An organisation fighting against the negative perceptions of many shooters, the UK’s National Rifle Association is undergoing a ‘change to survive’ programme. Helena Douglas asks Andrew Mercer, its new chief executive, what he plans to do with this 150-year-old association
Andrew Mercer, the new chief executive of the UK’s National Rifle Association, the governing body of fullbore rifle and centrefire pistol shooting, has a tough job ahead.
A straw poll among some of my shooting contacts about the NRA shows that plainly. The less flattering responses include “it does nothing for me”, “full of old duffers”, and “as useful as a catflap on a submarine”.
Andrew takes this on the chin. “People are entitled to those opinions and some of those perceptions may be right. The NRA has a rich heritage and we need to embrace that but we mustn’t be dictated by it. My early view is that we certainly aren’t full of old duffers, but also that we aren’t doing enough for shooting.”
The NRA was founded in 1859 – 12 years before its far more outspoken equivalent across the pond – to provide a focus for marksmanship for the newly formed corps of volunteers who gathered to meet the perceived threat of invasion by the French. It organised its first competitions on Wimbledon Common in July 1860, setting the pattern for the Annual Meeting, which has been held every year except during the two World Wars.
The Queen’s Prize remains its premier award, and its July Imperial Meeting is internationally famous among match rifle shooters. In 1890 the NRA moved to Bisley, with the ranges laid out at that time still functioning today.
For some organisations a historical legacy of this nature can lead to complacency, but Andrew is quick to counter that. “Part of the problem is one of perception,” he says. “There is an issue around how public our work is. We do a lot with the MOD to ensure access to military ranges, and spend a lot of time dealing with statutory bodies such as police firearms licensing departments. Much of that is done under the radar, so we don’t get credit for it.”
Andrew, who started in his new role on 19 November 2012, has spent much of his time learning about the organisation and how it functions. “It is a fascinating place,” he says with enthusiasm.
“Bisley is one of the best kept secrets in the world of shooting. If you’ve been going to Bisley for decades, you assume everyone knows about it. But it is poorly understood by many, and increasing the use of the ranges is one of my great missions.
“Then we may also have to increase the focus of the organisation beyond its current remit. There are other exciting disciplines, such as F class, .22 gallery rifles and heritage rifles. While target rifle is the prime discipline for the NRA, it is definitely not the only one.”
More vitally, Andrew wants the NRA to start generating more income to fund development. While he believes sorting out the commercial accounts will be a relatively small job, his main focus is for the NRA to be far more customer-oriented, more organised in terms of what it delivers and to “start to indulge in this curious thing called marketing and promotion to grow membership, raise funds and tell everyone what the NRA is doing.”
Growth of the membership is clearly a key issue. The NRA is a niche organisation, with membership equating to 4.5 per cent of the 144,000 firearms holders in England and Wales. With 6,500 direct members plus 735 affiliated club members, critics say it doesn’t have the strength in numbers of the Countryside Alliance, BASC or the CPSA.
“It’s true that our membership away from Bisley is modest, but before we address that we need to get a much better understanding of what’s going on in our affiliated clubs and societies. We need to use the resources we have to help them in their work – especially in maintaining access to fullbore ranges to ensure shooting is available all around the country. That will be tricky as the number of successful ranges is not growing. The pressures on range time will increase and the financial pressures on what are, in the main, military ranges will grow.”
Clearly the membership issue is crucial, but it is not something that fazes this 51-year-old, who describes his career to date as curious and confusing.
“I went to Swindon Comprehensive, then to Oxford to read agriculture and forestry, worked in lots of different sectors and applied cold hearted logic to what have been traditional organisations that were struggling. So I would find a new route forward while paying due deference to the heritage they carried.”
In 2000 he moved into working for charities with significant assets but major structural, financial and corporate challenges. “My job was to go in, ask questions, come up with a plan and then make sure the plan was implemented properly. That is what I will do here. While it has very little hard cash, the NRA has terrific assets in terms of robust future revenue streams, property stock and people.”
Those people, he explains, are made up of volunteers and paid staff who work in varying roles, whether that be as a trustee, on the National Shooting Centre board or in the office. There has been a lot of previous talk about how the NRA trustees and NSC board work together, but Andrew explains that charity law and guidance drive this interaction. “Wherever people work in the organisation, I am determined to have one team working for one NRA. It is all too easy to get bogged down in corporate structure and, while the NRA’s is slightly complicated, it is rather academic: the quality and motivation of the people involved is much more important.”
As to rumours that have circulated about alleged missing funds, missing ammunition, trustees living rent-free on site and so on, Andrew is refreshingly open. “Organisations do rumours beautifully and often inaccurately, and I think it would be wrong to go galloping off commenting on things that may be inaccurate.
“The reality is that at this moment I can’t account for every pound that should have made its way into the NRA or NSC’s coffers, and in the future I need to present accounts and be able to trust in those figures. So we need robust systems that are open to scrutiny, and to implement mechanisms by which people can be held to account.”
Clearly Andrew is enthused by the prospect of the NRA’s future potential and isn’t one to be dragged down by past events. On the subject of the Olympics, he says it was a shame that money was spent on temporary facilities at Woolwich rather being invested at Bisley, but he is uninterested in why the proposal failed: “That is an opportunity gone and I want to focus on the future.”
For the time being that includes getting the NRA’s house in order to enable the organisation to take advantage of future opportunities. “I still want Bisley to host important competitions such as the Imperial meeting, which is the blue riband event in fullbore shooting, but I also want to promote the NRA name and build a brand. Whether we do that by creating regional centres under the Bisley monicker, I don’t know, but it all needs careful consideration.
“We also need to make a song and dance about what we do for schoolchildren, cadets, disabled servicemen and so on. There is a lot of terrific stuff going on, but we are very focused on doing it rather than telling anyone we are doing it.
“For me that’s part of the mission: to improve our communications, offer opinions, fight our corner – and take the brickbats when we get things wrong.”