The longest serving rugby administrator in South Africa, Harold Verster, Managing Director of the Toyota Free State Cheetahs, will step down at the end of November after 28 years at the helm. Ross van Reenen, well-known businessman and former Free State player, takes over as Chief Executive Officer of the Cheetahs on 1 December 2021.
Jerry Segwaba, president of Free State Rugby Union, the major shareholder of the Cheetahs, and Ryno Opperman, chairman of the Cheetahs Board, announced the unanimous decision by their respective bodies. Harold Verster will remain available in an advisory capacity.
Explaining the appointment, the Board issued the following statement: “Harold Verster reached retirement age in September 2020. The Cheetahs experienced ‘a perfect storm’ with Covid-lockdown, exclusion from Pro14 rugby and a 67% cut in its contributions from SARU over 18 months. It was therefore almost impossible to recruit and appoint a new CEO given all the uncertainties about the future. The Board asked Mr Verster to remain on a month-to-month basis while the search for a successor continued. Under his leadership the Cheetahs, against the odds, made significant progress to re-join international rugby and with Toyota SA staged the current Toyota Challenge.
“Mr Van Reenen was already involved with the Cheetahs in an advisory role on fund raising. With plans for the Cheetahs’ return to international rugby at an advanced stage and the need for a CEO with a financial and fundraising track record, Mr Van Reenen indicated his availability to take on the position full-time and relocate to Bloemfontein. Mr Verster and the Board could therefore agree to a smooth and swift handover with continuity and continued cooperation.
“Mr Van Reenen has an established track record as a financial, turnaround and transformation leader in business, international consulting and education. He holds a BA Honours, Higher Education Diploma and a MBA degree, obtained with distinction from the Oxford-Brookes University in London. His bestseller book From Locker Room to Boardroom – converting rugby talent into business success and a private academy he established to prepare rugby players for a professional or business career after sport, illustrates his passion and mentorship for young talent. He has the full support of the Union and Board and we are excited about the changes and possibilities that lie ahead.”
Segwaba added: “Only those with inside knowledge would know that Free State Rugby has gone through arguably the toughest time in its 126 years of existence. Throughout, Harold Verster worked tirelessly and selflessly for the Cheetahs’ rightful place in South African and international rugby. Not only did he serve Free State Rugby, his life revolved around Free State Rugby. He has been a pillar of wisdom and strength for the Cheetahs. In his term, there were many performance highlights and he engaged with rugby players and administrators across the central heartland of South Africa. He will be missed but remembered fondly.
“We welcome Ross van Reenen back into the Free State and Cheetah fold and family. A born and bred Free Stater and player, he has gone full circle to return to his roots. We will support him in his quest for Cheetah glory,” Segwaba added.
Ryno Opperman, chairman of the Board, said Verster personified the fighting spirit of the Cheetahs. “He led us to many highlights and victories, but also through our toughest times. He never aspired to any rugby position beyond the Cheetahs, his passion, his way of life. He played a pioneering role in professional rugby in South Africa by bringing on board MTN, later Vodacom and Toyota SA. When the Cheetahs were excluded from Super Rugby, he charted a new and successful course with Pro14. When we were excluded from Pro16, he and his team created the Toyota Challenge with our naming sponsor. His knowledge of the South African rugby landscape is unrivalled.
“Ross takes over with a solid foundation laid by Harold to take the Cheetahs on a path of growth. His task is to ensure the longer-term sustainability of the Cheetahs. He has passion for this team, province and young professionals. We are grateful and excited that he has taken on this challenge,” said Opperman.
Harold Verster thanked the Board and Union for their recognition and support. “The past two years were the toughest of my long involvement with Free State rugby. I am, however, grateful that we were able to weather most of the challenges with the support of the Union and the Cheetahs Board and our incredible supporter base across the country and the world.
“The Toyota Stadium stands as a beacon of pride and resilience in the Free State. The Toyota Challenge Cup is currently being played here, the Currie Cup competition is around the corner and the prospect of the Cheetahs’ playing international rugby again, inspires me as a member of the Free State rugby family.
“I can think of no better man than Ross van Reenen to take over the reins and raise much-needed capital to ensure our sustainability and high performance. I will support Ross like I did as a player for the Shimlas and Free State. I look forward to ‘scrumming’ with him in the coming months to ensure Free State rugby goes from strength to strength.”
Ross van Reenen said it was a great honour and privilege to be appointed as CEO. “I salute Harold for making the Cheetahs one of South Africa’s top teams. He has played an important role in my life as fellow player and in the rugby world. The Free State has shaped me as a person and a professional. It is time to plough back and the opportunity to do so is very exciting.”