Bob Sharpless’ office sits on the 10th floor of the Springfield Tower at Springfield Central. It looks out over the soon-to-be training and administration headquarters of the Brisbane Lions. A huge legacy from a man who conquered one of the most tumultuous periods in club history.

Sharpless, immediate past president of the Lions, is Deputy Chairman of Springfield City Group, the company behind what is a virtual new city 29km south-west of the Brisbane CBD.

In October the Lions administration will relocate from the tight and tired confines of the Gabba to the sprawling spread of Greater Springfield, one of the hottest property developments in the country.

And while Sharpless is quick to distance himself from the Lions’ decision to make their home at Springfield, pointing out that he was not a member of the Board at the time the decision was first made, there is no doubting the monumental role the adopted Queenslander has played in an initiative that has guaranteed the Lions’ long-term financial future.

A moment of change in Lions history if ever there was one.

Indeed, Sharpless was a pivotal figure in the resurrection of the club – on and off the field – during his stint as Chairman from 2014-17.

It is a role for which he was chased not once but twice before he took charge in October 2013 to end a period of instability and in-fighting at Board level which, bluntly, threatened the very existence of the club.

It was a move, too, that allowed the West Australian-born father of three Brisbane-born children to combine two of his biggest passions – football and property development.

Born and raised in Perth, Sharpless grew up a big fan of WAFL club West Perth, where his father had strong connections. He remembers fondly running onto the ground as a kid chasing the likes of Falcons 300-gamers Mel Whinnen and Bill Dempsey (who was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame on Tuesday night). And enjoying the efforts of the great Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer after he returned to WA after his stint at Geelong to coach the Falcons, the oldest club in WA that wears red and blue.

He played junior football at Scarborough and attended the Hale School, which counts among its alumni Sir John Forrest, the first WA Premier, iron ore magnate Lang Hancock, controversial Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith, Australian cricketing great Geoff Marsh, current international Marcus Stoinis, international tennis player Matthew Ebden, TV personality turned Perth Lord Mayor Bazil Zempilas and a host of AFL footballers headed by Brownlow Medallist Tom Mitchell.

09:26 Mins
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Bob Sharpless Press Conference

Lions Chairman Bob Sharpless speaks to the media at the Hyundai Centre

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After graduating from university as a civil engineer he worked for the WA Government, and after three years established his own engineering consultancy. Two years on, after completing an MBA, he decided he’d rather work in property development or investment banking. And property development won out.

He met Malaysian-born Maha Sinnathamby, the son of a 1940’s prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in the Second World War who had established a Perth-based business known as the Murdoch Group.

The pair joined forces in 1984 and in 1985 moved to Queensland. First  Sinnathamby with his family and then a recently married Sharpless. They established the Mur Group and undertook a series of small-scale property developments before commercial property markets went quiet in the late 1980s.

Their response to the downturn in the market was a daring investment in a 3000-hectare plot of land on the outskirts of Brisbane. It had no infrastructure, challenging topography and was in what locals considered an undesirable location. And so Greater Springfield was born.

They looked at master plan communities around the world, particularly in the US, and took advice from planners, surveyors and others. The more they looked and the more they learned the more they could see the potential.

It has been a rarity in an industry in which it is more common for initial visionaries to strike financial hardship and sell out to others to make good. Not Springfield City Group, a self-confessed ‘skinny organisation’ without a lot of financial resources that believed in a concept, has seen it reach wonderful levels, and is committed to taking it further.

Greater Springfield, founded in 1993, received the 2010 FIABCI Prix D’Excellence Award for the World’s Best Master Planned Community before a raft of top Australian awards. In 2019 it was acknowledged by the UDIA Queensland as the most significant and outstanding urban development project of the past 25 years.

Sharpless, a man of strong social conscience, is especially proud of an Indigenous school the company helped create in the face of widespread forecasts of doom. It is called ‘Hymba Yumba’ and started by taking girls who were with child who had never been able to complete their schooling because they had become pregnant.

They arranged for the school to get access to land and helped it obtain funding. The school is now co-ed with 250 students, is seen as one of the shining successes of Indigenous schooling throughout Australia and stands among countless similarly successful projects in the area.

Now with a population of 52,000 Greater Springfield comprises six suburbs - Springfield CentralSpringfield LakesBrookwaterAugustine HeightsSpring Mountain and Springfield.

It boasts a large shopping centre opened in 2007 which includes such tenants as Woolworths, Big W, Coles, Target and Event Cinemas, and an 80-bed $85m Mater Private Hospital which provides a full range of medical and surgical services. By 2024 this will be supplemented by a more extensive hospital facility with a 300 bed expansion.

There’s a $56million sports complex which features 16 netball courts, eight tennis courts, four multi-purpose sports field, canteen amenities and a playground, plus 11 schools offering primary and secondary education, public and private, while the University of South Queensland and TAFE Queensland South West also have Springfield campuses. And much more.

03:24 Mins
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Lions Legacy: Leigh Matthews

Our new home at Springfield is a multimillion-dollar project. We're now embarking on a fundraising campaign to fit out our new home.Head to lions.com.au/lionslegacy for more information.

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The team at Springfield City Group are even looking to build a stadium for the Brisbane Bullets to further enhance the overall appeal of the area, which is connected to Brisbane via the Centenary Highway, or the Springfield rail line, which stops right outside the soon-to-be Lions home.

Sharpless, so passionate when he speaks of the project of nearly 30 years, says they are aiming to create one job for every three residents – 50,000 jobs in total - and confidently forecasts a population of 146,000 within 30 years.

Significantly, he says the average age of the Springfield population is only 29, and families have a higher percentage of children than the norm. Keen to combat growing youth obesity, they strongly promote active recreation and want children outside rather than indoors on a computer screen.

Sharpless reveals that the concept of a strong AFL presence at Springfield was launched long before the Lions got involved when representatives of AFL head office approached the developers. A call from the now retired Ken Gannon, long-time football administrator, later supported by the involvement of Simon Gorr, got things rolling.

“We always knew we’d do something with the AFL, and we hoped the Lions would be involved,” Sharpless said quite prophetically, given that the club had originally committed to a long-term home at Springfield back in May 2013, and is now set to move there nine years later.

The Lions had first asked Sharpless to join the Board via then Chairman Tony Kelly in 2011. He was interested, given his huge passion for football, but had ‘too much on’. Two years later new Chairman Angus Johnson did likewise, and, with his business more settled, Sharpless agreed.

It was a shocking time for the club. Johnson had been under massive pressure following the sacking of coach and favorite son Michael Voss at Round 20 of the 2013 season, when the Lions sat 13th on the ladder at 8-11 but were still in finals contention after having won four of their last six.

Voss was sacked under the pretext that the club could land Sydney premiership coach Paul Roos when in fact Roos was not seriously interested.

Johnson was challenged for his position by fellow director Paul Williams, who headed a ticket which included fellow director Mick Power and had recruited the legendary Leigh Matthews. They set up a process which was to culminate in an extraordinary general meeting.

Sharpless, seen to be in the Johnson camp without having experienced first-hand the inner workings of the Board, had not even attended his first Lions Board meeting when it all blew up.

He wasn’t even in town. He was in Hawaii, where wife Belinda was competing in the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, as things hotted up after the AFL had got involved. It wasn’t quite poolside phone calls with an afternoon cocktail in hand, but it was football politics Hawaiian style.

Essentially, the AFL decided that Sharpless was the answer. And when the League confirmed to him that they did not believe his position at Springfield in any way presented a conflict of interest, given the club had already decided on a move to Springfield, he agreed to not only join the Board but to take over as Chairman.

It was Sharpless or bust after the AFL delivered an ultimatum. If the existing Board fight was to continue down a path to the EGM the League would withdraw funding and put the club into administration. And then appoint Sharpless to the top job.

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New Lions Board Announced

New Lions Chairman Bob Sharpless and Director Leigh Matthews speak to the media about the Board changes

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So, in a negotiated outcome driven by HQ and announced on 23 October 2013, Johnson, Williams and fellow director Linda Nash stepped down, and Sharpless took over a Board which included Power, Matthews, Peter McGregor and Cameron Millner.

It proved to be a clever resolution. Sharpless brought his own mix of smart business principles and football passion to the table, and while not everything was rosy all the time, as is so often the case in the corporate world, they got things done.

Sharpless enjoyed excellent support from AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, who, like the new Lions Chairman, had graduated from the same university a few years ahead of him as an electrical engineer.

He remembers well the message from AFL headquarters when he took on the role: “You’ve got as much clean air as you’ll ever get at a football club – use it well.”

And in the face of what at the start was a hostile and horribly unfair media campaign, which included a ‘do you trust your chairman?’ poll in the local paper, he stuck to his guns and did just that.

With Justin Leppitsch having been appointed coach following a strong recommendation from his long-time mentor Matthews prior to the Sharpless appointment, the incoming Chairman landed in a football hotspot when Elliot Yeo, Sam Docherty, Jared Polec, Billy Longer and Patrick Karnezis, later tagged ‘the go-home five’, announced they wanted to leave the club. And that after the legendary Simon Black had retired.

But Sharpless, with strong AFL support, was committed to change. In May 2014 CEO Malcolm Holmes was replaced by ex-Carlton and Collingwood CEO Greg Swann, a man well-respected in AFL circles.

It was crucial appointment and slowly things started to improve. The club began to tackle falling memberships, waning corporate support and tarnished Government relations.

But there was another big problem. In September 2013 the Labor Federal Government of Kevin Rudd, which had committed $15m to the Lions Training and Administration development at Springfield during the Johnson rein, had been tipped out. And the incoming Liberal Government of Tony Abbott refused to honour the $15M commitment.

So the move to Springfield was abandoned, and the issue of a suitable training and administration base, critical to the club’s long-term financial future, was back on the agenda.

On the field, the Lions continued to struggle under Leppitsch. They finished 15th, 17th and 17th in 2014-15-16, with seven wins, four wins and three wins, although in March 2016 at the behest of the football sub-committee his contract was extended by 12 months.

Although Leppitsch still had some support at Board level Sharpless admits in hindsight it was a mistake to extend him. The Chairman oversaw an exhaustive investigation and ultimately the Board was forced to decide whether the coach should be terminated.

In a secret ballot conducted by chief financial officer Kevin Samson the Board Members voted. The majority decision saw Leppitsch dismissed on 29 August 2016. Sharpless phoned Leppitsch following the decision and, perhaps understandably, he declined a club invitation to share the media table after his exit.

To this day Sharpless doesn’t know the numbers of the vote – “I never asked” – but history says it was the right decision.

On 21 September 2016 David Noble was lured from Adelaide to replace Matthew Francis in charge of a struggling football department as the club set out to find a new coach. And on 3 October 2016 Chris Fagan was appointed coach.

As the time-worn saying goes, the rest is history.

The club made a conscious effort to reverse the sliding Queensland content on their playing list, re-committed to an improved strength and conditioning regime, made significant changes to its overall medical regime, and recruited Andrew Crowell from the Crows to head the player welfare and development.

Under Sharpless, too, the club joined the inaugural AFLW competition under Breeanna Brock, the first female football CEO in the AFL, and coach Craig Starcevich. Both hold the same key roles today.

In another big football decision of the Sharpless era the Board rejected a push to offer a massive five-year contract extension to captain Tom Rockliff, who had been at the helm through the rocky years of 2015-16. Rockliff ultimately quit the club as a free agent in 2017, and with the compensation pick received for Rockliff they drafted Brandon Starcevich.

Similarly, it was during the Sharpless era that the club lured Dayne Beams to Brisbane. And while the trade ‘price’ for the 2015 club champion and 2017-18 captain was significant, it did send an important message to the football world that the Gabba was back on the AFL’s preferred destination list.

There was a return via the subsequent Beams trade back to Collingwood, and in recent years the club has successfully recruited a raft of talent from opposition clubs – Luke Hodge (Hawthorn), Charlie Cameron (Adelaide), Jarryd Lyons (Gold Coast), Lincoln McCarthy (Geelong), Lachie Neale (Fremantle), Marcus Adams (Western Bulldogs), Grant Birchall (Hawthorn), Joe Daniher (Essendon), Nakia Cockatoo (Geelong) and Darcy Fort (Geelong).

After the Lions had initially rejected Springfield as a would-be home in the wake of lost Federal Government support the club considered numerous alternatives with varying success. There were two sites out near Brisbane Airport, plus Logan, QE2, Burpengary and Brendale. But eventually all went nowhere.

Along the way, too, Sharpless recruited to the Board his successor Andrew Wellington, current deputy chair Sarah Kelly and Cathie Reid.

Although he was always the antithesis of a ‘liniment sniffer’, the type who above all else want to interact closely with the players, Sharpless attended all but two Lions games – home-and-away – during his time as chairman, plus an endless array of other club activities, in the belief that to rebuild connections across all levels of football he had to have a strong presence.

He also attended every Lions Board meeting but one, missing the first meeting of 2017 while enjoying a family holiday to Antarctica.

Upon his return he took a phone call from Swann who began by asking “are you sitting down?” He then advised the Chairman that, three years after having abandoned the prospect of a home at Springfield, the Board had decided to revisit the Springfield option again.

04:44 Mins
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Lions Legacy: Emily Bates on having a Permanent Home

Moving to Brighton Homes Arena will be a game-changer for our AFLW programs. Having a permanent home that's purpose-built for them to achieve their full potential will be a dream come true, and is something Lions fans can help them achieve.

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It was on again, and on 21 July 2017 Swann confirmed the revised commitment to move the club’s training and administration headquarters to Springfield.

Sharpless, forever conscious of the perceived conflict of interest, announced on 7 November 2017 that he would stand down from his Lions post to give the club ‘clean air’ ahead of the move.

Unlike his assent to the club’s No.1 role, his exit was clean and smooth.

He handed the baton to Wellington, with whom he shared not just common beliefs and values in business but a common football link at junior level.

The pair both had strong ties to Wests Juniors, based at Toowong. Sharpless’ sons had played there, and Wellington had been a long-time coach and treasurer.

So in December 2017 Sharpless vacated his seat at the head of the Board table. He has continued to follow closely the progress of the club in all capacities and has a corporate box at the Gabba which is used primarily by his family. “For keeping the band together,” as he calls it.

Just as the Lions have grown over the past four and a half years so too has Greater Springfield, which boasts former world tennis superstar and local resident Ash Barty as their No.1 ambassador. And with the finish line in site, there will be no more pleased and proud man when the Lions take up residence at what is now Brighton Homes Arena, incorporating Michael Voss Oval.

It is a site which as soon as possible will become the playing headquarters of the Lions AFLW team, and is an approved venue for the 2032 Olympic Games, tentatively booked to host the modern pentathlon.

And with the upcoming redevelopment of the Gabba ahead of the Olympics Springfield also looms as an alternative AFL homeground for the Lions during the three or even four years the Gabba will be a construction site.

While media reports have linked Lions home games to Metricon Stadium or even the old Exhibition Grounds, Sharpless suggests it would be smarter to increase the capacity at Springfield so that AFL games, too, can be played there. It would leave a great legacy infrastructure for the Lions.

Whatever happens, there will forever be a strong Sharpless fingerprint on all happenings in the area.