Russell Cooper – General Manager of Port Macquarie Panthers

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It’s Greater Port Macquarie’s biggest club and it belongs to NSW’s biggest club, Panthers Group. Russell Cooper started as a doorman in Sydney, gained his management degree, and became one of the industry’s most successful young GMs, appointed four years ago to Port Macquarie Panthers. Susie finds his drive and enthusiasm promise a bright future for our local establishment.

Russell Cooper maybe won’t thank me for observing that he’s like his dad, popular vet and TV personality “Dr Harry” Cooper, who tenderly treats errant animals on Channel 7’s Better Homes & Gardens every Friday night. He doesn’t trade off the fame of a parent, but it’s that cheery mien evident in the father that strikes me on meeting his son, GM of Port Panthers. In his prime at 35, the younger Cooper is reputed to be a terrier when it comes to getting his teeth into the massive, ongoing, project of keeping our local Panthers not only viable but thriving. He greets me in his top floor office with the same enthusiasm I’ve noticed him display among patrons as he moves around the club floor in his day to day job.

Lou Perri can’t host our lunch today; he’s welcoming his and wife Angela’s first- born, Emilia Rissia Perri, into the world. So I’ve brought along a tasting platter including some white anchovies, and Cooper looks pleased. I’m guessing anything that reminds him of his favourite pastime – sport fishing, land-based game fishing – is good. His hobbies also include aquaculture, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and gardening, pursuits telling of a man with healthy interests, in touch with the preoccupations of many Panthers members. Enterprises like our local authorities, big companies and hospitals employ many, and look after our physical needs. It’s organisations like service clubs, sporting groups and other small outfits caring for the disadvantaged, the environment, animals and so on that make up the town’s social fabric, enriching our lives, that make the place tick. Peopled by volunteers, they need funds to keep going. The single biggest contributor of those dollars is the biggest of our ten local registered clubs, Panthers, the second biggest club among the 15 comprising Panthers Group, based at Penrith. NSW clubs may exist only for social, sporting, or similar common purposes; they’re owned by members, whose fees buy a share in the club. But the law prohibits distributing profits or income among members so, unlike ordinary commercial entities, clubs’ trading profits must be channelled into facilities and services to benefit members, promote the club’s purposes, or support charitable/community causes. From its $20m annual turnover, Port Panthers supports all its operations, putting $2m in revenue into local businesses (“Most of our purchasing is local, wherever possible,” Cooper confirms), pays 150 staff to the tune of $5.5m, provides a wide variety of member services – and contributes some $300,000, or well over $1,000 for every weekday of the year, to community groups.

Ten years ago our local RSL, like many around the country, was struggling financially. It and the Sports Club at Hibbard were “amalgamated” into the Panthers group. Other constituent clubs include Mekong Panthers (at Cabramatta, of course!), Newcastle Panthers, Cardiff Panthers, Bathurst Panthers. “A lot of clubs were carrying a lot of debt and wouldn’t have been able to continue to exist,” Cooper relates. When Panthers came along, the Settlement City premises was the RSL: the sub-branch gets to have premises here for as long as they like and the Ode for the Fallen still plays daily at 11am. Among sponsored clubs that have a free meeting venue at Panthers are darts, bowls and snooker clubs – and the pigeon club! Providing a group meeting venue is a Panthers “in kind” contribution, on top of the actual dollars its donations committee apportions annually. “We see our role as a pretty important one,” Cooper says. “We say it can cost $1000 to open the doors of the auditorium,” he reveals, with lighting, air-conditioning, staff to set up chairs, tables and facilities, then laundry and cleaning afterwards to account for. Among the quality leisure facilities it aims to provide are all the standard ones you’d expect, free and budget-priced entertainment, and ballroom dancing, line dancing, seniors exercise classes, child minding and more. Work has gone into lifting facilities at Hibbard too. Some staff have worked at the club for as long as 40 years and it apparently remains a happy place to work under Cooper. Janette Hyde, head of Port’s Tourism Association and on the Chamber of Commerce board, worked with Cooper for three years at the tail of a 33-year career with the club and now serves on its board. “Russell’s a visionary manager with great leadership qualities,” she attests. “His empathy with management and staff is just unsurpassed. And he’s got a great appreciation of the diverse needs in the community.” She’s not alone in her praise. Previously, as GM of Sydney Rowing Club, Cooper oversaw putting it on a sound financial footing and a highly awarded multi-million dollar redevelopment – honoured recently by the club launching a skull in his name, a tribute usually reserved for Olympians. “What we did was pretty special,” Cooper allows. Stand by, Port Macquarie: redevelopment’s coming our way too. “Nothing concrete” yet, but Cooper’s in talks with Penrith “and we’re planning for it and hoping it will kick off early next year. Whenever it happens, it’ll refresh most of the operational areas of the club.” Going on the widely admired rowing components Cooper designed for the historic Sydney club, the RSL and League can expect to see a proud history of their own installed here.

Why leave a successful club? “I grew up on acres near Dural; we had lots of animals, bush, open space, a peaceful environment. I love the outdoors, fishing and camping: Port’s a much more wholesome place to raise kids.” He and wife Jade own a house at Shelly Beach, with a veggie garden, chooks, pets: “we’re here for the long haul”. Their son, 7, and daughter, 4, are settled in school; Dr Harry’s bought a horse stud near Taree. On days off the family throws a line in around the water’s edge or hires a tinnie. “Jade got a nice flounder last weekend, but we probably have most fun pumping yabbies on the sand flats,” Cooper smiles, casting his gaze away from the club just for a moment, towards the estuary.

This story was published in issue 81 of the Greater Port Macquarie Focus

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