. Actually, I think that it is part of his personality. He is the boss, the king of his own domain. He controls the riders, he tries to control the sponsors, and he definitely controls every single detail to do with the team. He would only work with riders that way, and he only captured riders for the team who would do what he said. When you take a person like Manolo out of that rigid control environment and then put them in a situation where they have to think on their feet and potentially get caught out, they simply walk away. At that point, they will not let you play in their playground anymore. For these reasons, Manolo was difficult to get to know and very often difficult to work with. When it came to interviews, he would speak with people he knew and trusted. Everyone wanting to communicate with Manolo had to earn his trust.
G.J. When did the Operacion Puerto break on you guys?
F.S. It was late May 2006. On that fateful day I was on my Computrainer when my boss Josué Sanz (marketing) called. He said, “have you heard the news?”. And I said no. Naturally, I thought it was going to be some great news from the Giro or some other important race. Anyway, Josué said, “turn on the news and call me back”! So I scanned all the major news sources across Europe , and everywhere the major story was about Manolo Saiz being arrested in conjunction with the affair that we now know as Operacion Puerto.
G.J. From those early days until Operacion Puerto broke, how long did the team function?
F.S. We were going into our third season, and we were preparing for our third Tour de France.
G.J. I remember there was great optimism and hope for the Liberty Seguros team that year.
F.S. Alexander Vinokourov had joined the team and we had great hopes for him. The chemistry between him and the team was great. We also had great hopes for Jorg Jaksche, and of course we had great young riders coming along like Contador and Sanchez. Overall we had a very strong team with a lot of experience and we were really looking forward to Vinokourov finally being the number one rider in a pro-to a team going for the Yellow Jersey in the Tour. But unfortunately it was not to be.
G.J. In your role as sponsorship director, how much of the firestorm from the media did you have to bear?
F.S. Actually, not a lot. We made it very clear that we were in the insurance business and our (legal) role was limited to sponsoring the team and that in no way were we managing the teams' affairs. We were advertisers, and the team was actually managed by Active Bay which of course was Manolo's company co-owned and managed by Pablo Anton. We had made it very clear from the very beginning that the workings of the team were up to Manolo and Pablo. The value of the sponsorship, maximizing the return on investment, and insurance business related functions were our responsibility as sponsors.
G.J. The news obviously focused heavily not only on your team riders, but also on many riders from across the sport. However, few people take note that behind the riders is a large team of support staff. With the sudden suspension of activities, a lot of people lost their income. How many people did Operacion Puerto affect?
F.S. Active Bay had about 45 to 50 people supporting the team in functions including mechanics, drivers, secretaries, nutritionists and many others. I was the only person employed by Liberty Mutual specifically to work with the Liberty Seguros team. Everyone hired by Active Bay was affected, almost immediately.
Now I need to step back in time and little bit. After Roberto Heras won his fourth Vuelta in September of 2005 he unfortunately tested positive. This was a big deal and the situation created a lot of issues that we had to deal with as a sponsor. We believed in the team management, we believed in the riders but we concluded that there was the potential for damage to the company brand (Liberty Mutual). Even though the basis of the contract would have allowed us to walk away from the sponsorship then and there, nobody within Liberty Seguros felt that it was the right thing to do. To terminate the contract would have hurt many people who had nothing to do with the (Heras) affair.
Our approach was to review and rewrite the contract. The rider's salaries and bonuses were not to be based on race performance in any way. Everything was tied to the way the team created visibility for the sponsor, all of which had to be done in a positive manner that supported fair play and honesty. We also made it very clear that if there was another instance of doping, or even a hint of it, we could rescind the sponsorship. So everyone knew that regardless of race results, riders would be paid and get bonuses but if there was any hint of doping then there would be serious consequences. In other words, these guys had no reason to cheat or to dope in order to make a good income. We also made it very clear that we were here to support the team and that we were in it for the long haul - but only under the conditions that we had stipulated. To reinforce our position, we worked with Jonathan Vaughters who outlined a very detailed anti doping control for internal use. We were gong to implement the first steps of the controls when OP happened.
Then unfortunately, Operacion Puerto came about, and we had to revisit that stand. The situation was now quite serious, because the team management had been directly implicated, and it became time for us to reconsider the entire program. Having not personally seen the papers and evidence gathered by the Spanish authorities I can only base my opinions on what I've read in the press and on a few conversations that I had with Manolo after the case was made public.
GJ. What sort of conversations did you have with Manolo?
F. S. Very short. They were colorful and should not be repeated!
G.J. Were you ever personally questioned?
F.S. No, never. I think we did things very well. We didn't try to hide anything because we had nothing to hide. I think we did it right, because after the Heras affair, we made it clear that if we were going to continue with the team sponsorship, it would be on our terms. Everything was to be incredibly transparent, every conversation we had with the riders always centered on the point that we were supporting the team but the future of the team was in their hands. We made it clear that nothing like the Roberto Heras incident could happen again. But when it did then we simply had to tell them that unfortunately we could not continue like this.
G.J. When was the team terminated?
F.S. The contract with Active Bay was terminated end of May or early June of 2006. So in other words, before the Tour de France.
Another little detail that I would like to add here is that when the contract ended between Active Bay and Liberty Mutual we did not, so to say, throw out the baby with the bath water, and thus punish a lot of people who had nothing to do with this. We guaranteed to pay team salaries to all of the riders and staff until the end of the year.
G. J. I thought that the UCI Pro Tour team contracts stipulate these guarantees anyway.
F. S. Yes, but we worked above and beyond our legal obligations. That was the way Liberty Mutual conducted business and I was very proud to be part of that.
G. J. Having been so intimately involved at the team level with Operacion Puerto since day one, what is your opinion of the status of the affair today?
F. S. Prior to Operacion Puerto breaking it was not a crime in Spain to take performance enhancing drugs. However, there were laws that relate to doing things that affect the public health. Riders implicated in Operacion Puerto had in fact not broken any Spanish laws. Today there is still no hard evidence and thus all suspects have avoided public prosecution in Spain . Most importantly, suspected riders were apparently working under the supervision of doctors and thus not affecting public health, as medical procedures were being followed. Consequently, it is because of the laws of Spain that Operacion Puerto has failed to contribute to a serious cleanup of the sport. Also the lack of clarity has failed to save a few sponsorships and caused many people to lose their jobs. All that we really got out of this affair is a huge witch hunt based on innuendo and very little evidence. In short, Operacion Puerto has helped nobody.
G. J. Another aspect is that the UCI code of ethics states that no team may employ a rider involved in an active doping case.
F. S. That is correct, but Operacion Puerto has been shelved.
G. J. Do you keep contact with your former colleagues and the riders?
F. S. Yes, riders like Allan Davis (who is a really fabulous character). I keep in contact with the former team secretary and every once in a while I'll speak with Pablo Anton who was one of the co-owners of Active Bay . Pablo is a very kindhearted person who was sideswiped by all of this. I really believe that he had no idea of what was going on in the background with Manolo. Also, I spoke with Joseba Beloki the other day, he is still very keen on riding but as yet has failed to secure a contract with a team and so he is in a very difficult spot.
G. J. Fabio, this has been a most interesting a conversation and we greatly appreciate the time that you have spent with us. Is there anything you would like to add in closing?
F. S. Well, my entire time with Liberty Mutual was a fantastic experience. I loved it. I met a huge number of tremendously interesting and talented people as well as talented athletes. The final chapter of course was very difficult and actually it was I who recommended to my bosses that they terminate the contract, thus ending my dream job.
G.J. Good luck with your future career and congratulations to your wife and yourself on the pending birth of your first child later this year.
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