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Who could have imagined that a fierce hockey player, who butts heads with opponents would eventually transition into the tranquil world of luxury travel? This is exactly what Hockey Hall of Famer and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Chris Pronger did when he and his wife founded Well Inspired Travels. He shares with Rob Cornilles how his years as an athlete is now reflected in his life as an entrepreneur, especially when it comes to handling business pressure and maintaining the drive to move forward. Chris also explains the right mindset needed by every leader to motivate teammates, whether on the ice or in the office.

Watch the episode here:

Chris Pronger | From Hostile to Hospitable: A Hockey Hall of Famer’s Journey into Luxury Travel

I have got with me some circles, the infamous Chris Pronger, a Hall of Fame Hockey Player. A man who, if you know anything about the game of hockey, you know he is one who has several records to his name. He retired several years ago, but before he retired, he was one of the few people that, not only won the MVP of the National Hockey League, but also the Defenseman of the Year Award in the same year. He was the first man who had done that for almost 30 years, the only other name next to that is Bobby Orr. Chris Pronger is joining us on the show. It’s such a pleasure to have you, Chris.

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Chris, you and I have said that we’re going to have a very all-encompassing interview, but you’ve promised me you’re not going to treat me like one of those locker room reporters, right?

No, I’m going to lay off as long as the questions are good, Rob.

I’ll do my best. Before you and I knew each other, I’ve got to tell you I was a fan of yours and an admirer of your play. You have skills and qualities I could never touch. First of all, you’re 6’6”, you’ve got about a foot on me, Chris, as you know. We’re going to talk about your hockey career and how that positions you for what you’re doing now, but first, let’s fast forward to the present. You and your wife, Lauren, have started a business called Well Inspired Travels. Can you share with my audience a little bit about your business and the genesis of it because it’s such an inspiring story?

It’s my wife’s baby. It stems back to her childhood when she was six, her father was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. With that, he looked at his wife, my mother-in-law, and said, “I want to see the world for as long as I’m on earth.” They went off to Europe that first summer and my wife got to see him full of life, energy, and happiness, and off the chemo. They went back for school and he started planning the next vacation and went back on chemo and radiation. She got to see him, the shell of himself and a beaten-down man. He fought hard enough for them to get to that next destination, which was Asia.

My wife is a firm believer that he chose to marry Western and Eastern medicine. He would go off for weeks at a time into the jungle with a medicine man, learn about holistic healing methods and transcendental meditation, and immersing himself in Eastern culture and Eastern medicine. With that, they’re off looking at the Great Wall of China and all the different sites in Asia. He’s really at the forefront and ahead of the curve and marrying Western and Eastern medicine. He was able to learn some things that allow him to stave off death and wait for Western medicine to catch up. Fortunately enough for them, they get back and there was a radical new surgery over in Western medicine. We had it two years later, he was given a clean bill of health, was cancer-free, and a medical marvel.

My wife got to see the healing powers of travel and what the mind, body, and spirit can do. That left a mark on her and they continue to travel all through her childhood and then early adulthood. When we got together, I would travel and we would travel together, and I’d be in the middle of training in the summer times. I’d become a little bit unglued when I couldn’t eat the same way as I was when I was training. I was a little maniacal about my training and she looked at me and go, “You get all this money, you get all this stuff going on and you can’t relax.” I’m like, “I’m preparing. This is the way I prepare for the season.”

We would try to source and look into different properties where they would cook the food the way I wanted it cooked. There was either on site or nearby a workout facility I could go to. As we started doing that, my wife started to get calls from other girlfriends, wives, athletes, and asking about how we sourced the property. “Can you set us up?” That was the beginning of learning about our network and what that trust factor can do.

As my career went along, she would continue to get calls from people. When we got to Philly and social media started to take off, she had a little private account and we would post pictures on there and she kept getting other athletes, celebrities, and friends asking her, “How did you find that place? Can you hook me up? Can you set me up?” It started getting 20, 30 people, and I’m like, “There’s something here.” At the same time, we got three young kids at home. I finally get hurt in Philly. Her mother has breast cancer, and her father has a debilitating stroke and is paralyzed on his right side. From a timing perspective, it wasn’t right. We came back here in St. Louis, I got healthy. Her mother is now healthy. Unfortunately, dad passed away a few years ago. Our oldest started driving and we started seeing some light at the end of that tunnel as it relates to the kids and needing a lot of our time as it relates to driving around and getting them around to different events and things like that.

Lauren had a lot of time on her hands and wanted to start this. It was her baby, and I told her I’d help support her on the business side and support in making introductions, networking, and things like that. I started having so much fun. Hospitality is an interesting industry and the fact that people are happy. It’s a very jovial atmosphere. Everybody wants to help one another. I found that intriguing coming from where I came from where everybody’s like this, look secretive, and looking for that hidden gem, etc. I found it appealing and interesting.

I was always the guy that planned the fishing trips with all my buddies, golf trips, Super Bowl pool, Masters pool, all that stuff. I’m an event planner at heart anyways. It was exciting and I was happy. At the same time, I had kicked the tires on a few other companies with a friend of mine because I wanted to run my own business and be my boss. It didn’t work out. It’s funny how timing works out and this presented itself. It was exciting and a passion of mine, a passion of ours and something that we feel we’re lacking in the marketplace. I jumped headfirst into it and haven’t looked back since. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of work obviously, but if anybody knows anything about me, hard work is not the issue.

GFEP 28 | Luxury Travel

Luxury Travel: Athletes tend to have a certain desire to always perform higher than anybody else.

 

You don’t become one of the top 100 players in hockey history if you’re averse to hard work. Chris, when you speak about Well Inspired Travels, it’s more for the executive audience rather than for family travel. Is that a fair statement?

It’s both. Our niche clients are athletes, celebrities, CEOs, C-level executives, business owners, high net worth family offices, and the reason for that is that’s what we know. From the standpoint of demands on your time, the stress of the job, pressure on home life, the fame, fortune, all this stuff that when you look at that section, there are many parallels amongst that group. We do leisure travel and some corporate work. It runs the gamut. The more interaction we can have with our clients, the better we’re able to serve them. Whether it’s corporate work rolling into a family, leisure travel or vice versa, we’re able to dig deep and learn more about you and understand who you are, what you want to get out of travel, your likes and dislikes as it relates to your travel.

That’s very important to us because it helps us get a feel for who you are and that allows us to peel back the onion a little bit and understand how we can better serve you. How we can better help you in your personal life and your professional life, whether that’s from a leadership standpoint, the home front. There’s so much going on in the world right now. We feel like we’re in a position to help people through travel but also in their everyday lives as we get to know them. There’s a mentorship side that comes into play with us. As we learn more about you, we can steer you in a direction based on what we know. That’s why it’s important for us to manage a lot of our travels to get to know and have these conversations. Maybe my wife having a 30-minute conversation with somebody’s spouse or myself having a conversation with an athlete.

There are all these different things that can go on behind the scenes that sometimes have nothing to do with travel, but it allows us to get a feel for where you are in your given profession. The different stress points, the areas in travel that can help you the most, whether that’s as simple as learning a new sleep technique for a CEO that’s going to allow him to be a better leader. I knew the holistic healing method for an athlete. That’s going to allow them to recover faster and play at a higher level. We want people to be able to implement those things into their everyday life, both personally and professionally, whether it’s a two-day trip or a two-week trip. We try to dig deep into our client’s lives in a non-obtrusive way and get to know them and become friends with them.

Listening to a former player, such as yourself, you had an eighteen-year career. You retired about ten years ago. It’s interesting and fascinating for those of us who are fans or admires a professional athlete without being, as you said, intrusive to get a peek inside that private life because we know them on the ice. We know them on the field or the court. What are some things that athletes go through that we don’t have visibility to that if we did understand, perhaps we’d appreciate greater what they have to go through to maintain that high level of performance?

There’s a number of factors. I think number one, for me personally, was that internal struggle of pressure, stress that I would put on myself to perform. Let alone the outside world, the fans, management, ownership, and teammates, I had a certain level that I needed to play to and wanted to play to that always was higher than everybody else’s. I expected to be at a certain level every single day, whether it’s practice or games. That internal struggle as we talk about in society now, a little bit more mental health and things like that. Things that are going on at home with your kids, struggles with management, whether you’re negotiating a contract, all of these things have an effect.

I knew it was time for me to retire when I was done learning. Click To Tweet

It may be a subtle effect here and a subtle effect here, but when you’re making a diamond, it’s not one giant piece of pressure. It’s constant pressure pushing down, creating it. I think having somebody who’s gone through that, that understands the healing powers of travel, the mind-body-spirit, and what that can do to help you let go. Early on in my career, I was like a ball of intensity and passion. I would be a week or two weeks out from a game where I made a mistake and I would still be mad and angry about that mistake. I couldn’t let it go. It drove me bananas and that inner turmoil, people don’t know. They think, “He’s just going to turn a page and he’s going to go to the next game.” Sometimes you’re able to, and sometimes you’re not.

You never understand or know what somebody is thinking about because a lot of times, as an athlete, you’re not going to talk about it. I never talked about it. The media always asked or fans asked, “Who was the toughest player to play against?” I’m like, “Nobody.” I never thought about it in that regard. I didn’t ever want something like that to enter my mind because then I’ve already lost. I think that guy is too good to play against, I can’t play against them. I never would answer that question. I never wanted to say the words because I didn’t want it to creep into my mind. There are all kinds of things like that people don’t understand and don’t get because they haven’t been in those shoes and been in those situations. That’s where our experiences come to the forefront because we’re able to understand people on a much more personal level.

You’re talking about experiences and you’re in the travel business now. It’s my understanding, especially the rising generation are not so much interested in things as much as they are interested in experiences. I had a client and I was attending a conference with them, they are in the travel business. At that conference, it was made very clear among all the speakers and such that experiential travel is the future. It was focusing on international travelers coming to America and what we can do in America to give them more memorable experiences. It was all about the experience. It’s not about sight-seeing. How are you seeing the travel industry evolve since not only you were a participant in it, but now that you’re a practitioner in it? What are you seeing in experiential travel?

When you look at our business, that’s a lot of what we do is creating life experiences, everything. Our company is set up that no two people are alike. No two travelers are alike. What you like is going to be different from what I like. No matter how close we are in ideology, family life, etc., we’re not because no two people are alike. All of our itineraries are different. There’s no cookie-cutter approach here. That’s why the conversations are important is so that you can understand what type of culture somebody is interested in learning about destinations, culinary and adventure. All these things help create those experiences for people so that they are getting to learn, understand, and value more of what their interests are. As we continue to build out our company and build out our business, I think that’s a hallmark of what we do. One of our core values is understanding people and that relationship is vitally important to what we do.

I have to wonder, on the ice, you frankly made some enemies, your teammates. For those reading, who may not follow hockey as religiously as others, he was a dominant force on the ice for nearly two decades. Certainly, that’s what earned him induction into the Hall of Fame in 2015. It’s funny to hear you talk because I’ll bet some of those players that you butted heads with or fists with are probably now really good prospects to be your clients. How do you turn that page mentally?

When you’re playing a game as we do in sport, it’s a physical sport, I can’t tell you how many times whether I’ve met somebody or somebody that I’ve known has talked about meeting somebody that I played with or against. They played a brash style of the game. It’s like, “I didn’t realize that guy. He’s a nice guy.” I’m like, “I realize that.” Some people step on the ice, and then they flip that switch, and it’s war. They’re doing whatever they can to win. People love seeing it, but they don’t understand that most of the time, that’s not who you are off the ice. You have your own life and whatnot, but when you put your skates on and you’re either filling a role, playing the villain most nights, or that’s the way that you play the game. I played the game this way since I was seven years old. That’s the only way I know how to play.

Your older brother taught you that, right?

Yes. I had to keep up and play with the older kids. I had to play the bigger boy hockey. When you’re getting shoved around, you’ve got to learn how to use your stick, leverage, and all that good stuff. When you grow up bigger, all those things play to your advantage.

It’s so ironic, but it’s cool. Now, you’re in the hospitality industry. Who wouldn’t have thought that several years ago that Chris Pronger would be making sure that I’m having an enjoyable evening with my family?

Everybody can turn the page somewhere somehow.

You’re turning the page. You’re showing a different side of your personality that your former career didn’t call for.

When you asked that question about what people probably didn’t know, this would be the other part is as an athlete, you’re on this stage and how often do we see your real personality? You’re answering questions about a game when you’re in this mode. You’re not asked about this, that, or the other thing, it’s this right here. This is the person people are going to see, whether it’s me chirping at somebody in the media, having fun with them or cross-checking somebody in the back in front of the net, or taking a slapshot from the point.

There are all kinds of different things that they’re going to see, but most of them are not going to see me at home with my family or see me at home in my community walking around, going to the coffee shop, going to the grocery store or outside of the barbecue cooking everybody dinner. They’re thinking, “He’s got a chef, he’s got this, or he’s got that.” I don’t know what people think. I don’t think they realize they put athletes up on a pedestal and they think this but, we’re good at a sport and we’re good at what we do. Like everybody else, you always hear the same cliches that I chew my food the same way you do.

GFEP 28 | Luxury Travel

Luxury Travel: No matter how close two people are in ideology, they are still two extremely unique individuals.

 

You’re good at so many things. I want to learn some more things from you and I think my audience would as well. We have many executives who are listeners and viewers of the show, so help us understand a little bit better from your experience. Let’s say, even though you mentioned, you could have gone back and you had a bad moment two weeks ago in a game. Maybe the crowd doesn’t even notice it, or maybe it was the blender that causes a loss, who knows? Either way, you have a bad experience and many athletes say, “It’s just time to move on.”

Coaches say, “Let’s forget about it. Tomorrow is another game.” In business, we have a bad moment, when we have a bad meeting, when we have a client that has surprised us with their disdain for our services or our product, or they tell us that our people are not performing and they don’t want to do business anymore with us. From your athletic experience, Chris, what advice can you give us on the business side to be able to put those incidences aside, or at least learn from them and keep moving forward?

There’s another meeting. There’s another client. I think one of the things that I always try to do, obviously you’re going to fail and you can’t fear failure. It’s going to happen. Hockey business and that’s why when you look at the client list, it’s the same because if you make a mistake in hockey, you better learn from it. If you make a mistake in business, you better learn from it. What mistake did you make? Reverse engineer it and look at what mistake you made, where you made it, how to not make it again, and start moving forward again. It’s a wash, rinse, repeat, that cycle.

I pushed everyone in practice so the games would be easier. Click To Tweet

I always like to talk to the young players that I played with. As I gained more experience, I’d be like, “Stop trying to make the hard pass all the time. Stop trying to be noticed. Stop trying for everybody in the crowd, on the TV to know that you made that play. Make the simple plate, make sure that nobody knows you played this game. You are going to be fine.” As you gain confidence, as you gain experience, as you gain it, you’re going to then be able to use your talents and be able to gain more and more success. People are going to know, “This guy played ten games. He hasn’t turned the puck over once.” You’re going to gain trust from the leaders, the coach, the CEO, your manager, whoever it is. Start small and then set little goals. Too often, people are like, “I don’t want to do this.” If you set goals, they’ve got to be attainable goals.

You can have a dream and I want to do this, but how are you going to get there? You set these little goals and every time you can track your progress, you’re gaining confidence, motivation and power. With each one of those things as opposed to looking up and going, “I want to be there. That’s far, how am I going to get there?” There are many things that when I look at sports, I look at business, there are many parallels. It’s crazy how businesses operate. As you know, there are good businesses and good sports franchises, and then there are not so good. There’s always a reason and it’s funny, it’s always the same reason.

I want my audience to know. Chris knows what he’s talking about here. Chris played for, let’s see the Hartford Whalers, the St. Louis Blues, the Edmonton Oilers, the Anaheim Ducks, and then wrapped up your career with the Philadelphia Flyers. I would add that with the Flyers, the Oilers, the Duck, those are the last three franchises you played for. Every one of them went to the Stanley Cup because of you.

Along with my teammates but, yes.

You were a captain on those teams. You were assistant captain, as well as the fact that the Ducks won their first Stanley Cup the year that you arrived. Even though the previous year, they were your rival when you played for the Oil. Chris knows what he’s talking about taking an organization from good to great. Something else you said there, Chris, that I want to touch on. It’s interesting as a professional athlete, you get to watch the tape. As a professional executive, there is no such thing as tape. I can’t watch tape of a bad meeting so I had to figure it out through review. I’ve got to figure out what I did wrong. I guess that suggests that I need to talk to the people around me. I need to talk to the people who I work with, my colleagues, even though they report to me, I’ve got to humble myself and maybe ask them, “Did I do something wrong?” Have you found that even when you were captaining teams?

No. I think that’s the leadership side and ownership side, not owning the team but buy-in from everybody. Ownership in what you’re trying to do, whether you’re the CEO or you’re the low-level executive or employee. You need people to want to come together and come every day, passionate about what they do, feel like they’re a part of the team, and feel like they’re a part of something. You’ve also got to push people. It’s funny when you pushed people, a lot of times there’s pushback or there’s hate or angst about odd. “Why is he doing that?” Once you leave and you go to the next team and all of a sudden, their play drops off, they realize, “He was pushing me to be better. He was pushing me to get in the gym. He was pushing me to strive for excellence.”

Whether that’s sports or business, pushing your employees, pushing yourself. I was always harder on myself than I was anybody else. I was always pushing myself in the gym, pushing myself in practice. I pushed everybody in practice because the games would be easier. If I was out there defending you as hard as I could, I guarantee you that games are easier. When we were at our best, we were all practicing at that level, the game was nothing. It’s pushing people to strive for excellence, but incorporating that into the group mentality and we’re stronger together. If everybody’s going in a different direction, the business or the team is going to fall apart.

GFEP 28 | Luxury Travel

Luxury Travel: Many people sometimes put athletes up on a pedestal, but in fact, they are just like everybody else.

 

I think when you say we got to push each other in practice so that the games are better and even easier maybe, in a business setting, it suggests to me that maybe we ought to practice our meetings. Practice our presentations to clients, to each other, and go hard at each other so that when the clients are finally sitting in our conference room, it’s a piece of cake.

I think when you see mock trials when you see defense lawyers and prosecutors do mock trials, they’re doing that for a reason because they want to see what works and what doesn’t work. “What verbiage should I use?” There are all kinds of ways that people can improve on what they’re doing, whether it’s me and my current business now or public speaking, or what have you. There are many different things that you’re constantly looking at to improve on.

I go back again to what I learned when I was playing, I knew it was time for me to retire when I was done learning. If you’re not learning, you’re going back because everybody else is learning and getting better. The same holds true in business, it’s knowledge, its understanding, the client’s understanding. The business you’re in and the competitors and what they’re doing and understanding where you need to be focused. Which part of the business is slacking off? Which part of the business is excelling? Those metrics, I’m not a great analytics guy, but there’s a number of things where when you’re looking at it, you’re like, “That makes sense to me.” Numbers don’t lie, that’s a fact. Numbers are unbeaten when studied correctly.

It’s a great point there. You talked about knowing what your competition is doing. For everyone reading, Chris and I have something in common, maybe there’s one thing other than being friends. That is that every franchise he played for a game phase, have done some work for, and one of those cases, when you, Chris were at the Edmonton Oilers, I think you were only there for one season. Isn’t that correct?

Correct.

You took them to the Stanley Cup finals. Before that, you beat the Anaheim Ducks in the conference finals, right?

Correct.

That was a rough series, as I recall. Edmonton trades you in the offseason to Anaheim. Now you’re going from the Oilers to your nemesis, the Ducks. With the Ducks, you go on the neck next year, again, to win the Stanley Cup finals this time. I have to ask you, what’s that transition like when you’re walking into the locker room or the training facility with those people that were your enemies a few months previous? How do you make that mental switch in your mind because I think in business, sometimes we hold grudges?

Sports are no different. When the trade was made, I didn’t know a lot of players on the team either. There were a couple of guys that I was friendly with. I knew Rob Niedermayer because of the same draft year and things like that but there were hardly any guys that I knew. John Scott, a little bit from All-Star games and things, but went in there cold turkey. Normally, you know somebody pretty well on a team and that one, I didn’t know anybody. I think they knew they had a good team and they knew they were getting close. When I got traded there, they felt like, “Now we’ve got a chance. We’ve got our team.”

The more interaction we can have with our clients, the better we can serve them. Click To Tweet

That’s what’s great about that team, we gelled right away. We had the mindset and belief that we’re going to win, nothing else. It wasn’t going to be good enough to get to the finals. It wasn’t going to be good enough to win our conference. It wasn’t even good enough to win a playoff round. It was only going to be good enough to win the whole thing. If we didn’t win the whole thing, it was going to be all for not. Everybody in our locker room bought in from day one and we put the work in. We practiced hard and we prepared hard. That was probably one of the funniest teams to play on because we could play a 2-1 tight-checking game. We could play a 6-5 barn burner. We could play a finesse game. We could play a physical game and beat you up.

It like, “Pick your poison. What do you want?” You don’t let the other team decide. The fun part is when you can play all those different styles. We played a heavy, hard game. It fit the way I wanted to play and everything was set up for the players that we had on the team. Everybody that we brought in had a specific role, they knew their role and they played their role to a tee, which is like a business. Understanding your role, doing your job. Can you paint outside the lines? Sure you can, but you need to be focused on your job and then you can do that, and focus on what you do best. These guard rails aren’t here and you can’t go over them. You need to do this first so that everybody else can do their job, and then you can freelance a little.

It’s crazy to me how you can go from one mindset about a certain group of people and then the next day, they’re your teammates. The past is the past. We’re going to win together. I’m reminded, Chris, do you remember Paul Ryan? He used to be the US Speaker of the House. He retired a couple of years ago from Wisconsin. One time he said to me, “Grudges are for rookies.” When it comes to politics, you go hard against your opponents, whether it’s a person you ran against or the other party that you’re running against. Once the election is over, grudges are for rookies. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to find common ground and success together. That’s what athletes such as yourself if that’s such luxurious careers have learned to do. I think in business, sometimes we think, “I could never work for that company. I could never go work for that guy because I’ve heard his reputation.” Athletes don’t have that prerogative. They have to make it work and I find that very admirable.

Every time I was traded or anytime we got somebody in, you immediately have 22 new friends. That’s why it’s harder on the families and the player because they’re coming in and the kids have to make friends and then the wife has to make friends, but you’re coming in and you immediately got 22 new friends. You come in and you start practicing playing. Everybody tries to get to know you a little bit and get immersed in the team. You have dinners, you go out on the road, you go to a movie, you go to dinner, you do this, you do that. You’re immersed more in a group and then it’s seamless. I think that to your point as I played hard against Teemu Selanne. In my old career, I was always matched up against him.

He was always on my side. I used to always pound on him and all that. We always used to battle. I got there and the first day, we got into the room, I looked at him, I go, “What’s up T?” We hugged it out right there in front of everybody like, “Let’s go boys.” There was a bigger issue to deal with and that was to win. It’s a game, and like it’s business, get past it and move on. If you’re holding a grudge, you’re not focused right here. You’re worried about this stuff that you can’t control. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned as my career went along, whether it’s worrying about that play or worried about a grudge. His day will come, I’ll get him another time.

We need to focus on winning. Some of the guys I played with would always be like, “If something happened to me on the ice, it would be like a count of five, just wait. It’s coming.” 2 or 3 seconds later, I’d find that guy. As I aged, matured, gained experience, I learned to manage my game better and my emotions better and not hold an immediate grudge, but find a time in due course. Whether it’s, you’ve got to do business with somebody at some point, you’re like, “They’re going to have to come to me.” Why not go to them? Why not be proactive? Why not get past these things? There’s a lot of times you hear what you said, “I’d never do business with that company.” You never know.

I learned a long time ago to never say never because honestly there’s going to be some point in time where you might have to deal with that GM, owner, CEO, or that CFO. You never know. Unless you’re 100 years old and about to die to say never, there’s a lot going on out there in the bigger world than this little area in front of me. The vast space out there, there’s too much going on in the world to say never. I get asked all the time, “Are you never coming back to hockey?” I’m like, “I’m not going to say never, but it would have to be something pretty special because I’m loving what I do and I’m enjoying it. It’s a passion.” I’m not going to say never because I’ve learned my lesson. I said never one time before and it came back to bite me. I’m never going to say it again.

GFEP 28 | Luxury Travel

Luxury Travel: Business leaders must inspire people to remain passionate about what they do and feel like they’re part of the team.

 

You came after your playing days, you worked for the Florida Panthers for a while, that Jersey is on the wall behind me. As a senior advisor, was that something that you were anticipating, you were looking for or were you doing the right things and the right opportunity came along?

I was working with the league in the Department of Player Safety. I had two passions growing up. One, I wanted to run my own business and two was, I wanted to be a GM or a president of a team. At the time, I spent a couple of years after I got hurt to get healthy. As I was at the tail end of my recovery, I got a phone call from Bill Daly, the Deputy Commissioner asking me if I would take on this role in the Department of Player Safety. They had lost Rob Blake, Brian Leetch was done and Brendan Shanahan was going to Toronto. There were a lot of turnovers. They wanted somebody that had recently played, had some stature in the game and would be able to talk to players and do all that.

Once this started coming to fruition, you see one path and whether it was working out or not, this opportunity was too good to pass up. To be able to build a business from scratch and to be working at home with my wife and, and now our staff. It like when I speak to some of the managers and staff that are with the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights, being able to build something from scratch and being able to get in from the get-go, you’re able to see from ground zero up. You’re able to learn so much more about how businesses succeed, how businesses struggle and do a lot more research and understanding on how those pieces all interweave together.

You will eventually fail, but you must not fear failure. You just have to learn from it. Click To Tweet

It’s a lot of work but I like hard work. In my head, I work 24/7. I’m always thinking. When I was playing, at night I’d be watching TV, but I’d be watching clips of a guy that you’re going to play against, whether it’s a game or two later. You’re storing in your head the move that he did on a certain play. You get into that position, you know the move he is going to make. You know when a guy is going to make a play like that. You have seen it already, having the experience and understanding of playing against players, you know when a guy’s going to make that move. It’s no different in business. You understand the competition, you understand clients. You understand where your business is at a certain point in time and where you need to get to and what you need to do to add tangible value to have people want to partake in your services.

Chris, as we begin to wrap up, I want to tap into your player experience, but also see how it’s translated into your experience now as a business owner. When you were on the ice, you would feel so much energy from the crowd. I perceive that but correct me if I’m wrong. That positive or negative energy depending on which it was, you would either ignore it perhaps or you would feed off of it, or maybe you’d feed off both, I don’t know.

I want you to share that with us, especially when we’re in a climate right now because of the pandemic that we know travel has been affected. You could be getting negative influences right now and naysayers saying to you, “Chris, good idea but you and Lauren, you’ve got to think of something else because nobody wants to travel right now. You can’t go any place easily right now.” You’re getting all that negative energy. What did you learn on the ice about that you’re now translating as a business owner?

I was fortunate enough that I got booed in a lot of buildings so I fed off that energy. I fed off that home crowd, energy, and excitement. For us, I don’t worry about the outside world. I don’t worry about what other people are saying. We track what’s going on in the marketplace. We track what’s going on in the hospitality industry. We track what’s going on in the world globally, domestically, and get an understanding of where things are at, especially as it relates to the pandemic. I think as it relates to our business, we’re in it for the long haul. We’re making an investment in our business now and putting resources, training our staff, learning about what’s out there, having a conversation with suppliers, and still sending people on domestic travel and some smaller international stuff. Mexico, Caribbean, things of that nature until things open up more globally.

It’s been pretty good to use this time to test out different functions and things that may or may not work. While we’re in the midst of this pandemic to get a feed and a read on what works, what doesn’t work, what messaging works, what do people think about this product that we want to institute and put into our systems, our processes, our interactions with our clients. There are many things to think about and many things to look at as it relates to our business. It’s given us an opportunity to move a little more slowly, to make sure that everything is in alignment and following the right guidelines, if you will, for our business. When things open back up, as you said, we’re going to hit the ground running and we’ll be able to service all of our clients in the manner that they expect, and we expect to be able to serve them.

GFEP 28 | Luxury Travel

Luxury Travel: If you’re holding a grudge, you’re not focused right here. You’re worried about things you can’t control.

 

You’re getting ready, right?

Yeah. It’s work, but it’s also practice.

To be clear to everyone reading, it’s not like your company is not producing results right now for clients, but the pace probably afforded the opportunity right now to practice and to hone so that when things open up, you hit the ground running. Let us wrap up with three rapid-fire questions. You, athletes, are accustomed to this because reporters are shooting questions at you all the time. You can give me a one-word answer if you want. You can treat me like the Philly Press Corps if you want. We like to talk about things that persuade us, things that influence us, and things that inspire us. In that order, I’m going to ask you, who is the one who has been most persuasive in your life to become what you are today?

I would say, my wife, in guiding me, being supportive, pushing me to be me and not be somebody that people will think you are. Be yourself and be who you are. Too often, people want to play into this persona and that’s when people get into trouble. They think that’s who they are because that’s what people think they are. As I’ve aged and gained more experience, I’m just, “That’s who I was.” Too often you want to say, “That’s LeBron James, a basketball player, Michael Jordan, the basketball player, or Chris Pronger, the hockey player.” No. I’m Chris Pronger and I used to play hockey, but I don’t play anymore. That was my former job. Now, I’m in job 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, whatever it is. From a persuasive standpoint, I think being comfortable in your skin and being who you are.

The next word is influence. How do Well Inspired Travels influence the travel industry?

With our business model and how we want to interact with our clients, it’s a game-changer for those that want that type of service, that type of interaction, and understanding of who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to get there. For us, it’s understanding the why and that’s why the questioning. That’s why the peeling back the onion, understand who you are and what you’re about. Where do you want to get to? Often like my journey, it can be erratic. A few people continue on that path. There’s going to be a few zigzags along the way.

Lastly, in your hockey career as well as your business career, in either one of those or both of those, who has inspired you? I think by the way, on the hockey side, one time you told me about a particular player who also ended up in the top 100 players of all time. You said may have been your greatest inspiration, but I don’t want to give it away.

It’s funny how things come full circle, especially in the sports industry. When I was growing up as a youngster, my favorite player was Mike Bossy, then my favorite player was Wayne Gretzky. It’s funny how one team won four cups in a row and the next won four in five years then I didn’t have a favorite player, but I enjoyed watching Ray Bourque. I enjoyed watching Al MacInnis. It’s funny how everything comes full circle. I got a chance to be with them all at the top 100 induction in LA at the All-Star game in 2017. I had a great conversation with Mike Bossy and told him about it, had 30 minutes chuckle, and got to know him a little bit more personal. Those are the types of conversations you love to have and talk to players, watching him go down the wing and let a slapshot go over or a little quick slapshot. It was impressive. There’s a reason he scored 50 goals in 11 straight years.

Chris, this has been a really helpful conversation. It’s obviously fascinating to talk to someone of your stature and your background. We wish you the best along with Lauren in continuing to grow Well Inspired Travels. I would encourage my audience to look into it, for your company, for your executive team, for your family, or for yourself. There’s so much that Chris and his staff provide and it’s a service that we need, and sometimes we don’t even know we need it until we’ve experienced it.

That’s exactly the tagline right there. That’s why you do what you do, Rob.

If you're not learning, you're going backwards because everybody else is learning and getting better. Click To Tweet

It’s been great. I wish you the best. Please say hello to Lauren for us and your staff. Keep doing well out there in the travel industry.

I appreciate it.

This sense of control is something Chris learned over a hard thought career. Though the unwinding pressure from all sides to perform at the highest level, as he describes it, could have been easily overtaken him. That’s why Chris and his wife, Lauren are so passionate about Well Inspired Travels. Their family-owned luxury travel business for athletes, entertainers, CEOs, companies, and families. Hear the inspiring stories of what prompted their new business and how his lessons in professional sports informed their business decisions. Join Chris and me for the rest of the conversation on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform for what promises to be a front-row seat into the mind and life of one of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time.

Important Links:

About Chris Pronger

GFEP 28 | Luxury TravelAs a professional athlete with twenty years in the NHL, I’ve heard and seen it all. But, I didn’t start my career in luxe gyms and training facilities – I grew up in a small town in Canada where I groomed my hockey skills with countless road hockey games. These games grew with intensity and when I wasn’t playing the game, I was weightlifting or biking at my local rec center.

Toughened by street hockey, I was able to make the jump to the NHL, where I’d be introduced to proper nutrition and training during my second year with the St. Louis Blues. After four years of living the life of a professional athlete, I was committed to eating properly and training with a purpose. My game took off, and this new way of life paired with my natural abilities helped me secure a spot as a finalist for the Norris Trophy (Top Defenseman). Eating, sleeping, and training with a strong ideology helped me to achieve the honor of winning the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Norris Trophy in the same year. This achievement had not been seen since the great Bobby Orr did it in 1972, and it hasn’t been done since.

Playing the way that I did took a toll on my body, so it was important to me to stay on top of the latest health and wellness offerings. From ART (active release techniques), specialized nutrition, and making time to recharge my batteries at health-conscious resorts, I’ve always studied and implemented the best practices available into my lifestyle.

I’ve played hockey in four Winter Olympics: Nagano, Japan, Salt Lake, Utah, Torino, Italy, Vancouver, British Columbia; I’ve had the honor to train alongside athletes at the very top of their careers. Olympic athletes use state-of-the-art equipment, train endlessly, and treat their bodies with the utmost care. Watching these athletes, learning from them, and living these experiences were essential to my health and fitness education. The Olympics introduced me to a whole new level of dedication and commitment to the game and to health.

But, it hasn’t been all glamorous traveling and time on the ice. I’ve had fourteen surgeries during my career and countless concussions, sprains, and strains. Hockey is tough on your body, and as a hard-hitting defenseman, intense physicality isn’t optional. I lived by the saying “mind over matter,” which kept me on the ice for so long – until a freak accidental high stick caught me in the eye and I was forced to quit. Recovery from an unplanned accident that ended my career was tough on my body and even more so on my mind. It wasn’t easy to walk away, in fact, I tried to make a comeback. But, I strongly believe that the body knows when the time is up, so with an incredible support system I made the decision to officially leave the game as a player.

The damage of my final injury took a toll on my overall health, and I had beefed up more than I would have liked. Battling blurred vision and fuzzy feeling in my head, I returned to nutrition and fitness to heal. To recharge, I searched for special destinations featuring fitness centers, clean menus, and an emphasis on health. It’s my belief that nurturing a healthy lifestyle is how I was able to overcome the depths of concussions and injuries I endured.

My passion for travel sparked during my career as a professional athlete. I loved being able to see different cities constantly and made sure to try something new during each visit. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and immersing yourself in a whole new culture or community helps you to continually grow. In my current job with the Florida Panthers, I make it a conscious decision to stay at hotels that have fitness centers or are close to gyms so that I am able to continue living my best life! While I’m on the road, I pack healthy snacks that keep me satiated and fuel my body with what it needs. I believe that a healthy lifestyle can be achieved by anyone who’s willing to commit to it and I’m inspired by our ability to share our stories with one another.

Chris Pronger

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

 

Can a retail company in 40 states close more than 200 mega-stores during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then watch their stock skyrocket to a record high that same quarter? Yes, the Brand Man can. Can a chairman/CEO of a sleepy firm seeking to go public successfully inspire an all-star cast of directors to join his board? Yes, the Brand Man can. Can a retail company in a competitive category sell value without going cheap? Yes, the Brand Man can. Lee Bird, Chairman and CEO of Dallas-based At Home, is this week’s game face exec.

Watch the episode here:

Lee Bird | The Brand Man

How loyal are your customers? What will they do? What obstacles will they get around to get to your product? Until you build a cult-like following, it’s not a following. It’s a fad. Lee Bird, Chairman and CEO of the home decor giant, At Home, is building a cult-like following among his loyal customers in ways that any brand, nonprofit or for-profit, could learn from. Let’s hear from the Brand Man himself, Lee Bird.

Lee Bird is the Chairman and CEO of At Home based in Plano, Texas. Let’s start out right away, Lee, with some phenomenal news about At Home. In the second quarter of 2020, which we all know, that was the height of the pandemic your company had an unbelievable performance, a 770% rise in your stock. It was a record-setting quarter for the company, which to me is the opposite of what anyone would expect when everyone is staying home and they’re not shopping. They’re not going out to retail stores. What happened?

We did two things. We played defense and offense at the same time. As Q1 settled in and COVID went across our country, we knew we were going to have to close our stores. We had to prepare ourselves for store closures, but also pivot and go on the offense and accelerate our plans on eCommerce so that people felt more comfortable shopping from home. Buying for curbside pickup and having product delivered, both of those services specifically weren’t available to our customers before this. We did both. When stores reopened, they opened with a flurry.

It was extraordinary and we had the best company performance ever for us financially. When you have 50% revenue growth, 42% same-store sales growth, and that’s in a quarter where some of the stores were still closed. On a store-by-store basis, that’s a 62% increase in same-store sales. Over $200 million improvements in liquidity during that time and reducing our leverage ratios down 4 turns over 5 times, 1.5 times debt to EBITDA that we got ourselves in a beautiful position thankfully. It’s because our customers wanted to come to our store and felt like we had great value.

As you’re describing that, I’m wondering how much of it is due to the strategic shifts and pivots that you made in real-time? How much of it is due to the pent-up appetite of the consumer to get out of their home to get into an At Home store?

Certainly, we’re blessed to be in a great category. People are all at home and we’re all working from home. We normally would be in our own offices at this point and we’re not. People are spending more time at home. The category is growing like we were growing. We have a nice tailwind for us. We did a lot of things and we had a tough year in 2019, honestly. It was a time where we had some step back and same short sales performance for the first time in six years. We took a hard look at ourselves.

“What do we need to do to fix our performance and what’s on us to go fix?” We did those things last fall and early this spring. When we reopened, we already had our pricing sharper than ever. We had a go-to-market approach called EDLP plus, which is campaign management to highlight our low prices. That was reinforced with people being at home and could see our campaigns in our emails. We enhanced our loyalty program, for example.

We improved our product assortment and did what we needed to do to make sure we had a great assortment. When people are ready to engage in the category, we were the person that they would engage with. We had a 100% increase in our online views on our website. We had a 50% increase in our email open rates. That allowed us to be more relevant than ever. We did our part to enable our customer who is now engaging in the category more than ever to consider our store than any other place.

One could say in the nick of time, you’ve made these fantastic improvements. You’ve been in your position as CEO of the company, chairman of the board. You mentioned the improvements that were made in the fall of 2019. What was happening up until that time when you took on a company that some would have said was a little sleepy at that time. Now, seeing these record sales, record revenues, you’re $1.5 billion in sales, what was happening in that ramp up? Can you share with us a little bit under the covers what we would have seen?

It was a private equity-backed company and just been acquired. It was a business that I was interested in acquiring myself with another private equity firm that we couldn’t get the deal done. I loved the business. It was called Garden Ridge based in Houston, Texas, at the time. It’s a little over $300 million in revenue. I was blessed with the opportunity to become the CEO. They invited me to come in to deliver a growth plan. Create the plan, deliver it, build an executive team, scale the company, take it nationally, and take it public as the liquidity event. Now, it’s the objective of the private equity firm and those are my objectives as well, so we did that.

The power of bricks and clicks is the way to go forward. Click To Tweet

I would say what we focused on is making sure you had the right product value assortment right from the beginning. We had to make some assortment corrections. We also had a brand that didn’t resonate well with customers. The company had a history where in fact, it had been bankrupt and had not been a great place to work. When I did the research, it was clear that while it was a great business, it wasn’t going to scale with that background and that history. We had to leave that history behind, at least the name. Go to a new name and get a fresh start within the world of eCommerce. You have all that history.

Yelp reviews for customer experiences that weren’t great. You have Glassdoor that tells you your employee experience wasn’t great. You have the internet that says the company has been bankrupt. You have to shed all that. We had the strategic requirement to change the name of the company. I also moved the headquarters to Dallas because that’s where our top retail talent lived. I didn’t live there either but I moved my family there so that we could scale the business. We needed a team of people. We needed 400 people at the headquarters building to scale this thing.

We did that. I put a great executive team together. First and foremost, it starts with a team and with the right people in place. They hired great people. We moved the headquarters and revised the business and the product assortment. What essentially it is democratized home decor. It’s low price home decor in all styles, so it’s a one-stop-shop. It’s a big box concept, the size of a Walmart or Target, those big 100,000-square-foot stores, but it’s only home decor. It’s only our product, private label, private brand, which allows us to sell it at prices below everybody else’s sales price.

That’s what we did. We made those adjustments. We’ve changed the name. We then went loud and proud of it from the marketing standpoint. Same-store sales started taking off. We had five straight years of same-store sales growth. We were growing units and opening up units. We had a 20% unit growth for five straight years as well. We took the company from $350 million to over $1.4 billion in 2019 in just 6.5 to 7 years. It’s highly profitable. It’s been a great opportunity to do something that I never thought was possible before to create a national brand.

We took it public in 2016 on the New York Stock Exchange, which was a unique opportunity for our team to experience that. What it allowed us to do most importantly was give everybody in the company an opportunity to be an owner in the company. I wanted everybody to have the same blessing of ownership that I enjoyed and our private equity owners enjoyed. Going public allows you to share the shares with everybody. We did that and that’s the situation we find ourselves in where we have essentially every store manager and owner in the company get shares of stock every year and our employees get shares as well. We all win together, which is the most important thing.

There are 219 or so stores around the country in 40 states. You went from primarily a local business to what you described. You’re doing it in a time when it seems like a lot of people are told or taught that retail is becoming passé. Retail is your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s model. That’s not true. You’re proving that it’s not true. If you’re standing in front of a college business class, what are you telling them? What do you teach them about the power of retail? How can one be successful? Especially in a pandemic, when many retail stores, smaller ones, mind you, but nevertheless, many of them seem to be going out of business. It seems like you’re doing the opposite. What are we missing?

A personal connection with the consumer is what you need. I would tell you a face-to-face in-person connection allows for that to be even more intimate and personal. Having a physical presence so that customers can see, touch, and feel. Certainly in our category where we’re talking about decor, items around primary furniture pieces, think about rugs, lamps, wall art, tabletop decor, and patio furniture, you want to see it. You want to make sure it matches the paint chip that you have or the throw pillow that you want everything to go after.

You have to realize also that everybody pre-shops on the internet, so they decide where they’re going to shop. Do they want to buy online? Yes, you could do that. What we’ve done is we’ve become a full omnichannel retailer in 2020. It allows people to pre-shop online. They could buy it, picked up in the store, delivered it to your home, or curbside pickup. Also, by having physical stores, when you don’t end up with what you wanted or you brought two because you wanted to see which color works best at home and you want to return it. Having a physical store is easier than packing it up, re-sending it back, and having all the returns. Having that relationship back with the store again and again.

What we did differently than most people do too, is all of our eCommerce and all of our business is centered after the store. We have one place of inventory. Every store is a warehouse. That’s where we fulfill all of our sales. That team owns that relationship in the community regardless of how it’s sold. If it’s bought online, picked up in the store, curbside pickup, delivered, returned, it’s back to that store in that store director who runs the business. We feel like the power of bricks and clicks is the way to go forward. What we also did is we related doctors to that, but we made sure we rolled out eCommerce profitably. Every single one of our eCommerce transactions makes money.

I know there are a lot of eCommerce businesses out there that are hot and cool but they don’t make money. I’ve learned over time in my 30-plus years in businesses, if you don’t make money and throw off free cashflow, you’re not sustainable over time. Consumers want sustainable companies, and sustainability is delivered by profitability. We do both, but at the same time, offering lower prices than even eCommerce guys do, enabled by a low-cost structure and some other things we’ve done. That’s how we’ve done it. We feel like physical stores enable that to have that intimate relationship. That’s why we’re continuing to open more stores in the future.

Do you see any vulnerabilities in retail in the future? Have you already identified those? Are you taking mitigating steps to counter those?

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Consumers want sustainable companies and sustainability is delivered by profitability.

 

It’s interesting in retail, in the consumer business, those that are on the luxury side and those that are on the value side do well. If you’re stuck in the middle, your customer value proposition is not going to last and it’s going to be challenged by the people below who can take those styles, democratize it at lower prices, and make it easier for people to buy at lower prices. What you have to do is either define yourself above and have this great luxury brand with beautiful quality and beautiful stores. The prices are high, but it’s a smaller group of people that can access that, or you have to be able to have a broad reach with lower prices and great value on the other end.

What we’ve done is we’ve gone there. We’ve said, “We’re working to democratize home decor.” We have the largest assortment, the lowest prices, and we allow that to be seen by our customers and our competitors online. I would say that people that do that are going to win. The people that are stuck in the middle and don’t have a great customer value proposition, in the end, will struggle. I’ve been responsible for brands along the way.

I was chairman for the Coke company, which is based in New York and sold all across the world. We sold it to oligarchs and monarchs, who are our best customers, then you’ve got the value business like Old Navy where I was a chief financial officer and head of store operations as well and now, At Home. Those value players are the ones that are sustaining their business because, in the end, people are careful with their money. During economic cycles, you need to be able to be accessible in terms of price points.

You’ve talked a lot about value. That message is coming through clearly. Talk a little bit for us about the quality of the product because as you mentioned, you have 50,000 SKUs, 50,000 products. I’m sure you’re growing that. How do you identify those channels and manufacturers? You mentioned that they’re branded At Home. If you would describe that a little bit more for us and the decision-making that goes into what ends up in your stores.

I use the word value because that’s what customers are looking for, the best value. It may not be the lowest price because sometimes the lowest price has poor quality, and then that comes off cheap. You want to be a great value. That’s been our journey. I would tell you that is a journey as a value player, as a low price leader, so we are the lowest price. We’re going to be the lowest price you’ll find out there below other people’s sales price, but it can’t be cheap. We’ve spent our time focusing on making sure that we have the lowest price but continue to reinvest our profitability into better quality. We look for better factories and design partners that can help us design products affordably with great value.

Because we’re At Home brand, we don’t pay the brand premium of another person who designed it. We take the middleman out, which allows us to have that lower price. It’s a journey and a continuous effort on our part to improve the quality. Customers’ expectations for quality always go up. It doesn’t go down, and they expect prices to always go down. When you always have your price, compression is a challenge and expectation quality. That’s why I always say it’s a journey. You have to keep working on item-by-item and you continue to refresh your items to make sure that you can get to that right balance and still deliver what the customer is looking for.

Lee, if the pandemic had not occurred and people hadn’t moved to an at-home environment where we’re doing more work from our homes. We’re starting to get used to it and many people are now preferring it. Some companies are mandating it. In fact, some companies are even saying it’s permanent, that they’re not going to require their people to come into an office space. If that had not happened, would we have seen these types of improvements, this rapid growth at At Home? Probably not to the extent we saw it, but it sounds like you were prepared for this. It sounds like this shift that you had a lot of time, a lot of effort, years have gone into this. What does the rest of 2020 look like for your business? What are you anticipating for 2021?

We did prepare. 2019 was the first year we had negative same-store sales in six years. We had twenty straight quarters with the same-store sales growth plus a 20% increase in unit growth and strong profitability every year. 2019 was a step back year. It’s still profitable but sales from the same-store sales basis weren’t positive and slightly negative. We went back as an executive team and retooled our business. We had issues like weather, which affects your spring business like patio and garden. There were lots of wet weather last spring, which hurt our spring business. We had tariffs due to the trade war we’re having with China, the US trade war.

Our product costs were increasing by 25% to 30% in cost in certain categories like furniture, accent furniture, and wall art. We eventually had to raise prices, which meant that our customers weren’t getting what they expected from the price-value relationship, so then sales were challenged there. Even though our prices were lower than our competitors, they still were above artificial price barriers. We had to go back and look at that. Honestly, in our fourth quarter, our Christmas assortment was a shortened Christmas selling season. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was the shortest time in a number of years.

That squeezes our selling period for Christmas decor and Christmas trees, and we sell a large assortment of that. Our assortment was good, but then all of a sudden, we went on sale much earlier. We then had to go on sale earlier, so it was a tough quarter. All of those events turned into a not perfect year for us, so we retooled and we worked on things. We needed to get back on mojo and start winning again. We did that and we started seeing progress in February. We changed our go-to-market approach to an everyday low price, but we went to a campaign approach. We highlight a particular category for three weeks, show that category pricing, and have that as a campaign called EDLP plus.

Hire people smarter than you are and you'll get smarter. Click To Tweet

Those campaigns are starting to drive same-store sales growth for us again for the first time in five quarters, and then COVID hit. I would tell you, we started getting momentum before COVID. What you would have seen now if that had continued, you’d still see the same short sales growth in Q1. You would have seen it in Q2. Would it have been to these extremes? Stores were closed for a long time. There was pent-up demand. There was a stimulus check too that happened for our economy and for people that were struggling. That brought people back faster. What it has done is allowed people to spend more time at home and focus on this category.

We think it’s going to be a multi-year benefit to our category like when 9/11 happened. People didn’t travel as much. They stayed at home. It felt less comfortable traveling for obvious reasons, and that was a multi-year benefit for this category. We’ll see the same thing here. There’s no vaccine inside, unfortunately, so people are going to be careful for some time, which means there will be home for some time. I can’t say that I’m working any harder than any other people in retail because they’re all working super hard. It’s that some categories are more important to our consumers than others. Thankfully, we’re one of those categories.

Your executive team and you are doing a phenomenal job, but your hard work is paying off. That shows in the numbers. There’s another side of your business, so that’s interesting to me. Those who are reading will also find this to be a fascinating study. When you took over in late 2012, you were charged with moving the company to become public. That requires the formation of a board and all of the necessary hoops to jump through to become a public business. I also had the experience, not to the extent you’re going to explain to us I hope, of working with a company and going public.

It was about the same time that you were working through this at At Home. Eventually, despite our efforts, we decided against it in the end, so we pulled out. We couldn’t get the valuation that we were hoping for. You’ve been successful in getting the valuation but the board is what I find interesting. If anyone looks, they’ll see on the At Home board a diverse collection of professionals, people who have vast experience. People who’ve served as president, CEOs, chief revenue officers, and so forth for Norwegian Cruise Line, Caribou Coffee, Loews, PetSmart, the list goes on. How did you go about forming that board? If I understand correctly, you started from a blank piece of paper, which is a rare opportunity that a CEO has. Walk us through that experience.

When I joined, there were the private equity owners and they had appointed one person to the board. We had to fill the whole board. What I did is I sat down with our private equity owners and we mapped out a plan. There was a study that I had read, a book called Blueprint to a Billion by David Thomson, an ex-McKinsey partner who had studied all the companies that had gone public over the course of the past 35 years in the US or more. He only found less than 400 companies that had gone from going public and made it to $1 billion and they were all industries. He found seven common characteristics to those companies that had made it to $1 billion. This is essentially a blueprint to $1 billion. It was his premise.

One of them was a high-powered board. I knew that in the back of my mind and I knew we had to have that. When we looked at what our board needed to be, we knew we were a high growth retailer and we wanted to be a high growth retailer. The only way you achieve that is you have people around you who help you get there, who’s been there and done that. We wanted folks that had been at high performing retailers that it scaled it and that it scaled their business from smaller to larger. Take, for example, Larry Stone, who’s our lead director. He started at Lowe’s as a store employee. There were only maybe five stores there, and eventually became the president, chief merchandising officer, and chief operating officer for Lowe’s for a number of years. He sits on the Dick’s Sporting Goods board as well.

There is an example of some people who have scaled it. Phil Francis is another person who was Chairman and CEO of PetSmart. He started when they had less than 200 stores. When he retired as chairman and CEO, and he was the CEO the whole time during this time, it went from 200 to 1,200 stores. He knew what scale meant and what it took to build infrastructure to grow. We needed to go public, so we needed to have somebody who ran the audit committee. Wendy Beck is who we selected and she had taken Norwegian Cruise Line public as the CFO. She had been the CFO of Domino’s Pizza before that as a public company after their IPO. We needed somebody who had been through that IPO process.

I’ll give you an example. Those three were our first three board members that we hired and we look for people like that at that caliber. For example, John Butcher, one of the board members who came to us from Caribou Coffee where he’s the CEO, also runs the bagel businesses that that private equity company owns, which is known as Einstein Bros. Bagels. He has those businesses under his watch as well. Before that, he was a senior merchant at Target. He had been in big box retail, had been involved in our category, and had been a big leader at a great retailer like that. Now, he was the CEO of a great brand. He’s somebody who had a cult following.

We think about our brand, we want to be a cult-like brand. That’s an example of another skillset. We wanted a merchant but had been in a cult-like brand. We wanted somebody who’s been in marketing and had been in multiple brands. Elisabeth Charles had been the Chief Marketing Officer at Athleta, Petco, Victoria’s Secret, and brands like that. An example like that is Paula Bennett, who’s also on our board, has been the CEO of J. Jill for over a decade. She took it from a small brand to a great brand that we all know. I give you those examples. Joanne, who’s also on our board, is the acting CEO of Tapestry, who’s the Owner of Coach and Kate Spade. She was the CFO there.

We have skillsets like that, a high power group of people, and a diverse board. We have four women on our board. Our customers are women, so we should have our board reflect the face of our customers. We need them to be high performing because we want high performing. They’re my boss, and I need a boss who’s going to push me to push our business to reach its full potential. Thankfully, folks like that were interested and willing to be a part of the At Home family.

You said fortunately, they were willing, but at Game Face Execs, we’d like to talk about how the power of persuasion and influence plays a part in everything we do in business and in our personal lives. Lee, don’t undersell yourself here. You had to be a persuasive individual.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Customers’ expectations for quality always go up and they expect prices to always go down.

 

I corded each of them individually. Joanne, who was at the time the Chief Operating Officer of Abercrombie & Fitch, was a busy person and had a busy job. I said, “I’ll fly to Columbus. I’ll go to your office. I’ll meet with you. Please give me the opportunity to talk about At Home and the At Home board.” She did that. Paula Bennett was at an investor conference two years before she joined our board. I said, “Can you meet with me?” She gave me fifteen minutes in the hallway.

I’m courting them because we’re a small-time and they were big time, but I wanted them to know what’s possible and the fun part about building a great company. Also, if they had that entrepreneurial spirit at all, which they all do, to help build something great. I said, “Why don’t you build the next great American retail company with me?” I was grateful they said yes and I’m grateful that they’re my boss and my partner and we’re better for it.

I won’t ask you who but I’m sure others said no to you. Not everyone’s going to say yes. That would give a phenomenal close rate, as we say. You were successful in getting the attention of some high power individuals with terrific experience, who already had done what you wanted to do for the most part at At Home. At the same time, you also seem to have the confidence to be able to hire people who might know a little bit more than you in some areas.

That’s how it should be. Hire people smarter than you and you’ll get smarter.

It’s worked out for you and you’ve been successful. Let’s talk about young entrepreneurs and startups who are looking to take this great idea that they hatched in the basement of their garage. They think, “No, I don’t want to involve other people who might take advantage of me, who are smarter than me, and might snooker me out of too much share of my business.” You don’t have that attitude. You’ve been in private equity and you know how it works. What are some lessons these young entrepreneurs and startups ought to be learning from your example?

You want to have the best team out there. I grew up in New England and they always had this philosophy to draft the best available athlete. You want the best one. Even if that position is already filled, you deal with that problem. You want the best available athlete. Get the best people you can around you and it will make you better. You’ll learn a lot from those folks and they’ll push you to be better. I’m not uncomfortable with that. I’m comfortable enough in myself to say I’m not going to be smart in certain areas and in other areas, I may be stronger, but either way, shore up the whole team.

There’s a book out there called the Team of Rivals, which is about Abraham Lincoln when he became president. He picked for his cabinet three of the people that ran against him as president and some of them were in different parties. He formed this cabinet of people that had more success winning elections, more success in politics, and more international experience than he did. Now he’s considered one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had. He’s certainly one of the most courageous people we have in our history in this country.

Courage is required to have a willingness to hire people smarter than yourself. I would tell you, you’re better for it. It makes you a little uncomfortable sometimes because they are smarter than you. Aren’t you supposed to be their boss? If the whole enterprise wins, you win because you learn and when you stop learning, life is over. I love being around people that I can learn from. I would tell you, I’m impressed with my team, individually, to a person. I would take our team against any other retail company in the world regardless of the size and say, “I’ve got the best in those slots and I learn from them every day.”

I would like to echo what you’re saying to something I haven’t shared with my own clients at Game Face, but that is a fact and reality. Back in the early 2000s, I was starting to see some growth that was getting away from me. As you’ve seen before in other businesses, you can grow too fast and you can scale too quickly. Everyone wants to scale, but then sometimes, it gets away from you. That was happening to me in the early 2000s. I met two people who were smarter than me, who showed an interest in my business.

The day you stop learning is the day you stop living. Click To Tweet

At first, I was not only intimidated by them, but I didn’t trust them because I thought, “They have some underhanded motive, and eventually, they’re going to fool me into taking my business.” You talked about courage. The other word that I would throw out there, and this is something that one of our previous guests, Steven MR Covey, is an expert in talking about, and that’s trust. I had to develop a sense of trust in those people, not dumb trust. You’ve got to be wise, do your due diligence, and do your research on people.

When I finally began to trust those two individuals, they did fantastic things for my business and helped me see my blind spots. You’ve learned that lesson previously in your career. If I may also, let’s go to the other side of your business. We’ve talked about the senior leadership and the board. You also mentioned the managers of your 200-plus stores and the people that work with them. What do you learn from them, Lee? How are they different from other retail workers that I might encounter when I walk into some of your competitor’s places?

I always say the most important job in our company is the store director position. Each and every one of them run a big enterprise. Each business does about $7 million in sales, which they only do with 30 people. The store is the size of a Costco or Walmart of 100,000 square feet. On average, they may walk 7 or 8 miles a day in their shift because the store is so big to get across it and so on. Teams are moving freight from the backroom to the front of the store. It’s a self-help model. They run a playbook from us. It says, “Here’s how we want the store to be merchandised. Here’s the product we want to have highlighted in these certain parts of the store. Here are the policies and procedures that we have for you to run effectively.”

Knowing that we’re trying to help them run it the most efficient way possible. What we found is our team members are incredibly devoted and hardworking. It is a physical job because you’re moving a lot of product, and you’re an owner-operator. We give them shares of stocks that they do in part of the company, but they’re operating it every day and they’re the ones seeing our customers every day. I don’t see a customer. I don’t serve a customer. I’m overhead. I’m store support. They’re the ones who see the customer every day. They’re the ones who hear every day what the customer was looking for and what they’re expecting from the store. They’re the ones who have to deliver that customer experience.

Is the store neat, clean, and organized? Always. Are they getting the support that they need from our employees? Can you fill out the roster every day if they have enough people to show up? This is an hourly workforce. Most of them have just a high school degree. I say just, meaning they don’t have as many opportunities so they’re going to go to where maybe they can get $1 an hour or more. How do you convince people to stay with you when they could get paid more somewhere else and they could do an easier job? I’m grateful for our store directors. They are wonderful people that are loyal. Their commitment level to our company is extraordinary that they exhibit every day. My job is to serve them. How can I help them and make it easier for them?

Your store directors have to be persuasive as well in order to get those associates to agree to that job at whatever wage you may be offering. Can you share with us a little bit more about the characteristics of an effective store director when it comes to the skill of persuasion and the skill of selling? Is that something that you require when you hire them that they have to have a sales background or at least a proclivity to it?

Our stores are self-help, so it’s a self-help labor model. Think about Costco. It’s a store that people are most familiar with. We’re like that. We’re a warehouse store. We put it on the shelf. There’s no commission salesforce. It’s self-help shopping enabled. The customer goes around without getting a lot of help. If they need something off the shelf and brought up to the register or taken out for the car, we’ll help them there. What we do is we make sure the store is neat, clean, and organized, and then we run the register. I say that’s it, but there’s a lot to that.

You still have trailer loads worth of product coming in 3 to 4 times a week, and then you still have all these what I call pesky customers sometimes that isn’t always happy. You have to put a great face on every day and support them. We have two teams in our store, a customer service team and an ops team. We hire people for those teams. It’s around personality types. If you’re a type of personality who gets a lot of energy by hanging out with people and helping people, then you’re going to be on the customer service team. You’ll be in charge of servicing and conditioning an area and you’ll be in charge of running the register and engaging with customers.

If you like getting stuff done and making stuff move, you’re going to be on the ops team. You’ll be unloading the truck, getting the product to the floor, unloading and packing, and getting it all set. Two separate teams, two separate managers underneath the store director that run those teams. The store director looks for what do you like out of life? What type of work do you like to do? We put people on teams that way. They’re the ones that help pick people that are go-getters and have that entrepreneurial spirit. What we do is we make sure that people are rewarded. Everybody in our company is eligible for a bonus based on their store team performance or our company performance, and those metrics are known.

At the store director level, for example, that bonus is uncapped if we want them to feel like an owner-operator. If you have a 5% increase in your sales plan, you have a $20,000 bonus. If you did a 10% increase, then that’s double, so your bonus is doubled. If you did a 15% increase, you get a triple, and that bonus is uncapped. We’ve had people who’ve made over $100,000 in their bonus and they make $75,000 to $80,000 for a store director. Their bonus is much larger because they had an amazing year and our company had an amazing year because of them. They own stock. We give them stock every year and they earn stock every year, but then they get this bonus.

We show every store employee in the back of the store. There’s a chart that Larry Stone, our lead director, instituted at Lowe’s. It says, “Here’s how much a store associate makes part-time per hour and for the year, and here’s your bonus.” Let’s say you make $10 an hour, 2,000 hours a year. It’s $20,000 a year, you get a $1,000 bonus. That’s what our team members are eligible for, but your assistant manager makes $40,000 and she gets a $10,000 bonus. Your store director makes $70,000 and gets a $20,000 bonus. Your district manager, the person that shows up once a week or so, makes $110,000 and their bonus is $30,000 or something.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: The most important job in the company is the store director position. Each and every one of them runs a big enterprise.

 

We have that chart in the back of the store that says, “You as an hourly person could someday make $100,000 a year if you want to with our company.” Almost all of our store director, district manager, and regional manager positions have been filled internally because we can show people who maybe only have a high school degree. I say only because they weren’t given those opportunities or those weren’t accessible to them. They can provide beautifully for their family. As you can tell, I have a lot of passion for our team. They do amazing work and I want them to win. I want them to take care of their families and realize all the dreams they ever had because of what they do for our company.

You’re sharing a culmination of a rich career that you’ve had, Lee. All of that experience that you’ve had over the years at different brands and different roles is culminating what you’re describing. It’s a wonderful story. I want to go back though, in time a little bit about your career. I appreciate everything you shared with us about At Home. For example, you’ve had three prominent roles in the retail business. You were the President of Nike Affiliates, Chief Operating Officer of Gap, and Chief Financial Officer of Old Navy.

Any one of those positions is nirvana for a lot of people. They’re going to retire with that position. Why would they want to do anything else? Such great brands with such customer affinity. As you have looked back through the years at those types of opportunities, did you move on because of fit? Did you move on because you had achieved the goals that you had set for yourself? Did you move on because it was a better opportunity for you? Was it all of that? Was it none of that? Help us understand the career path that has taken you to all these different and diverse experiences.

I’ve been blessed. It’s been a great career. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great brands and amazing people. A lot of the time in those places, I was able to know the founder of that great brand. That was neat to be able to see what they had envisioned to be a part of helping that to be realized. Each career decision has its own set of decision-making criteria. First and foremost, it still comes down to what’s best for my family? I’ve been married to my wife, Linda, for more than 34 years. She’s been the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life. She’s a wonderful partner. She’s the greatest business consultant in my life and advisor in every decision like you, Rob, in what’s right for our family and our children.

Sometimes, we stay where we are because 1 or 2 of my kids wanted to finish high school in that town. We made a decision to do that. This is a good time for them to move because it’s a good chapter in their life. Each career decision still involved the family decision that came down to a family council where they would vote and everybody got the same boat. Hopefully, my persuasion would help them want to go where I thought the career was going to be benefiting. I also had to provide for a large family. I have eight children. They get expensive, especially when they’re in college. An upwardly mobile career allows us to be able to provide better for our families.

I like learning. Part of my moves is because I had learned while I could. I couldn’t learn anymore where I was, so I wanted to learn more, so then I needed to go somewhere else to learn more. Maybe learn a different industry. When I went from Gap and Old Navy, which was apparel, which was new to me before then, that was an amazing experience. I worked with great people and great brands, to then go to Nike. I got to be the President of the Nike Affiliates, so all of those groups and businesses. I was in charge of Cole Haan, Converse, Hurley, Bauer Hockey, and Starter. It was a fantastic opportunity, and then to be on the Nike executive team to learn what the Nike brand did to be what they are now.

It was such an opportunity to learn and soak it in like a sponge as they say. Part of it is learning because I can’t stand still and stop learning. Part of it is to not stop in my own development. Some places said, “We can ever see you as a president. We can see you as the chief operating officer but you’re not a merchant, so you can’t be a president with us.” I thought I could be. If that company didn’t see that because they decided to put some artificial barriers on my potential and I thought I had more potential.

I didn’t listen to the voices, what people said, “You’re only a finance guy. You can never be those things.” I thought, “No, I can be those things. I’m going to go after that.” I had to move on to go after what I thought was my full potential. We’re supposed to realize our full potential in this life. My career has been blessed and I’ve learned so much. I’ve worked with great people and I’ve been taught by great mentors who have helped me have those experiences. People took a bet on me and I appreciate that too.

I have to tell you a story that you reminded me of. It’s not about you, but it is about one of the brands that you’ve worked for. It’s not a secret story, but it’s one that I haven’t thought of for a long time. When Game Face was based in the Portland area, I would pay a lot of visits to Nike if you were there at the time, leaving those various brands you shared with us. You were in the inner circle. You were one of the top eight executives at Nike, meeting with Phil Knight, Charlie Denson, and other people that were running the company at the time. I had a chance to get to know Phil Knight in a different way.

One time, Phil and I with one other individual were chatting at Nike near Phil’s office. The other individual threw out some crazy notion that maybe there was a position for me at Nike. At the time, I’m running my own business, Game Face. This guy was conjecturing, “Maybe Rob could serve in this way or in this way.” Phil looked at me and pulled the sunglasses down, as only you know. He looks at me and says, “You’re not the Nike type.” The conversation stopped there. It’s interesting we were friends. I certainly respect Phil Knight for everything he’s done for Nike, for the sports industry, and commerce. I hope there’s a little bit of mutual respect for me.

We are supposed to realize our full potential in this life. Click To Tweet

Even though you’re friends, that doesn’t necessarily make you the right fit for a company or for a brand. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of people who’ve come to you because you’ve been in private equity as well where you get to identify people that should serve within a particular enterprise or company that would be a good fit for management. I’m sure people have come to you and they said, “Lee, how about me? Can’t I be a candidate?” You probably have had to say, “It’s not a right fit.” What does that mean in your mind? Is it okay to say to someone, “It’s not a good fit?” Is that a DISC? Is that perhaps a message that there’s something better for them?

It’s not a DISC. It’s a reality and in both parts. You could decide this company isn’t a good fit for me for the culture. When I interviewed people for a role, I’ve always said, “We’re both figuring this out.” In my first interview with a candidate whether it’s for the board or my member, the executive team, I spend two hours with them. We get to know each other first and foremost because I want to see, do I like this person? Do I want to spend all this time with them? I have this policy at our company. We have a no jerk ratio policy, so we don’t hire jerks. A jerk doesn’t mean somebody I can’t work with. It means I have a certain style.

I would tell you, I’m not a screamer or swearer, so I’m not going to want that around our business. It doesn’t help bring the best out of people but either way, some people do that. That’s up to them but that may not work for us. I would tell you, you’ve got to figure out the culture of the place. Whether you’re looking for the role or you’re creating that culture, you want to make sure you sustain that from the culture standpoint in your own company, or that you fit that as a candidate. It’s not a ding. It’s a reality. Culture is as much a part of the business as the performances, and the culture delivers the performance.

At Nike, for example, that culture is strong. It’s about winning. It’s about being on the offense always. One of their maxims says, “If you’re not competitive and you’re not willing to go at it and try to help the brand and the business be successful, you’re going to be left behind.” That’s who they are. That’s not bad and that’s not good. It just is. They’re extraordinary and they had a strong culture. Gap had a strong culture. When I started at Gap, I remember walking into a room and people would look me down and up. Was I fashionable enough to be there? I come from technology and I’m wearing not-so-cool clothes.

I want everyone to know you are fashionable.

I’m better than I was back when they started at Old Navy. I would tell you, I learned. I had to make sure I had fashion denim on and embedded in a great jacket or blazer. My belt had to match my shoes and my watch band and all these things. That’s part of the culture because they’re a fashion business. You have to get a culture. It has to be right for you and you have to make sure they’re right for your company. It’s not bad, it just is. Don’t ever give up on that and don’t settle for that either because it will come back to burn you later anyway.

You are a great advisor. You’ve given us great advice in this episode. I also know that you’re an advisor for organizations outside of At Home as you’ve gathered a board of directors. You served on the board of directors. I’d like to focus a little bit on the industry of sport because you served on the board of Larry H. Miller Group, which is the owner of the Utah Jazz. You served on Tom’s Ownership Advisory Group, the owner of the club.

You also have an ownership interest in a double-A franchise in town where you spent some of your formative years. I’d like you to share with our audience a little bit about those collective experiences serving as an advisor in the sports industry. What you do with the Dallas Stars, which is where you live and work in that community, that’s particularly of interest to me and it would be to our audience as well.

I’m grateful to be a part of that team. I would tell you what Tom and Jim Lites set up. Tom, the owner, and Jim, the CEO at the time, and now Brad is the CEO. They envisioned early on when Tom bought the team that since Tom lived out of town, the idea was they wanted to see one of the enterprises to be commercially successful. Not just have a great team and win a lot of big games and hopefully, win a Stanley Cup, but also make it commercially successful because Tom’s a successful business person. Since he wasn’t in town, he wasn’t going to be there to help nurture those business relationships that are necessary for the team to be commercially successful.

You need sponsorship and you need people who are going to be supporting the arena and filling the seats. You need to have community involvement to have the entire community want to be a part of the Stars movement as well. They formed this Ownership Advisory Group that I joined right after I moved to Dallas and I was grateful for it. Our job at the Ownership Advisory Group is to help the Dallas Stars on the business side be commercially successful, help them make money, and help them think through how do you get more sponsors involved in the Dallas Stars? How do you get more people to come to games? What does that take? What network do we have that can help them and introduce them to those people, to then have those people be a part of the Dallas Stars family in the business?

That’s what I do. I help them, serve them, and I get all the benefits of being an owner. They’re kind enough to let us be a part of the ownership group in the sense that we get the owner’s box and we can travel with the team, tickets to games, access to all sorts of team experiences and so on. That’s great for my family who is new to Dallas. That allows me to connect more with the team. I can then help the team be commercially successful, which then allows the team to stay in town because it’s important for a town to have a team.

GFEP 11 | The Brand Man

The Brand Man: Culture is as much a part of the business as performance. In fact, it is the culture that delivers the performance.

 

That’s why I’m a part of the Montgomery Biscuits ownership group too because I grew up in Montgomery 1st through 8th grade. I want that town to have a sense of community. We have a team downtown at the Riverfront at this beautiful stadium that the city built. It brings the community together and it brings families together and creates memories for families. Sports create those family memories that nothing else does. If you can make it commercially successful, then those teams stay in town and create more memories for the family.

You’ve been able to open up the At Home stores. I’m sure you’re using great mitigation efforts to be cautious and abide by certain guidelines as to how we should respond to the pandemic. We haven’t been able to do that in the sports industry yet. For those who are reading who come from that industry, you would agree with me when I say that our communities need that. They need to have that release to get back into a sporting environment because of all the reasons you said. It’s not just for entertainment and relaxation, but it’s also because it’s a great way and place to do business. I’m sure at Dallas Stars games, you’ve done business. Hopefully, from your lips, we’ll be able to get back to sports soon. To set the record straight here, Lee, are you any relation to Larry Bird?

No, I’m not. After eighth grade, I went back to Boston. I’m a Boston Celtics fan. I’m a fan of him, but no relation or whatsoever. If you saw me play basketball, that wouldn’t have been in question.

The jersey doesn’t say, “My little bro, Larry.”

No, I had to buy it on my own.

Lee, this has been an enlightening conversation. Thanks for letting us come into your store and giving us a tour of what is making At Home successful. We wish you, your company, and your associates continued success. I would encourage all of our readers to get into your store, get online, and see the quality products that you have and the value that you provide. For those who are interested, where would we find you? What’s your ticker on the Stock Exchange?

HOME.

How appropriate. Thanks for letting us join you in your home, Lee, in At Home. Have a great rest of 2020 and a terrific 2021.

Thanks, Rob. Thanks for this opportunity. Take care.

Thanks for being a part of this episode of Game Face Execs. If you found any of it useful or helpful, please rate or like and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I always appreciate you referring this to others as well. I’ll see you next episode. Until then, persuade, influence, inspire.

Important Links:

 

Being the senior vice president of fan services and entertainment at the renowned Boston Red Sox has its perks. But the owner of that title, Sarah McKenna, explains how none of it matters if you lose sight of what your role means. Fan Services: everything is for the fans who are here to be served. Entertainment: fans have to be pleased night after night, good team or bad, rain or shine, happy times (player retirements and military family reunions) or bad times (the 2013 Boston bombings or national unrest). Meet Sarah McKenna – the game face exec who loves her fans as much as they love her team – as she graces the show with Rob Cornilles.

Watch the episode here:

Sarah McKenna | Red Sox Romantic

If you’ve ever been to Boston’s Fenway Park, you’ve seen baseball players swinging for the fences. What you also probably experience but didn’t realize was the Red Sox’s Sarah McKenna, Senior Vice President of Fan Services Entertainment swinging for the senses. Read on my conversation with Sarah about how she’s built the reputation using sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste to influence the second sale.

I’m here with Sarah McKenna, the Senior Vice President of the Boston Red Sox. I hate to use this term, but an old friend in the sports business. First of all, Sarah, you are from Springfield, Mass originally, correct?

Yes, I am from Springfield, Massachusetts. Out here, we call it the 413. That’s our area code.

You end up for almost twenty years working the Boston Red Sox. Being a Massachusetts girl, you have got to have the dream job to be able to work in your hometown for your beloved team. Few people in sports ever get that. Do you have the perfect world now?

Yes, except we’re doing this via Zoom. It would be good to be at work and be with my teammates and seeing large crowds, hearing people and smelling Fenway franks and doing all that stuff. I don’t even think I’d mind now if someone spilled a beer on me.

All your friends from back growing up days, your family, they look at you and go, “Did you luck out or what?” It wasn’t luck. We’ll talk about what got you there, but I hope you’re pinching yourself a lot.

I’m thankful and the team is fantastic. Our ownership is fantastic, but to go to work at that ballpark every day, it’s just gorgeous and perfect. It is imperfectly perfect. It’s once in a lifetime.

I’ve been very blessed in my career to be able to visit a lot of stadiums and arenas around the world. One of the cool experiences that most fans never get to have is walking into an empty stadium or arena. It could be early in the morning, the morning after a big game or the date of a big game. You get to do that every day at Fenway Park and you get to see the Green Monster. Does that still give you a rush?

I prefer it when it’s empty. I love it when it’s full, but there is something uniquely special about it. It’s unique to baseball too. You use the word stadium and arena when you’re thinking about all the different ballparks. I have many ballparks that I love. You love Petco Park, Seattle ballpark, Camden Yards and I’ve been there is a lot of ballparks when it’s empty for batting practice before the gates open or when you get there earlier before someone else. I have been at Fenway Park also when you’re completely alone, light towers off and we have what we refer to as the sweeper lights. They’re the stadium lights at the back of the grandstands, but they’re far back because their overhang is not big and we have those field box seats. The way those lights illuminate into the grandstands and are pushed down onto the field and you see whether it’s a sickle sign or the Prudential Center or the Hancock building. You can see that skyline, it’s cool. Whether it’s at 5:00 in the morning because you’re getting ready for opening day or it’s at 1:00 in the morning because you stayed late and you have to get work done after everybody left.

It’s romantic, isn’t it? 

Yes. Incredibly. It’s special.

Sports has an obligation now to be a healing agent. It is a unique responsibility and opportunity. Click To Tweet

It’s the field of dreams every day, go to work like that. That’s a perk of working in sports and any entertainment business, whether it’s a stage, a theater, or a concert hall, to be able to walk in there when no one else is there is a unique experience. It’s like a temple for sports. What’s also cool about your job and we’ll talk about your job. You get to provide unique experiences to people that they have probably looked forward to all their lives or they get to give that experience to their kids or their grandkids. You’re the catalyst. You’re the provider of that experience.

I am in on the secret before the secret is unveiled, shall we say.

Does that ever get old? 

No, but do at times miss the element of surprise. I remember one time it was the 4th of July and we were doing something and one of my friends which happened to be in particularly close seats on the third-base side. I was walking in from the left-field after there was a great flyover after the anthem, but we were doing a military reunion before they were a big deal. It was the early 2000s. For some reason, I was able to get a woman from South Boston from the Navy off her carrier, things that I shouldn’t have had the right to do. From the Persian Gulf and then via Bahrain to come to a surprise for her family. She got in late at night, her family thought that they were doing an early version of a FaceTime, what we’re doing now. The guy says to me and it was in his total Boston accent and he’s like, “That was sick.” I’m like, “Wait for it.” He’s like, “What? No, that was it.” I was like, “No, it’s not it.” He shoots me a text message later and he’s like, “That was awesome.” I love being able to do that, but I also love seeing how other people do it when I look at my peers in other sports and other teams. It’s cool to see what they do.

You can’t put a price on being able to bring people those experiences and memories. It’s better sometimes than a paycheck. I know that sounds idealistic, but it is because those memories will go on forever and you’re the person that produced that memory for them or you provided it. That’s one of the great perks of working in sports. You do it well. You do it for a story to the franchise at a ballpark that is you could argue it’s the mecca of baseball. 

It’s a real place within the city too. We’ve been here in this region it’s a unique period of time because when you think about Boston, it’s hard not to think about its particular place in history. You think about things like the revolution or whatever, but people aren’t going anymore to certain places and gathering as a group. For a lot of years, it was ballparks, stadiums, and arenas. When we think back to the bombings in 2013 and other times in history, we have been a place where people can come together and whether it’s heal, cheer, express joy, whatever it is, it’s been cool to be part of that.

You’re going to be a part of that. I’ve shared with my clients something they already know, but I like to remind them as an outsider to their organization that they are about to be a part of the healing of a community. It’s almost like a cathartic experience when after the pent up energy of COVID-19 and the fact that we were staying in our homes, with some unrest going on in our country, cities being used for demonstrations, protests, and sometimes worse than that. Sports has such an obligation and a responsibility now to be a healing agent. How you do that?

I view it as a unique responsibility and opportunity. I had one viewpoint of this saying, “When baseball comes back, what are we going to do?” We’re going to have to acknowledge the lives lost. We’ve learned a lot about this and the types of impacts that it’s had on different communities versus other communities. We’ve learned about how it has impacted certain age groups rather than other age groups. There are all these things that you learn from what you’re seeing in the news, what you’re reading, and what you’re hearing from your friends and your family.

In addition to that, there’s this other layer of social justice, equality, inclusion, and all things that, in some ways, connect closely to what we were learning from the pandemic. The way certain communities have been impacted and the way that individuals have access to healthcare or rights, whatever it is, there are these unique synergies. I hate to use the word synergies because it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel almost human. It feels like a business-speak and this is a human thing. When I approach these things, I never approach them from the who, what, when, where, how.

I approach it from the five senses. What did you hear? What did you see? It’s going to be hard to give our fans what did you smell and did you get to touch anything? I have a lot of great coworkers that I’ve worked with for a long time. We use the phrase sometimes, and I have one guy that I work with, and he’ll always say to me, “Sarah, I haven’t cried yet.” That’s an important thing that when you bring to whatever it is you’re doing, it’s that in order to get through it, you have to feel all the emotions before you can begin. When I think about what we did after the bombings and how we approached that particular day on our return to baseball because it wouldn’t be right to return to baseball and have this joyous thing without recognizing what has happened.

It would be deaf, wrong, all the words that make you seem ignorant. Baseball is uniquely positioned for these things. It’s also a real challenge because football plays once a week, baseball plays a couple of times a month at home, hockey will play a couple of times a month. Baseball, you can be in the middle of a ten-game homestand, and you can go through, think about what our last ten days have been like. What the ten days before that were like? Imagine if we were having baseball games and all the things that we would have had to do as far as recognition, awareness, healing, and providing all of those resources before you even get to the baseball game. It’s the daily element of it that uniquely positions us to be connected to society in a different way if you choose to go at it proactively. It also is a large responsibility and it requires you to be incredibly nimble, in my opinion.

GFEP 8 | Red Sox Romantic

Red Sox Romantic: Ballpark to ballpark, the team has a lot of freedoms to define its brand and say who they are, so long as that fits within the expectations of the league.

 

May I use the word stewardship too? 

Yes.

You have a stewardship to a brand, to a community, to a fan that pays good money to come into your games, to those that you work with, the players, your coworkers, etc. I’m thinking about other industries, businesses that don’t have to have all of these considerations that you outlined. They can come to work. For the most part, the outside world doesn’t see how they need to deal with the changing conditions. They need to be nimble for their business, but it’s not out there for the public to see. Everything you do is magnified. When I come to Fenway Park for my first game, amidst all of this stuff, I expect you guys to put on a perfect show for me. I expect to entertain me to heal me, to make me laugh and cry. I expect to be well-fed. I don’t want any problems as far as customer service. I want to get the parking that I want. I want transportation in and out. What an obligation you have.

On top of that, you’re a big baseball fan because you’re a Red Sox fan and you know your baseball and you’re super smart about it. There better not be one digit wrong in your stats either. There are all the things, but that’s cool. It’s good to wake up every day and have someone hold you accountable. It’s incredibly motivating. The stewardship, it’s interesting because there are many places that have the burden of trying out a lot of new tricks, and lots of times I find myself saying, “That’s not what Fenway is.” That works fantastic in Tampa and Kansas City. That works well in Las Vegas.

I agree with you. It’s 100% cool and it’s awesome. We are Fenway and it’s a little like preserving a national park. When you go to Yosemite Valley, you want your children to see what you saw in Yosemite Valley. When you take them to the geysers in Prismatic Spring, and Yellowstone, you don’t want that ruined. You want that to be exactly as it was, that connection and that thread of the generations. That’s what Fenway is. That’s what people expect and want. That doesn’t mean that we can’t change for the better in a lot of ways and we always will strive towards that. The phrase, “The ballpark is the star” when they’re referring to Fenway. There’s that phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s the baseball, stupid. Don’t mess with that. No one came to see me or hear from me. They came to gather as a group collectively in a unified way, enjoy this open space, the fresh air, all under the city lights while cheering for the same team.

You’re bringing up such an interesting point that I have been thinking about it, scratching my head over and you’re putting your finger on it. Let’s talk about Major League Baseball. I’ve been wondering a lot about the edicts that come from a league office and I’m not here to bash on league offices. Whether it’s responding to a pandemic or social injustices, when the league office says, “This is the way we’re going to do it. Every one of our franchises needs to do it that same way.” I understand that if that’s McDonald’s saying that this is the way you’re going to make hamburgers.

You talked about the personality of your community and the historic nature of your ballpark, which is different than the personality in Tampa. It’s different than the personality in San Diego or in Kansas City. How do you reconcile that? You’re a good citizen of Major League Baseball. You’re a leader in the business of Major League Baseball, but you also have to be respectful and mindful of your own local community and pulse. How do you play good citizen at a league level, but also be responsive and responsible to your local fan-base?

The league allows a lot of freedom in that way. The reason I say that is because when we think of guidelines, I often think of it in terms of access as part of an agreement or a security regulation or something like that. Ballpark to ballpark, we have a lot of freedoms to define our brand and say who we are, so long as that fits within the expectations, I would say of baseball amongst all the owners and the commissioner. We have the ability to have our own identity. They’re not saying you have to do this, or you have to do that, but they make suggestions a lot of times to all of us. We’re like, “That probably wouldn’t play here.” There’s not this huge animosity. It’s, “You’re different.”

When you take that into a million different avenues when you think about what we’re going through now, should we be fortunate to play? We’re going to get guidelines. The guidelines that work when you’re in a ballpark that’s four times the size of ours and has actual real service elevators. Fenway doesn’t have service elevators. It’s something as simple as that, people are like, “That’s in the lower concourse,” and we’re like, “We only have one concourse.” We don’t have that separate one where you can do the things you need to do. There’s going to have to be, and there will be, a lot of not freedom, but the ability to tailor things to how it works within your own ballpark.

A lot of places are blessed with space, even the new Yankee Stadium. Their visitor’s clubhouses, it has to be four times the size of our ballpark. There’s space and it’s not something that we have in our area. When we look at what we’re about to tackle here and you think about it from a distance, can it be done? Absolutely. It can be done. Does it take a lot of creativity? Yes, it takes a lot of creativity.

Speaking of the clubhouse. I have been inside the Red Sox clubhouse there at Fenway and it would surprise a lot of people. Maybe since I was last there, some improvements have been made. I’m sure that’s the case, but the last time I was there, it was shocking. You would think that the Boston Red Sox players would get the best. I guess they understand that when you come to play at Fenway Park, there are some trade-offs. 

We are all in the business of sales. Click To Tweet

If you’re coming to play at Fenway Park, you’re not coming for the clubhouse. It’s for the locker setup. It has gotten a lot better and it doubled in size but not what you would define as the clubhouse, which is the room where all their lockers are. That is still roughly the same size. Some things have been moved around a little bit to free up some space and additional coaches’ offices to alleviate coaches being in there. We are bringing in twenty temporary lockers during September call ups or whatever the number is. Keep in mind that’s there, you’re walking down to go to the dugout is the same stair that was walked down in the ’30s.

There used to be one tunnel when the clubhouses were a little bit closer and I believe the story is there was a fight between the two teams in the tunnel. That’s when they separated tunnels for all of baseball. I can’t say it was the same one as it was in 1912, but I don’t think it was that far off. It’s interesting, but if you’re coming to play for us, of course, do you want to make sure it’s comfortable and all those things? I don’t think it’s your number one priority. You prefer that you’re most likely to play to a sell-out crowd. Keep in mind, David Ortiz at every single game he ever played in front of Fenway Park was a sell-out or almost every game.

Let’s talk about those sellouts. There’s a reputation that Northeast area teams have for having some of the hardest to please fans, whether you mentioned the Yankees, maybe the Red Sox. I would say the fans in Philadelphia can be hard at times. How is that impacting the daily decisions and choices you’re making? Certainly, there’s a love affair between the fan-base and the brand, but there are also such high expectations between that fan-base and the brand. You’re the one granted they want to see winning teams on the field, but when the team is not winning, we’re not winning to their satisfaction. You’re the backstop. You’re providing that overall experience at the ballpark. How does that play into your thinking and was it working in a market like that?

I’m super lucky because we’ve won four World Series since I’ve gotten here. Fortunately, I haven’t had to think about that for too many years, but you do have that year where you look at it, it’s September and you’re like, “It’s not happening,” or even earlier sometimes. That’s when you start going back to, for lack of a better phrase, your bag of tricks. The experiences of whether or not it’s the on-field photo days and the kids run the bases and those things that are tried and true things that you come back to when you think about it. I think you are the first person that opened my eyes to these things when I took a course with you back in Portland. Thinking about what is that added value that you can provide and trying to do those things. What I’ve learned through the years is that it’s harder to do those things. It’s easier to do them at the start of the season, but it’s not a good vibe when a team is out of it in the clubhouse. Guys are great and they’re willing to do things or whatever, but you feel worse asking like, “You’re not winning. I don’t want to ask you to do something.” That’s where that one comes.

Children learn about mom and dad.

This is not the moment that we should be asking this, but I got to do it, anyway. I’ve told someone I’m like, “I’m sure the worst thing in the world is asking you to do this during this time.”

You have to use some of your sales skills, Sarah.

I sell it constantly. Here’s the thing, Rob. I sell nothing. We had an interesting conversation once I remember being in a senior staff meeting and everybody had to go around and talk about their sales goals and their recent sales, something to that theme or whatever. I was like, “I only spend money. I don’t sell anything,” but I do. I acknowledge, I do. We use the phrase, we used it when we were with the Padres, we’re all salespeople. When you think about marketing, I always feel when young people say like, “I want to be in marketing.” I’m like, “No, you don’t want to be in advertising.” If you understand what marketing is, that’s like an exhausting look at numbers, dialing into zip codes, and the tendencies of buyers. What you’re thinking of in the romantic phrase of marketing is you’re thinking of more experiential and creativity. There are few people that say, “I want to figure out when moms are buying whether it’s Tuesdays or Wednesdays so that I can send them that targeted message.”

I have a son who you know, Sarah. My oldest son works for Facebook. He works in the ads department of Facebook. He’s not interested in trends. He’s interested in behaviors. That’s what he studies and that’s what he tries to predict. In the analytics that you referenced, he tries to predict behaviors. Why would someone want to buy through this Facebook Ad? How can we approve it so that we are capitalizing on the anticipated behaviors of people? You have to admit you are a salesperson.

I should have followed it up with what I learned early that was not the type of sales I wanted to do. Shortly after I left Portland, I briefly worked for American golf in San Diego. I was selling tournaments before I worked for the Padres. It was a couple of months and I was like, “I don’t want to sell anything like this ever again,” but I will say, I love the opportunity to sell you an emotion. I love the opportunity to sell you a feeling and sell is not the right word, but it’s to give it and to give it to you once so that you understand that if you come back here, you might be likely to get it again.

GFEP 8 | Red Sox Romantic

Red Sox Romantic: If you’re coming to play at Fenway Park, you’re not coming for the clubhouse. It’s for the locker setup.

 

I’m not in the business of the initial sale, but I am in the business of the repeat customer, which is just as important as a sale. The 2nd, 3rd sale, the, “I want to upgrade. I had such a good time, I want to make it a ten-game package now,” that is my job. The people in the men and women that work in all a ton of different ways that I’ve worked with over the years that are picking up that phone and making that first call of getting someone to the ballpark, whether it’s been in Portland or San Diego, or even in Boston. We do make calls. Contrary to popular opinion, the phone is not constantly ringing off the hook, but we do our outbound sales and I respect that because that’s a hard job to make that first impression in that manner.

I am able to do it with a myriad of senses. I can show you something on the video board. I can make sure that hot dog is delivered nice and toasty, warm, or make sure that all season long as you’re coming in the gate, maybe that sausage vendor is right there and you’re smelling those things. The sound was good. You may have heard your favorite song in a timely way. That opportunity to sell that repeat customer, it’s all part of it. I’m not in the business and I’m classified under the operation side, but as a whole, from our chief operating officer, it is a clear mandate. We are in repeat customer business. That is what we are in. It’s safety, security, repeat customers.

You’re in the renewal business. As you well-articulated, customer service is a sales function. It’s on the back end. Taking the baton from the front end salesperson and saying, “I’ll take it from here. I will ensure the repeat business.” The sales staffs work, they integrate with well service staff, or sometimes we call them client success teams. The fact that they’re working together in concert to produce the original sale and then to ensure the repeat sale, it’s integrated, those two functions.

I love it when say the group salesperson. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people over the years. When you think about it and they’re saying like, “I’ve got this group coming in.” In 2019 they bought 1,000 tickets, but this year they bought 3,000 and I want to do a little something more for them. What can we do? Let’s step it up a notch. This is my idea. This is their expectation. If you tell me that in advance like, “I’m in,” and I have staff that’s all in. “Let’s do this.” You want to have a much more orchestrated conversation about making sure this happens and that happens. That’s awesome and we’re still doing that.

We mowed a pattern into our field for recognizing nurses. Nurses are one of our biggest group sales. As our group salespeople reaching out to us saying like, “We’re coming up on a month of a whole bunch of appreciations, EMS workers, nurse’s workers.” There are one of our best groups. All our groups are great, but specific they’re like, “They’re going through so much that there’s this there’s that, what can we do for them?” Our groundskeeper says, “What about a pattern? Fly the drone, the news copters will pick it up and tip them off.” That is a clear collaboration during a pandemic from a group sales leader to a groundskeeper. It was fantastic.

It’s a great illustration of how a team works together to get the sale and get the repeat sale.

The nurses feel loved. There’s no loss there.

There’s also baseball. You mentioned Portland and I wanted to bring that up because for the audience, that’s where new and I first met. You graduated from Providence College with a Healthcare degree, correct? 

Yes. Healthcare Policy and Management. It’s helping me now, for the record, having taken a few epidemiology classes, essentially.

I’m a West Coast guy originally. You’re an East Coast girl. I got to ask you, how did you get from Providence to the Portland Rocky Single-A short-season baseball team and affiliate of the Colorado Rockies? If I’m not mistaken, you were an intern there, weren’t you Sarah, at first?

The repeat customer business is the business of selling emotions. It is as important as making the initial sale itself. Click To Tweet

Yes. After college, it’s the thing back here, you go to New York, you go to Boston, that’s what you do and I wasn’t feeling it. I had a couple of friends and we weren’t feeling it. We said, “Why don’t we hop in a car and go West?” My dad had told me, “I will give you enough money to get there and I’ll give you enough money to get back, but however long you stay, best of luck.” I had a few odd jobs over the years and I ended up calling Jack Cain and asking him for an interview. He’s like, “Yes, come on in.” Jack is a great guy.

He was the owner of the Portland Rockies.

I came in, I met with him and he said, “It’s middle of the season.” It was. I graduated. We all know how long, short-season Single-A baseball is. It’s not very long. For me, we did in the middle, I’m pretty late to the party. He said, “My jobs are all filled now.” They were, in his defense. He’s like, “You seem like a nice kid. I’ll give you a job selling programs.” I said, “I don’t think programs are going to pay my rent now. I’m going to have to pass, but thank you.” I wrote him a thank you note and kept in touch a little bit, but it was the course of 2 to 3 weeks. A couple of days before, I had ridden out there in one of my friend’s car, so I didn’t have a car.

We were living in Lake Oswego at a friend’s house, which is not that close to Portland if you don’t have a car. Some guy that had a shop in the town of Lake Oswego saw me at a grocery store trying to strap groceries to my bike at one point. He’s like, “What are you doing? Do you want to come? I need some help in my warehouse. I’ll give you a job and if you get a new job, you just have to finish out the rest of the week. If you need to go on interviews, you can have half a day off to go on interviews but it looks like you need a few bucks and you might need some help.”

This stranger out of the kindness of his heart. I rode my bike over and every day I worked in his warehouse, making sure the shelves were stocked for his construction company. I ended up being there for a couple of weeks. One day, I get a call. It was Katie Reader if you remember and she told me that Jack wanted me to come to a game. He asked me to come to a game and I sat with him. We know Jack, he’s a huge personality. He was like, “Are you digging ditches and working in a warehouse?” I said, “Yes.” He’s like, “I can’t stop thinking if you’ll do that for that person. What will you do here?”

I was like, “I don’t know, do you want to figure it out?” He was like, “Yes.” He gave me a job. He made a job for me. I’m eternally grateful to him for that. You did a little bit of everything. You pulled the tarp because it was Portland. I did the slingshot, played the music sometimes, I sold billboards, sold groups, answered the phone and it was great. I learned a ton. Everybody should spend at some point in their life and if they are in sports, have the opportunity to spend it working in my own baseball. When I’m done working in baseball, I would like my final years to be in my early baseball because it’s a lot of fun. It’s great you get to do everything.

I got a couple of things I want to say. First of all, when you worked for the Rockies, I was consulting with Jack and his wife, Mary, when they first moved to the franchise from Bend, Oregon, and Central, Oregon to Portland. I would come in regularly because GameFace was a new company. We were trying to get up on our feet as well and we needed a good client or two, a bunch of success stories. The Rockies became that. I always have in my mind, this vision of you when I’d walk into their office, which was in the bowels of the stadium and you’d be the first person I would see.

You would be sitting there at that first desk and to everyone reading this, I got to say, Sarah, no matter what she was asked to do, did it with a smile. I’ll always remember that, Sarah. You always had that great attitude. As I see all those people that went through the Rockies organization at which later became a triple-A franchise, renamed. There’s quite a legacy that Jack started. I don’t think anyone could argue that you have gone the farthest in your sports career.

There have been some people.

I can’t think of them. You deserve a tremendous amount of respect and accolades for how you took that minuscule opportunity. You worked hard, you had a great attitude. You were a team player and look where you are now, working for one of the most storied brands in all those sports and in a senior position. It’s wonderful. I’m proud of you.

GFEP 8 | Red Sox Romantic

Red Sox Romantic: If there’s a real problem, you call the other team because we’re interconnected in many different ways.

 

Thank you. It’s interesting because you never know what it’s going to be because my whole connection to San Diego when I ended up working for the Padres is because I was answering the phones. It was my job to answer the phones in Portland. It was a connection made through because I helped someone. That was it. A gentleman from the commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball, his daughter had gone to live in Portland. He’s calling from New York and there was some issue. I think she needed a doctor of some sort. He said, “Who is your team doctor?”

He wanted to know because that’s what you do in baseball. My daughter’s off to college in California and she’s doing sports and they’re like, “She’ll need a doctor.” I’m like, “No. This team will take care of her.” I’m going to call that team. I’m not going to lie. If there’s a real problem, you call the other team because we’re interconnected in many different ways. It’s the greatest part about working in sports is access to things like that. He asked me to tell him something. I figured it out for his daughter and then he called up again maybe a month later.

He said, “We’re coming to Portland because we’re going to visit our daughter. What is your team hotel?” He’s like, “Something happened and we needed to get there quicker.” His assistant had gone on vacation. He’s like, “Can you help me book my flight?” I was like, “Yes, of course. I don’t even know you, but I’ll help you book a flight.” We did this and whatever. I remember calling him up because I couldn’t get him on the phone. In those days, it was a little harder with the credit card payments and everything.

I had put his flights on my credit card. I called him up and I said, “It’s great that you’re coming to visit but when you come here, can you drop off a check? I put all your flights on my card.” He’s like, “I can’t believe that. I’m embarrassed. I didn’t think about that.” I was like, “No, it’s fine.” When I left Portland because whenever this gentleman needed something, he would call and he would ask me. It turns out he was high up at the commissioner’s office. I learned that over the years and I said, “I’ve met someone and he’s taking a job in San Diego and I’m going to go with him. We’re engaged and this is what’s going to happen.”

He said, “I have then to call the San Diego Padres for you.” He called the San Diego Padres. I get a phone call and I’m supposed to call this person once I finally arrive in San Diego. I call this gentleman. He sets a meeting up with me for Larry Lucchino because of this person that set up this interview. Larry Lucchino says, “I don’t have anything now, but you can have an internship.” I said, “Thank you but my internship days are over.” What I meant was I don’t think I want to work in baseball anymore.

All I do is dress up as a mascot, pull the tarp, and answer phones. I don’t want to pull the tarp anymore. Not realizing that in Major League Baseball, you don’t pull the tarp. Sure enough, I send a thank you note. I go out of my own and I go to work for a golf company. I’m not loving it. I get a call from the same guy that set up the meeting before with Larry. He says, “Larry would like you to come in for another meeting.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “I noticed you had worked on Capitol Hill as one of your internships. I liked that you turned me down. We have a three-month job working on the campaign to build the ballpark in San Diego and in doing our stuff here at the ballpark at Qualcomm and integrating the politics with the baseball, do you think you can do that?” I said, “Yes, I can do that.” I’ve never applied for another job since because of that and a lot of thank you notes too.

The little things that you’re talking about, quite frankly, I’ve seen a lot of people who aspire to work in sports who refuse to do those little things because they’re too busy or because they think that’s old school like, “I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to write personal notes anymore. I’ll send them an email maybe or I’ll send them a LinkedIn message,” and that’s good enough. Those little touches, they stand out in this world. You stood out and you continue to stand out. I got to also point out when Larry Lucchino, who is the President of the San Diego Padres, the CEO, when he hired you, you were a manager of a government relations job if I’m not mistaken.

We have a campaign. I was a campaign worker to start. At the end of the campaign and there were twenty people. They kept two of us from the campaign and I was one of them.

When he was eventually hired by the Red Sox to take the same position there, you followed right behind him, didn’t you?

Right behind him. Now, with a one-year-old in tow at that point and a husband. We got engaged in San Diego, but yes. We’re all back in Boston. My husband’s from Boston too, which is nice. I met him in a bar in Portland and he was wearing a Red Sox hat.

The other thing that’s interesting about this course that you were on, this journey that you’re on professionally is that one might think you got a degree in Healthcare Management. You went out to Portland. You didn’t know anybody in Portland, except the friends you went with. Everything seems disjointed. People may think, “Don’t I have to get a Sports Management degree or a Sports Administration degree? Don’t I have to follow that tried and true course to get a Sarah job someday?” You’re a living proof that more than the degree, what would you say it takes?

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It’s sports so you got to outwork your competition on some level. That’s what you do, you have to be flexible and you have to be open-minded. You got to take your lumps when you get them and you got to get back up. You can’t take things too personally. You have to know your course. In some of those things of what I did, I do think there are a lot of ways in which Jack and Larry are similar. I would say that they know their value well. One of the things is when I told both of them like, “That’s not going to work for me.” I turned both of them down to start, but they were both being kind.

Deep down, they’re kind people, but I do think there was part of them that appreciated, “She knows her worth but is not being obnoxious about it.” When I called her back and said, “This is what I need you to do.” Let’s curtail that to me so that I can make it work for me. You need me to do a job, I’m going to get my foot in that door. I’m going to take that job and then once I’ve earned your trust, respect, admiration, whatever the word is, then let’s define what it gets to be. That’s what I was able to do at both places.

When I left the Padres and then came to the Red Sox, everybody went to spring training. I myself and Janet Marie Smith, the architect, came to Boston and it was my job to get ready for opening day. She was doing all the infrastructure work for the ballpark and the construction. She has an amazing career and she’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday and should be in the Hall of Fame someday, such a smart person. I remember saying, there’s a sale, there’s this weird transition and someone was like, “What do we need? What’s your title?” I was like, “I don’t even know what my pay is going to be yet. I don’t even know if I’ve agreed to this, but I’m here because I’m part of the team because opening day is less than 30 days away now, and a lot has to get done. I need a laptop and a cell phone. By the way, could I have some healthcare? Can we get me on that quick?”

That’s where the healthcare major comes in. You figure it out. What my career has evolved to be rather than what I could have designed it to be is so much better. I would’ve pigeon-holed myself if I knew too much. I would have limited myself if I knew too much. I haven’t been afraid, for lack of a better phrase, to pick up the scraps and when I’m in a room and it’s like, “Who wants to take this on?” I’m always like, “I’ll do it.”

Sarah, in all of that, though, with all those successes, small or big successes, has there been a project, an assignment, or responsibility that between us scared the heck out of you like you’re wondering, “I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if this is going to blow up and I’m going to be the scapegoat or I’m going to look bad?” 

A lot of them and more so mostly at Fenway. It’s because as you get further along in your career, and you’ve earned that where people say, “We trust that you’ll handle this,” because there’s not a ton of oversight. I’m not living in a work environment where I’m running every single detail by someone, but yet you’re responsible for a public forward-facing position in being the look, feel of the ballpark. What’s happening at certain times? How will David Ortiz’s retirement be? What does Derek Jeter’s final game ever look like? I will never understand that for the record why the Yankees didn’t call us and ask us to flip flop a series.

That was 2014. I was like, “I went through the bombings and now I have to do Darren Jeter’s final game?” That’s a lot of responsibility, especially when you don’t even know Derek Jeter. Those are the things that get you. The question is, am I good enough? Am I right? Am I this? That’s where it becomes collaborative and you can bounce it off people. I go back to my professional friends and they say, “Sarah, I haven’t cried yet. That isn’t this and that is that.” This is why it’s not a chart and it’s not a path and leave yourself enough leeway so that if you have a great idea at the eleventh hour, you should still do that. You should work later at night. You should commit to staying later and doing that because then it makes it the best that it can be. Everybody says that was awesome. We don’t have to worry about you and we trust you to do these things. You then get more projects and then you get more worried about it. “I hope everybody likes this. I hope this doesn’t flop.”

The other thing that we talked about is that in the sports and entertainment world, you’re always on. The spotlight is always on your work. No offense to those who may work in other industries, but what they do in their cubicle or what they do in their conference room is maybe only known by a few select people, customers, workers. What you do, good, bad or ugly, it’s magnified. 

I don’t envy them. I have it easier because in a lot of ways, I don’t want to say that you have a knee jerk reaction or anything like that, but we are not given the gift of time to overthink a lot of things. We’re also not only given the gift of time to dwell on it long. There’s this ability to be like, “That happened. Moving on. Didn’t make that person happy.” At the same time, you know if you got it right. It was largely because you didn’t have time to run metrics on it or do this or do that. You had a conversation with a couple of people and you went with your gut and you’re guided by what is right and what is wrong. If you can live a life like that, that’s a gift. You don’t get caught up in the burdens of the gray areas. We don’t have time for that.

Can I ask you a question about women in sports? 

Sure. I am one.

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A senior vice president of a Major League team. There are certainly a lot of successful women in sports. You’ve mentioned that already. I have to ask you though in a historically male-dominated industry, have you found that to be a difficult obstacle, offense too high, or is it something that for you has not been an issue or an obstacle?

I don’t want to say it’s been an issue or an obstacle, but it can be part of my navigation. It’s a consideration, but I don’t think it’s necessarily been an obstacle. In one of my pregnancies, I had a hospitalized bedrest that started in September and ended in January. You miss a lot and people, they naturally so and rightfully so wonder, “Is she okay? What’s it going to be like?” Do things like that slow down your career path? If you were in the right place, no, and I don’t think it has for me, but I do think when you’re running neck and neck races with people, when you’re young, that can be a thing.

What I also say is that the people that you choose to be around in your life and the support system that you choose to have are going to be the ones that have the greatest impact. The moment that my daughter was born, I worked at a place where I was like, “I have been in a hospital for months. I need to get out of my house. I don’t want maternity leave, but I don’t want to leave her either.” They’re like, “Bring her.” For the first few months, I was going to work a couple of days a week and my daughter was sitting with me in my office. They all do is sleep at that age anyway. What’s the big deal?

On top of that, when you start saying to yourself like, “I’m working in this and we talk about the ten days straight and I’m going to be gone ten nights in a row in this.” The kids have to have bath time, be fed, making sure the homework’s done, and then good night stories. The partner you choose in your life plays an enormous role in that. I’m fortunate because my husband believes in me so much and encourages me. When we came back here, we came for my career and I’m sure if we had something great, he would say, “Let’s do that.” He has a successful company of his own, which I’m in full support of.

There are windows in your life where you do have to put some things on pause as a woman in a different way I think, than men. However, I would not be looking back. I would not change any bit of that because being a parent, being a part of a family is such a great thing. I also acknowledge that’s not for everybody. I had my daughter at 26, 27. When you’re that age, you’re thinking about the things you’re missing sometimes because you haven’t been around the block enough times to know that this isn’t the be-all-end-all of the world and you’re working in an industry that’s a lifestyle.

Those are the things that I would say. I don’t think I’ve been held back because I’m a woman, but I do think the road, because of those pauses, does naturally take a little bit longer. What I do feel though is an immense obligation to speak up for others. I can be a little outspoken and in my East Coast way be blunt. I will remind people when there aren’t enough women in the room or there isn’t enough diversity in the room, or there isn’t something else that we should be doing. What I feel like is I have a good bunch of counterparts.

There was a joke being made and someone was talking about someone being fragile or whatever, and it was in regards to a woman. It was during the pandemic and she has asthma. It’s like, “Are you going to be able to come back because you have asthma?” I worked with a male counterpart. That’s like, “You have to stop saying that she’s not fragile. She’s anything but fragile.” I was proud of that counterpart for speaking in that way, or when someone says, “That’s a great idea,” and the male counterpart says, “Don’t be shocked.” Stop acting like you’re shocked. It’s those little things that remind you that you’re in the right place and you’re part of a great team. Those are the things I look for in the environment. I don’t think I would be at a place that didn’t provide that environment.

We’re learning maybe anew in 2020 that words matter. A few comments that you referenced, the person who gave those comments may not have had an ill will?

None whatsoever.

Would you agree that all of us need to learn how to balance the intent of our words? On the receiving end, we need to learn how to balance that person may not have any ill will. The person who talked about someone’s fragility, they’re trying to be sensitive to a colleague. To think can also be misinterpreted as maybe putting down a colleague like that colleague’s not tough enough.

Work in a place with enough conversation or be the type of person that is willing to engage in enough conversation, because you’re smart enough to know that not every single thing you say ever in your life is going to come out 100% as you intended. Imagine if we had a pitcher that’s through every single pitch exactly where he intended to go. That may be only Pedro Martinez and it’s hard.

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In the world of what they do, and yet they still throw balls. 

That’s what it is. Everyone wants to throw strikes and hit the home run or whatever it is, but you don’t make contact 100% of the time. Knowing that and knowing you’re going to mess up, whether as a human or as a company, but as you said, the intent, relationship, and conversation are there. That’s the meat of it of what gets you through the times and makes you believable for me.

Sarah, I appreciate your insights on that. As we begin to close, I want to ask you hypothetically. Let’s imagine that you’re teaching a course on how to break into sports. You’re writing the syllabus now. What are the three must-have lectures that you’re going to put into that syllabus? Three topics, three things you say, “I’ve got to convey to these students before they can pass this course.” If you can’t think of three, one’s great.

It would be the senses. There would be a weird conversation and syllabus about the senses and diving a little bit into energy and what you feel when you’re in a space and when you’re in a building or things like that. It goes to those basic human elements. On top of that, there’s a lot about it. There’s a lot of what we do that is building excitement, building tension, or recognizing tension. It goes into everything. It’s a combination, I would say, of the senses and energy and talking about that.

I would also have there be a requirement on listening and diving into what it means to truly listen. Whether that’s to listen to the individual, group, and community. Ramped in listening, I would bring in awareness and pop culture. What is happening in the times and getting out of your bubble? I always tell during the offseason, you can have that slow time where your team is not all that motivated, but they’re still coming into work. I’m like, “Guys, this is the time for the internet. If you want to screw around on the internet, this is the time.”

The internet is awesome and you can stumble onto things and you can find many things. When you’re wasting time, don’t waste that time. Sometimes getting out of your own, having that space to breathe, and doing that is listening. Reading is listening. It’s not always what am I hearing someone say. My third one would be the thought of a thing of kindness. What does that mean? What does that look like in a lot of different ways? How does that together go with bravery and other things and boldness? That’s what I would do.

You got to teach that course, Sarah. Those are a lot of soft skills. I’m going to let the readers settle on what you said because there is so much there that we typically don’t think about and don’t consider. A lot of that is wrapped up in sports, but there’s a lot of wisdom in what you said. I want to thank you for that. Here’s my last question. You have a couple of kids, your daughter’s in college now. Sarah, someday you may be a grandmother.

I might be. It’s not a race. That’s what I also tell the young people, Rob. In the Northeast, we’re blessed with this wealth of college students, whether they’re part-time employees, interns, or getting into the game in there. I hear these people and they’re like, “I want to finish college in three years, so I can do this and I want to do that.” I’m like, “It’s not a race.” You don’t get to heaven and someone’s like, “You won. You did it better than everybody else.” That’s not my version of how it works. Why would you speed up the most fun ever years of your life? It’s not a race. No one wins.

In that same vein, I like to encourage people to exercise professional patience. You don’t have to be the SVP of the Red Sox by the time you’re 30. There were a few Epsteins.

I also didn’t exercise a ton of professional patients. At some point, I moved beyond that.

A lot of it was people recognized that you were focused on the task at hand and then they accelerated you.

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There’s nothing better than a to-do list. The greatest feeling in the world, checking things off the to-do list.

I’ll come back to you someday of being a grandma. If your granddaughter or your grandson asks you, and perhaps now you’re retired, “What was the greatest thing about working for the Red Sox,” whether it was a memory, an outcome, or a feeling? You’re taking them to a game and they’re asking you, as they’re sitting there with you eating that hot dog, what would you tell them from your perspective now so far?

There’s the internal and the external. I think more of what it’s given to me. I have felt unbelievably supported where I work when times have been bad, which is such a phenomenal thing, I think, to say about where you work. Back when you have a health scare or something with a kid and when you feel support during those times, you don’t forget that. When I went on bed rest in San Diego from September to January, I was working for Larry at that time and it was like nothing ever happened.

It was like, “You need to do what you need to do and you need to come back healthy.” When it was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to pay you. I don’t know what your job is going to be, but I need you to in Boston.” It was like, “How fast do I get there because you need me and when I needed you, you were there.” I would say that, and then one would be the opportunity to play a role whether it’s joy or experience for someone else. That’s incredibly cool.

I have been so fortunate and I don’t take this for granted to be at the Red Sox in a unique time. The last time the Red Sox had it this good, it was like 1908 but on top of that, there’s been so much else that goes on. To figure out a way to live your life and impact society through the prism of baseball and sports is such a unique opportunity. What’s been great and what I truly appreciate is more of what it’s given me and that goes forward. I have gotten to do cool things for fans, good things for family and friends. It’s all good and it’s all been through the principle of baseball.

I said it once and I’ll say it again, Sarah. I’m proud of you. You’ve done a tremendous thing in your career and what’s cool is you’re still young enough to do a lot more. Thank you for joining us on the show. 

Thank you for having me.

We’re going to watch you continue to be successful and enjoy things at Fenway. Hopefully, it goes back to the ballpark soon.

I hope so.

Thanks, Sarah. 

Thanks. Bye.

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