Joe Marr column: Interview with Michigan athletic director David Brandon: 'I don't think a lot about obstacles; I think a lot about opportunities'
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
In business or life, one can have an outlook of possibility or an outlook of limitation. We all carry attitudes about the world around us, our marketplace, our customers, and of course, ourselves.
If you jump out of bed every day, dive into your work, and can’t get excited about anything but reviewing your financial statement and sales projections, skip to the next article. You don’t need to read this.
If, on the other hand, you occasionally start your day with some doubt about your business, some dread over having to do a business development activity, or go into a dark mood when things don’t go just right in your business, this interview with David Brandon, the University of Michigan athletic director veteran of one year, may inspire you to look at your business differently.
Brandon is a man with an outlook of possibility that has served him well. As a CEO of Valassis and then Domino’s Pizza, it’s clear he has succeeded by looking past obstacles and seeking and conquering opportunities.
No one could argue that he was dealt a challenging hand when he accepted the call to be the new AD succeeding Bill Martin last year. AnnArbor.com's sports reporters and others have thoroughly chronicled the challenges he faced after inheriting two disappointing seasons with the flagship football program and the controversy swirling around the question of NCAA violations.
He also was tasked with bringing on line and optimizing the new stadium upgrades, including selling out the new suites and club seats, despite the fact that the team’s performance was working against the program’s marketability.
But even with the damage control he had to do, he found the time to work on a lot of upside projects. Brandon quickly became involved in working out the new Big Ten format, with the football conference bringing on Nebraska and breaking into two 6-team divisions (later named “Leaders” and “Legends” by conference officials).
And many of the rest of the programs under his watch are healthy, with hockey, gymnastics, softball among others continuing to excel, and the basketball programs beginning to blossom.
The context of this interview was that the Michigan men’s basketball team had just lost to Wisconsin at home on a heartbreaker buzzer-beater, putting its NCAA berth in jeopardy; Brady Hoke was putting the finishing touches on his staff, including signing defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from the Baltimore Ravens; and Brandon was deeply involved in meeting with prospects in the 2011 football recruiting class.
I met Brandon in his office in Ann Arbor, which is located next to the ticket office on the corner of Hoover Street, looking north down State Street, and the interview proceeded as follows:
Joe Marr: I’d like to ask you off the top, what’s the most challenging thing about driving revenue for the program in this economy?
David Brandon: We’ve had good revenue growth. Our year-over-year comparison, our FY 2010 versus FY 2009, was an 11 percent increase. We were greatly aided by the on-streaming of our suites and club seat areas in the football stadium, and that added to our revenue ...
A new revenue stream right?
D. Brandon: A new revenue stream. And that’s probably the best answer to your question. You cannot rely on just organic growth as a way to grow athletic departments today because corporate sponsorships are going to be tougher because of the economy.
Discretionary dollars, and just spending generally, whether it’s on licensed products; or the food service at the games; or whether it’s the number of tickets you buy; those discretionary dollars are going to be under more pressure during times like this.
Sales of merchandise, which is another important revenue stream, all of those are going to be somewhat negatively affected in terms of growth by an economic environment that's less than stellar. So, if you can come up with ways to create new incremental growth in your existing revenue streams, or create a new revenue streams, that’s how you’re going to grow in this environment.
And is that a challenge?
D. Brandon: It's a challenge for any organization. You could be a for-profit organization, you could be any company in America, you could be any university, or any athletic department.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com file
Could be an entrepreneur?
D. Brandon: Yes, you know coming up with new ways to generate revenues is always a challenge but it’s one of the fun things you do as a leader because when you do your homework, and you come up with a concept, and you implement it and execute it and create the benefit, that’s as good as it gets, and that’s why you do what you do.
Now, is that the main role of Hunter Lochmann or one of the main roles or your new CMO, or is he mostly focused on leveraging and building the brand.
D. Brandon: All of the above! Chief marketing officers and Hunter’s job description would include building the brand, which is very much about the presentation and the image of the "Block-M." How do we enhance it, how do we expand it, how do we make sure that the image of that brand is consistent with what we want that image to be, how do we present that brand in the most positive light possible?
And this has everything to do with how the brand appears when it's being used — from the uniforms we wear, the branding of our facilities, the branding of our materials, a lot of classic brand management kinds of responsibilities. But then the other part of marketing is to know who your customer is, find out what your customer likes and wants, and give him more of it so you will derive the benefit that flows from that.
So, market research, consumer research, customer feedback loops are things our CMO will be doing a lot of to help us understand how we can get better and be bigger and make people happier.
And do you have a sales team, or do you contract the sales of your business to business advertising and that kind of thing out?
D. Brandon: Yes, the IMG contract is one that was in place when I got here, and they are a third-party provider that fundamentally takes care of most of our corporate sponsorship work. We have a financial arrangement with them, so we don’t have a sales team per se, although we do have a customer service team that performs sales functions associated with our ticket office. But Hunter will be involved in image building, brand management, customer research, certainly event planning and execution, trying to fill our arenas and stadiums; and then create excited, loyal and engaged fans.
Well that’s tough to do in this town, isn’t it?
D. Brandon: Yes, some cases it is. However, sometimes people forget we have 27 sports within Michigan athletics.
D. Brandon: You know people immediately connect football with Michigan. The stadium is full every Saturday, but basically every other venue that we have has capacity beyond current demand, so if we can get more people to watch our really terrific women’s basketball team perform, or other sports where there are plenty of seats available, we will further grow our revenues and fan base.
Or a men's heartbreaker. (Referring to the loss at home on a buzzer beater.)
D. Brandon: Yes, it was a heartbreaker, but you know ...
It was a great game.
D. Brandon: You know there were empty seats in Crisler Arena last night, and lots of people missed a great game.
You know there’s ways to get more people into Crisler. So, we still have a lot of upside and potential and come to work every day and work on that.
What are you guys doing differently if anything than what you were doing than what the program was doing prior to 2008 when the economy really started to tank?
D. Brandon: Well, I think when you get into tough economic cycle you do two things, one is you get more focused on revenue streams and how do you protect the ones you have and how do you create some new ones. And you also get real focused on cost management. Both are important in down cycles.
So, everybody watches their P&L a little closer during these times, everybody looks at how can we negotiate tougher with our vendors, how can we create cost savings through process improvements, how do we make sure that we're as lean and mean as we need to be, but at the same time we have the team in place that’s going to give us the maximum performance. There are benefits that flow from every circumstance and when you are challenged with a tough external environment, it makes you better.
Steel sharpening steel right?
D. Brandon: That’s right.
I’m guessing that selling a national brand sports program is a little bit different than globally selling pizza. How are they the same or how are they different?
D. Brandon: Domino’s is a brand; the Block-M is a brand. Domino’s tries to get the customers happy so they’ll buy more and grow revenues; we try to get our customers happy so they’ll buy more and increase our revenues.
More parallels than differences, or ...?
D. Brandon: I have been very comfortable taking the skills and experiences I have gained in mass marketing and promotion and product development into an environment where we have a product to sell and we're marketing and we're communicating with a mass market.
Domino's competes in 67 countries and does a million transactions a night. We have tens of thousands of people who want to frequent our sporting venues and be attached to the various athletic programs that we offer at Michigan Athletics. So, there are a lot of parallels and some differences. I didn’t do a lot of fundraising at Domino’s. I do a little more of that here!
Yeah, it’s a different dimension here.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
D. Brandon: There are some unique things about this job but none of them are radically different than what I have done as a CEO for the last 22 years.
Did you bring anything from Valassis or Domino’s that was novel here that you’ve implemented or you’re able with that unique perspective to bring to this program?
D. Brandon: Well yes, you need to talk to the people here!
D. Brandon: When you have been a CEO for 22 years, you learn what CEO’s primarily do is they build terrific teams and understand they can’t get anything done by themselves, so we’ve done a substantial amount of changing here as relates to our talent and the composition of our leadership team. We have completely restructured the department because I had my own view of how we could get the work done in the best most efficient way so that’s been a rather significant change.
Organizations are a reflection of their leader. I'm kind of a marketing guy, so I think there is a much stronger emphasis and more resourcing around marketing. I’m also a real devoted HR guy. I think the whole human resource function in terms of finding talent, recruiting talent, retaining talent, developing talent succession planning is extremely important.
The right butts in the right seats on the bus. D. Brandon: Yes, I’m a big advocate of HR and spend a lot of time working on it. The first thing I did the first day I was here was to elevate the HR function as a direct report to me. I work with our HR leader/chief talent officer on a daily basis. Her office is located two doors down from mine, and there isn’t a day that goes by that we’re not working on something together because that’s how important that function is — it’s all about talent. So those are examples of things I brought into this environment that are different than the way it was before.
So has your role as AD compared to Bill Martin’s role shifted mostly toward that human resources and marketing emphasis, or is there any other way that the role is different since he was in it?
D. Brandon: Yes and I couldn’t make any of those other comparisons you’d have to talk to team members here at the department to learn more from them.
Have been through both.
D. Brandon: I’m a different kind of leader. My background is different. I’m a professional manager and Bill is an entrepreneur. I’ve been in the branding and marketing world for last 30 years, and Bill’s been a leader in the real estate/construction business. We’re just different guys!
So, are you working more these days personally?
D. Brandon: More in terms of hours?
Yes, compared to your previous roles.
D. Brandon: Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever worked any harder in my career than I have the last year.
More hours and more days?
D. Brandon: Next week is my 1-year anniversary and yes, more hours and more days. It’s been a whirlwind, but you know, we’ve — we had to open up a totally renovated football stadium and activate thousands of square feet of new spaces, including enclosed seating, club seating, and all the amenities we designed and activated.
We had to get a whole new structure open, and start the construction of a player development center for our basketball programs, and finish and dedicate a new soccer stadium, and expand the Big Ten conference, and reschedule the 2011 and 2012 football seasons, and create a conference divisional playoff system for football, and settle a little NCAA matter that was pretty time consuming and pretty intense, and I had a major coaching search, and restructured the entire athletic department, and we have done a lot of hiring. It has been a busy year!
And recruiting in your spare time.
D. Brandon: I do a fair amount of recruiting, so when you consider the last 12 months, and all that has gone on here, it’s been a very, very rapid pace.
So what — I guess I asked you what's the biggest obstacle selling the brand today, I mean what connects the Michigan brand globally, not globally worldwide, but globally is an effort, what ...
D. Brandon: Well, I believe it is a “worldwide brand.” I see the Block M as a global brand.
D. Brandon: Yes, when I worked for Domino's I would travel all over the world and I've never been to a country where I didn’t see the presence (of the) University of Michigan.
Is that right?
D. Brandon: I remember when I was walking down the street touring pizza stores in Taipei, Taiwan, and all of a sudden a kid zooms by on a bicycle wearing a Michigan football jersey and a Block M hat! I just stood in my tracks and just kind of shook my head, it's unbelievable!
With 450,000 living alumni, we’ve got a presence in China, we’ve got a presence in India, we’ve got presence in Japan, we’ve got collaborations with universities and institutions all over the world, and we have grads located all over the world. I view Michigan as a global brand and that's how we think about it in terms how we want to build it and how big our market is.
So what's the biggest challenge in ...?
D. Brandon: I don't think a lot about obstacles; I think a lot about opportunities. There is far more upside than there is downside at Michigan Athletics. We have passionate fans, we have a lot of seats to sell, we have new venues to create, we have new sports that we can potentially add. I mean there's a lot of upside and that's what I focus on. I don't live in a world of obstacles.
Fair enough. So what is your biggest challenge then, I mean what do you feel personally challenge for the next year and now that you’ve gotten some of these big pieces taken care of in the major programs?
D. Brandon: There's no one thing. I’ve said many times that Michigan Athletics cannot be successful unless our football team leads our success. Football represents about two-thirds of all the revenues that flow through this department that support all of our 26 other sports. Mark Twain said, "If you're going to put all your eggs in one basket, you better watch your basket." Football is my basket.
So one of the biggest requirements is for us to get our football program back where we all want it to be. Winning, competing for championships, playing in big-time games, being on the national stage, recruiting a student athlete that can come here and be successful both playing the game as well as competing in the classroom.
That's what Michigan is all about and it is always a challenge, but it's one that is exceedingly important in terms of the long-term growth and success of Michigan Athletics.
Yes and you got some good news recruiting for defense.
D. Brandon: Yes very good news!
A good couple of kids I think are really going to add to the program.
D. Brandon: Yes, you bet.
And what advice would you give out to our leaders based on your experience through this tough economic period, I mean if you're thinking more about other businesses in the community and people that read the column tend to be entrepreneurs and business owners locally, but what advice would you give?
D. Brandon: My advice would be, don't focus on the things that you can't control and let them get to you to the point where they become excuses for why you can't perform against the things you can control.
I can't control the economy, I can't control oil prices, I can't control the Middle East, ... there are a lot of things out there impacting the external environment that I can't control and neither can anyone else. However, there is a lot that we can control, and if we execute effectively against those things that we can control, we can grow and be successful despite all of the external challenges and difficulties.
Concluding thoughts from Joe Marr:
The lesson I got from this interview further validated for me the concept that we can only perform in a role in a manner that is consistent with the way we see ourselves conceptually. David Brandon sees himself conceptually as the AD who will find opportunities in a tough spot and conquer them, and this is self-fulfilling and infectious.
You may have noticed that he refused to concede in the interview that he had any obstacles and it seemed that he just wasn’t wired to look at it that way. Whether he’s finding the right people to play for or to coach a team or to work in an internal department, he has an outlook of possibility, and strives to surround himself with the right people to make things happen.
Changing one thing for the better is worth more than proving 1,000 things wrong, so if we look for opportunities to make things better, like the new AD, we’ll find them and be much more likely to conquer them, while tuning-out the naysayers.
And this is true whether we are managing one of the world’s most storied athletics programs or making a sole-proprietorship grow in this tough economy.
Thomas Edison once said: “Hell, there are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something!” It looks to this fan like David Brandon is wired to continue to accomplish big things in the business of Michigan Athletics.