Behind the Billboard S1EP30-Matt Majka
KL: 00:00 I’m thrilled to share this episode with you. I had the opportunity to interview Matt Majka, the President of the Minnesota Wild. For those of you that listen to the Behind the Billboard Podcast, but are not Minnesota, the Minnesota wild are the NHL hockey team here. And Matt’s a servant leader and I had so many takeaways from this interview. I can’t tell you how much I look up to Matt and his leadership style. He’s an incredible human being. I know you will find so much value in this interview.
Introduction: 00:31 Welcome to the Behind the Billboard Podcast. A living, breathing, interactive conversation about getting better as a leader, a team, and as a person. We believe that success is all about people. And we’re on a mission to help you grow. Here’s your host, Kris Lindahl.
KL: 00:47 Welcome back to the Behind the Billboard Podcast. When I think about teams, I think sports organizations sort of define team, and I feel like sports organizations defined so much of what the team is in business.
MM: 01:01 Yeah, right on, yeah the obvious thing that we all see is the play on the ice, right? The team plays on the ice and that’s what we’re almost interested in. But you’re right, there’s a lot more to a sports organization that has to look at the business side too, in correct terms of a team environment. And at the end of the day we need to integrate the two as well. And so, that is challenging sometimes and we need to keep working at it and get better at it. But that is the job in front of us is integrating the business and sports operation of a team into one team that wins together. And you know, sometimes we do that well and sometimes we struggle, but every day we’re trying to get better.
KL: 01:35 You run a very successful organization, you have a lot of smart people around you and I know you’ve worked really hard, but take me back to like some of the early days. I mean I know where you went to college and I’d love to get a little perspective sort of where you came from. You’re background.
MM: 01:46 Back in college at the University of Minnesota. I went out of high school and then to the University of Minnesota and I was just, you know, another dull Undergrad trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. Right? And I love sports, you know, like a lot of people do. Right? But back then, I never dreamed that I would end up as the President of the Wild. And if somebody had told me that, I would’ve been like thrilled and shocked at the same time. But I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to work in an area that I was passionate about so that turned out to be sports. My first job out of college was in a sporting goods company called Rollerblade, which was based here in the twin cities, run by Bob Naegele, who became the first owner of the Wild. But anyway, I spent 15 years at Rollerblade with Bob Naegele. Bob was a great mentor for me and I learned a ton from him without leadership and a lot of different things over 15 years. And he ended up having a really successful run with Roller blade. It grew from a $1 million company in the early eighties to a $225 million company that early nineties. And so that was an education all by itself.
KL: 04:01 When you started with the Wild, you know, maybe a little bit of like the different roles you?
MM: 04:05 Yeah, I started in the marketing department. I was the vice president of marketing to begin with and then just as, as it happens, opportunities came around, you know, executives come and go. And so, we had a, a person that was running our corporate sponsorship department that left and all of a sudden there was an opening there as well. And the president at the time, Todd Leiweke, who went on to become lots of different things, including the chief operating officer of the NFL and is now running, starting up the Seattle franchise that’s going to start an NHL in just a couple of years from now. Todd came to me and said to me, Hey, we’ve got this opening in corporate. Could you handle marketing in corporate? I said, I don’t know if I can, but I’ll give it a shot. Right? And so, I got to run the and learn about the corporate area and run it at the same time. Thankfully, there were some really good people that knew what they were doing underneath me. And, I added a little bit of leadership maybe. And, and then, you know, kind of the same thing happened with a couple other departments. And then Todd left one day kind of unexpectedly and but to a great opportunity. And, there was availability of kind of moral leadership with, uh, with what turned out to be, I forget what my title was there after Todd left, but basically I became chief operating officer and eventually president and, and yeah, just, just dumb luck, some hard work and paying attention to how to treat people. I think I have a sign at the front of my office or on my door at my office. Anybody who walks inside and outside my office, if they’re paying will read a sign that says, work hard and be nice. And that’s pretty simple and complex at the same time because they’re not always easy to be nice in our worst moments as human beings. And it’s not always easy to work hard when we’re tired. Right? And things like this. So, because we’re human beings and we have frailties, and we have moments. Right? But I really do think that any success I’ve had, and I think with a lot of people that I meet, hard work and getting along with people matters a lot. And so that’s my advice to people.
KL: 05:58 Yeah. That’s so good. So, when the Wild organization was starting, it was a startup essentially. And I know this from my company in the early days. I mean not everything was figured out. We’re still learning, right? Walk me through those early days of what things look like, what you’re doing.
MM: 06:13 I have to say, and this will come out wrong, cause I don’t mean to say that the present day isn’t fun and interesting, but those were the best days. And I think you can probably relate to this because you look back there, there wasn’t a script. Right? And there was no, in our case, there was no history necessarily to look back on. We could look back on the North Stars a bit, but that was different, you know, also, and it was a different time and different era, right? So, we really kind of had a blank slate and needed to make it up as we went along. And so, the beauty and the curse and blessing we had was that if you do recall, we were granted the franchise in 1997 and we couldn’t start play till 2000 because we needed to tear down the old Saint Paul Civic Center and Build Xcel Energy Center. Right? So, we have three years before we were going to start playing. And yet we have no, we had the makings of an organization both, but it was a curse in that we weren’t very tangible to people. We didn’t have a player or a coach or a general manager for two of those three years. But we had time and we, I thought we used that time wisely. And I think if we were successful with our marketing efforts and the brand with the state of hockey, it came because we spent those two years talking to our prospective customers and asking them what their hopes and dreams were for this franchise. And we listened pretty well. And the whole state of hockey brand platform, maybe we created those words, but our customers told us this was the state of hockey. Not In so many words, but the idea and the essence came from them about the pride and heritage and tradition of hockey in Minnesota. And they wanted an organization that would pay homage to that and be stewards of it and continue it. Right? And so, we put a few words too, at the state of hockey, but they told us this is the state of hockey. And when you listen to your customers and you do your research, they’re pretty smart and they know what’s going on. And we did that pretty well.
KL: 07:52 State of Hockey, I mean, you know, every time I hear that, I mean, I mean, I get a feeling associated with it every single time. And I love your point about, you know, listening to your customers and listening is such a big part of all of this. You can learn so much.
MM: 08:05 Totally. Yeah, that’s it. I mean, I think sometimes, you know, maybe we don’t always give credit to our customers, you know, for knowing as much as they know and leading us in directions that make a lot of sense, you know. And we all do, you know, if we’re a good company, we all do research, but really listening to it, diving into it, probing into it, to get to the right place is really important. And these days, as you and I were just discussing about your industry, there’s so much data available. If we’re smart and we’re using it well, we can get to the promise land, we really can, but there’s misuses of it or whether there’s ignorance of it, and companies that I think that are failing today are in those categories. Where there are just no, I’m smarter than my customer and I know what’s right. Or just misusing, misinterpreting data can happen even with good attention. So, I think that’s a critical stage for any company, but for us in the early days, those three years were such an important foundational few years for us to get things right. And I think we did it and I think it’s still paying off.
KL: 09:01 Yeah, I agree. I mean, having a solid foundation. I mean it’s critical to the future. I mean, the people that enter your organization now won’t fear nearly the pain, but what were some of the pain points or the challenges of, or maybe you’re short staffed?
MM: 09:15 Certainly human resources. Yeah. The early days, of course we were probably understaffed for a little while and there was always too much to do for a big job, but that was okay that, that there’s something invigorating about that too. And it also, as you know, it also creates a real bond between people when everybody’s overworked and working super hard, but energetic and passionate, that creates a bond that you wouldn’t get if you had thrown too many people at a problem too quickly. Right? So, I’m okay with that issue. But some of the challenges, there was a lot of naysayers about Saint Paul as a home for a major league team. They’d never had a major league team before. And so, it was a challenge and we had to overcome that challenge and find our way. And there again, there was a lot of people even in the media that, that’ll never work in Saint Paul, the parking will be a mess. The infrastructure, the streets will be a mass, you know, it turned out that that wasn’t true. And we got people in Saint Paul, especially Saint Paul citizens to say, hey, we’re going to show them, you know, we’re going to show them that it can work here in Saint Paul and we’re going to back this team. We’re going to be there for them. And there was also a little bit of a, you know, they took away something that was sacred to us and that was hockey. The NHL did. And we’re going to show them too, by the way, that that was a mistake that they ever left the state of hockey. It’s like being the underdog, you know.
KL: 10:24 Totally. And that worked in our favor. And that was nothing we did particularly right. It was just a circumstance that we benefited from. So, there was, there were all sorts of people that wanted to say this wouldn’t work and wanted to say that Saint Paul couldn’t be a major league town. And that the two buildings, you know, the Target Center and Xcel could not survive together and here, we are 20 years later and both are doing pretty well. And there’s a bunch of other venues that are in the market now, which are great also. So of course you mentioned something there, other venues. So obviously in your role there are other things that are happening other than just hockey, right? In the facility, beautiful facility that you have, right? You’ve got a lot of beautiful options. Yeah. So, what does that look like?
MM: 10:27 Yeah, it is complex. I mean first, you know, so being the President of the Wild, there’s more to the Wild than meets the eye for especially people who are local and understand a little bit about it there. You know, we run Xcel Energy Center for all the events there and few sports teams do that. Most sports things are just tenants in a building. They rent their number of dates they need to put their games on and then they don’t worry about it the rest of the time. For us, we need, we have our 44 Wild home dates and then we got to go, you know, sell the building the rest of those nights, and Target Center is trying to do the same thing by the way. Right?So, it’s a competitive market or a relatively mid-size market and it makes for a really interesting and complex business. And then we also, again, we also Manage River Center Convention Center, which is attached Xcel and run on a contract basis for the city of Saint Paul, so that’s a whole other part of our business that we need to succeed in. And so, you know, we want as many non-dark nights in our building as possible. We want all the concerts we can get, and the events we can get, and trade shows over in River Center and all that. So, there is a lot of diversity to our organization that doesn’t really meet the eye and creates some complexity and also a lot of opportunity and interesting days. And so, it’s really, and I wanted to mention on the venue’s thing, this market is outstanding now in terms of venues. I mean there was a time when Xcel Energy Center was kind of far and away the best the best venues. You know, it used to be the Metro dome and Target Center was starting to age a little bit and there wasn’t much else. And now you’ve got US Bank Stadium, outstanding venue, Target Field an outstanding venue. Target Center renovated much better. the new Allianz Field, beautiful new soccer venue. I mean now we have like, in the market, for our size market we have, I would say I would put our market against any market right now for quality of venues, especially for its size, and so that creates a competitive environment for us. So, we have to keep Xcel, you know, top notch and renovate it as it needs help. And we’re working hard at that.
KL: 10:50 The thing that sticks out to me so much about sports and especially your industry is trying to figure out how you’re not dependent on the score of the game. Wins and losses. I would love to hear more about what that looks like. I mean that’s a; I mean when you got that figured out In a way that we spend a lot of time on the business side on that very issue. And it’s hard because honestly with hockey coming back to Minnesota and we were an expansion team, the expectations around our team in the early going weren’t that great. They were just thrilled to have hockey back. And we’ve benefited from that and it bought us a little bit of time. But these days, now, almost 20 years later, fans legitimately, especially in the State of Hockey want a winning team and that probably is the first thing that they care about, right? But nonetheless on the business side, we spend almost all of our time trying to take winning and losing out of the equation as much as we can, knowing that we can’t take it out completely.
MM: 11:02 So, it comes to customer service, it comes to our brand. It comes to what is the experience of coming to and going from Xcel Energy Center in totality. From the moment you get in your car and you know, even like getting into town, getting the Saint Paul, finding a parking place, entering the building, and then, yup, the game’s going to be going on. And that matters a lot. But what are, what is the building feel like? What are the, what are the food and beverage offerings? What are the, what’s the music that’s played, you know, what’s the feel and brand of Xcel Energy Center besides whether the Wild won or lost last night? We have to do everything we can to make that as good as it possibly can be and then hope that the team wins too.
KL: 12:54 That’s really outside of your control from a business standpoint, right? I mean, you just don’t have the control over the wins and the losses?
MM: 13:12 We don’t, no. And that’s unlike a lot of other businesses out there where you have control over your, quote unquote, product. Right? On the business side, we don’t have control over our product entirely. The hockey ops group has got to put the team together and the business side doesn’t say a lot about that, and that’s fine. That’s okay that we don’t, you know, but we have to kind of trust their judgment about putting a good hockey team on the ice and they’ll succeed and they’ll fail sometimes. But no matter what they’re doing, we got to take the rest of the product and make it as good as it possibly can be. And don’t use the loss as an excuse as to why we didn’t succeed on the business side. I, we really don’t allow for that. And that’s, that’s hard sometimes because we don’t, this year we missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years and that’s no fun. It does create some challenges, but we have to keep going and trust the hockey side is going to get us back there quickly, and we’re going to continue to do great things with customer service and touching our customers and making them care about the brand as much as the winning and the losing.
KL: 14:19 So the reason I asked that question about really the score is not what you’re dependent on, is with that requires a lot of leadership. And for those that aren’t familiar with the NHL or the Minnesota Wild, you elevate your staff significantly on game night. And so how do you deliver a product and customer experience to the people that are attending these games when they’re not full-time employees?
MM: 14:24 Right on. So, so what you’re talking about Kris is the fact that we have, we have, you know, we have about 200 full time employees. A hundred of which roughly, who are primarily working on the Wild because the other ones are working on concerts for the building and or River Center. Right? But there’s probably a hundred that are really directly linked to the Wild on a daily basis and they do a great job. But on a, on a game night, our staff swells to close to a thousand with part time workers, ushers, and the food and beverage workers and you know, all sorts of different people that it takes to put on a Wild game. And yeah, they’re not in our office every single day and maybe know the story of the Wild, and the customer service philosophy of the Wild, as well as a full-time employee does. But it is our job. They are, they’re the front lines for us and a lot of our customers experience are with those part time workers. Right? So, we, we spend a lot of time a week, when I talked to your staff a while back, we talked about a relatively new initiative that we just launched called Service First. And it’s, it’s all about putting the customer very first and creating memories for our customers, positive memories. At any moment that we talk a lot about the empowerment to create great memories. And that’s really the theme of our Service First initiative. And so, we spent, we spent a fair bit of time and money on creating this Service First initiative and the behaviors that go along with it. Then of course our full- time employees are well versed on that. But now we’re, we’ve spent a ton of time making sure that our part time employees understand that philosophy and what goes along with it. And that’s, that’s really a huge initiative for us that we hope will separate us from our competition. Getting back to the leadership thing, the one thing I’ll mention, along with Service First. We committed to a style of leadership that at least for the Wild, is what we want to promote. And that is servant leadership. And that is, you know, a servant leadership is the idea that as a leader you don’t come first. Actually, you come second, third, fourth or 100. You put other people in front of you, you lift them up, and you celebrate their achievements in front of your own. And that is sort of part and parcel the Service First philosophy that we have is putting customers first, putting employees first, putting everyone else first, by yourself as a leader.
KL: 15:22 So the piece that I’m curious about is sort of a cliché word in today’s world because it seems like everyone’s talking about it, but culture. I think of like, okay, you have people that are not in your organization every single day. How do you maintain the culture at that size?
MM: 15:44 Yeah, and being honest, it’s a huge challenge. I won’t say that we’ve got it all nailed. We don’t, we, we, because of that disassociation we have with a number of part time employees and trying to make them feel part of our family. We work hard at it, but we’re not perfect. Our mission as an organization is a really simple one and I like it because I think most of our employee’s full time or part time can remember it. And that is simply our mission is to create a greater state of hockey. It’s pretty simple, right? And its sort of vague, you know? I mean it’s open to a lot of interpretations, but it’s the make things better, make the customer’s experience better, make our community better. It’s about creating a better place that we all live in. And it doesn’t say anything about dollars and cents for profitability, because we think that’s an outcome of our employees getting up every day to make a better world. Okay. And that, that may sound Pollyannaish too, but we really think that’s what we’re here to do is to make our community better. And if we do that, if all of our employees wake up with that goal every day to make that situation better, that circumstance better, that customer’s experience better, our community better, that we will be profitable in the end, that revenues will come up if we have that sort of altruistic goal in mind. So, I don’t even know if I really answered your question there.
KL: 17:53 Yeah, you did. I mean having that mission, that’s simple that it’s easy to understand. I think of our company and in ours is to be generous and give back our time, treasures, and talents.
MM: 18:07 I love it. I love it.
KL: 19:21 And when you’re wearing a shirt like I’m wearing right now, it says happy genocide on it? You have to be a good person.
MM: 19:29 KL: Right, it’s simple. Right. It’s memorable. Like I have to say, there’s a lot of company missions we’ve all read and seen that are three paragraphs long and I’ve forgot it viable.
KL 19:30 No one knows what it is.Yeah. But be generous. Create a greater State of Hockey, memorable and it’s like, okay, how could I do that? Let me think of my own way to do that. How can I be generous today, how could I create a better greater State of Hockey? I like the simplicity of that. It’s not for everybody. Other companies do it a different way. That’s how we do it.
MM: 19:35 That’s what I love about it. Right? This, there’s no right or wrong way, it’s just the way that you choose that works for you. And I loved when you said earlier, you said, you know, this is the way that we believe. This is not the only way. There’s a really special friend of mine who’s been a great mentor of mine for a long time, and I had the opportunity two weeks ago to speak at his, his private event. And he owns a company called BombBomb, which is video, email, and video tests. And so, our companies used it forever. Everyone in our company has basically, you know, you can do a video from your phone and you can send it off video email instead of it being an email. Or you can video text. And so, their mission is to re humanize the planet. And so, I think a lot about like what you just said, like with the hockey, like rehumanize then, what does that mean? And so, for them, like they’re really big in Africa and there’s a lot of things that they’re doing right now and stuff like, we’re re humanizing the planet in the sense that we’re going away from text email to video. So, we’re rehumanizing face to face communication, but we’re also going to do greater good by doing these things for the community and for the world. And every time that I, that I think of him, I think about that and I think about how simple of a mission it is, but also, it’s this complex. It’s complex. At the same time.
KL: 19:46 It is. Yeah. Great initiatives are, you know, at the same time they’re at once, simple and incredibly difficult. Right. You know what I mean? And that’s what I think be generous in the Great State of Hockey or rehumanize the planet. That’s an awesome, ambitious goal, right? But it’s a really cool. Especially this day and age, I think that’s really timely. And it’s why, you know, a lot of sports teams, and you could speak more to this than I could, but I’m just for watching from the outside. A lot of the teams that actually win championships aren’t the most talented team. They’ve got, I mean, they’ve got a synergy, right? They’ve got the best locker room; they don’t have the problem child and a lot of rome.
MM: 19:47 Right, right, right. Exactly. It’s, there’s definitely a parallel there for sure. And, there’s something, I don’t think there are too many sports teams that are really successful that don’t figure out the culture thing one way or another. And there are different ways, but, but you’ve got to have a symbiotic, you know, group that is pulling for each other, playing for each other somehow or another, you know?
KL: 20:03 Yeah. Yeah. And then when the expectations are low too right, I watch teams where the expectations are, that’s an awesome thing. You’re playing past expectations.
MM: 21:15 The Las Vegas Golden Knights in their first year, right. Last two years ago. What a perfect example of that, of exactly that. No expectations. And there they are in the Stanley Cup finals in their first year. That was a great story. And it was, it was a team of kind of castoffs right. Cause they had done the expansion draft and basically taken the players that you, this is a little over simplistic, but then other teams didn’t want or didn’t protect. Right? They take these castoffs and, and there’s no expectations. They huddled together. And I will say this is tragic, but you know, the, you remember the massacre it happened a week before their opening of their season. And I think it was a rallying point. Next week later, the Vegas Knights took the ice. They, they’re opening ceremony they had to change it completely. They had to do at all about the massacre. And they did. And they did it right. And they got the community totally behind them. And to say that, to take that, you know, of horrible, horrible, negative thing, they made it into a positive. And that whole city just got behind them. And then the season they had; it was magical. It was awesome.
KL: 21:29 It was, it was, it was really good for hockey. You know, and I shared this with you, but I had the opportunity, I was speaking with George McPhee at an event, and this was right after that scene. So, we had a lot of conversations. Really. I’m obsessed with learning and leadership. So, I asked him a ton of questions, but he said, you know, the only thing that I cared about was getting that pregame ceremony right. I didn’t care if we ever won a game. And he said, you know, it was the first time that we gave the community something to smile about. You know, when I think about sports and I think about hockey, it’s so much more. I can envision that Vegas strong Hashtag for the rest of my life. It was on the side of the boards. I mean it was everywhere. Everyone got behind it.
MM: 21:30 Yeah. And I think this year’s version of that, it was, I know you’re a good hockey fan Kris, but maybe everybody out there isn’t. But the Carolina Hurricanes this year, they really rallied. They were a team that not many people expected to be very good, probably not even make the playoffs. And it’s been a long time since they’ve even been in the playoffs. But this year they, they gelled together as a team, low expectations us against the world. And they started this celebration thing after games, where they did a coordinated thing which always happened. And in hockey culture, it was not cool, but they turned it upside down and they got, they got the whole, you know, all their fans behind it for sure. They do these creative celebrations when they’d win a game at home. And there were hockey traditionalist that did not like it. And in fact, Don Cherry, who’s a famous Canadian commentator called them a bunch of jerks on a Canadian broadcast. So of course, they started selling tee shirts about a bunch of jerks. They all rallied around that and there they were in the second round of the playoffs, which is really cool.
KL: 21:33 I thought it was, you know, I thought that whole thing was really brilliant in the end.
MM: 21:48 Yeah, but they did it. They kind of broke the rules and they rallied around it and they had great success together. And you got to, even the traditionalists have to give them a little credit for that.
KL: 22:11Yeah, that was neat. And so, with that, I think a lot about innovation and from where you started to where things are today, I mean technology looks a lot different. Tell me a little bit about how, you know, how that’s, I mean it’s changed the way that things.
MM: 22:20 For all of us, right? I mean you and I were just talking about your industry and how it’s just changed so much. And of course, it’s true for us too. And you know, five years ago, even three years ago, really, we didn’t at the Wild even have an analytics department really on the business side or the hockey side. And now we have numerous, we have full departments on both business and hockey where we, the way that we go to market now to get to know our customers, to sell tickets, to even sell sponsorships, comes completely differently to us, and through analytics largely. And with so much data available to us and just mining that data for good decisions. And so, I just have to, I know that’s the obvious place to go, but I, there’s the, when I answered that question, I just have to go there. How has it changed analytics information? Data mining has changed completely, you know, years ago, and I have to be a little careful here, but it was print, radio and TV, right? And those mediums still have their place, right?
KL: 23:21 100%.
MM: 23:58 But, you know, analytics and social media and all of that have a place too, and I think we’d be foolish if we didn’t figure that out. And so, we spent a ton of time on that. And a lot of the way we relate to customers today are through those modern new age mediums. And it’s working great for us.
KL: 24:59 Really. You’re competing against dollar spend. I mean, it’s, yeah. You know, and I love your point. I mean, we know we’re heavy on radio TV. I mean, but they all work together, right? I mean, it’s not all or none. I mean, we’re not trying to use all of them for different reasons. I think about how much competition there is for companies to spend money. Really, I mean its social media and digital. I mean digital is a whole different total conversation. And I mean, now they got out of home TV and streaming radio Apps and I mean it’s. Yeah, that’s where consumers are at today. They, the written words again, it still matters. I was not saying that, but video is, is key. And that’s what our fans want to see. And they like to watch highlights of Wild games, that’s part of it. But they really want to also get to know our players through video, and behind the scenes feel and look of our players and how do they spend their free time. And, and that has become, you know, a really important part of our content. And so, we do a ton of that. Like we do so much of that today compared to two years ago even, you know. So it’s interesting you bring that up because I watch way more video about hockey than I do read at this point. Yeah. And I didn’t used to be that way. Right. I don’t know if that was my style or if the technology just wasn’t there. Where I mean now, the cell phone towers, I can click a button and live stream a game of wanted to, you know, and in high quality, high def. And I love watching the behind the scenes, the warm ups. The players still joking around, you know, flipping pucks into the crowd, and you know, pretending to hit the camera that’s recording. I mean that’s cool stuff to watch. It’s like you have, you know, you have an insight or access to something that others don’t.
MM: 25:03 Exactly. And again, its kind of humanizes the players when we can show them away from the rank and, or at practice even, things like this. It just gives another sort of dimension to the players, which the fans love and, and I understand that. I, I think that’s cool too. How will it grow? Right? As an organization I want to continue to grow revenue. You mentioned earlier about, you know, I mean, you didn’t make the playoffs for the first time and, and that I’m confident you’ll be back there this year, but you know, as you’re growing, I mean there are growing pains, growing challenges, and you know, I’m sure there are people that are going, well you didn’t make the playoffs, we’re not going to do this and that. Yes, we’ve got those challenges of, hey, what about what happened last year? And so, we’ve got to deal with that and that’s fair. We got to get better as a hockey team. And there’s a huge emphasis on that. But in terms of growth, it’s an interesting industry because we have a basically a 19,000-seat arena that we can’t make any significant changes on, and we can’t increase. It’s just not fair to the customer to increase prices substantially every year. You know, we take a little increase, a modest increase most of years, but you know, that’s not going to change our world, frankly. And we’re kind of in the middle of the NHL in terms of what our average product or average price of our tickets are. But we’re trying to be fair to our customers and keep our building full. So, so my point is there’s a bit of a finite definition to our, our business. So, we have to kind of step outside of our arena and look at how we can grow our business in different dimensions, right? So, we try to diversify a little bit and we just opened up a restaurant last couple of years ago. Herbie’s, which is a nearby the arena, very close to the arena and that’s worked out really well. It’s a new business for us, the restaurant business is pretty different than the hockey business, and we’ve got a bit to learn, but we’ve got a built-in crowd every night that we have an event at Xcel or for that matter, if there’s an event at the Ordway next door. So that’s going along really nicely. It’s a nice little revenue stream addition to us. We opened up a brand-new practice facility this past year. It is pretty great. And with our revenues attached to that, which we can continue to grow. And so, we’re trying to stay within our core business and see if we can find sort of spokes off of that business that aren’t totally foreign to us, but do create, they go outside the four walls of Xcel Energy Center because that is sort of a finite opportunity to some degree. There’s 19,000 seats there we can’t change that, you know.
KL: 25:12 In any industry, right? If you’re not growing, you’re dying.
MM: 25:25 Right? I mean you always got to figure out different ways and that kind of goes hand in hand with the innovation that we’ve just talked about. But how do you evaluate fan feedback? Is there a point where you’ve heard it enough time for you [inaudible]? Are they going to, you have 19,000 customers?
KL: 26:19 Yeah. Right, right, right. Exactly. Exactly. And that’s what is complex, I think. And it’s, I think it’s a little, I think there are ways you can get off track with fan feedback these days because every day you could look at something to get some kind of fan feedback. For example, you know, most, any article that’s written about the Wild these days has a comment section below it, right? So, if you spend your time in those sections, you’re kind of depressed. And yet, there’s something that there’s, that’s not totally invalid. But you can’t, you know, I sometimes have to remind myself, hey, this isn’t like, this doesn’t necessarily represent the majority view of all Wild fans, but there’s something there for sure. And then, and then, but honestly, where we spend, where I spend more of my time and where we spend more of our time is with more, I’d say more legitimate research that we do, where we know that we’re sending out research.
MM: 26:20 First of all, there’s enough critical mass there that it does, by science, represent enough of the core fans point of view. And it has some balance to it and we hear from all sides. And, and the beautiful thing for us, the beautiful thing for us is that when we have one large survey every year, and then many smaller ones throughout the year. And we’re lucky we, because the Wild is a business, that’s a public business that people really care deeply upon. They’re really passionate. And that doesn’t mean they always love us. I mean they; they might get pretty disappointed at us from time to time. But the beauty of is they always respond to our surveys. So, we get like 40% response rate, which is unheard of. In a traditional consumer products company, if you got 2%, you’d be really happy. We get 40% response rate. So, it’s really reliable data and you can project it, and depend on it. And it gives us a really clear picture of what our fans are thinking and feeling about us at any point in time. And so, we spend a ton of time on that. And again, the beauty is they’re passionate, I’m not saying they’re always happy with us. They are sometimes quite angry with us sometimes. But the beauty of it is they’re still responding to us. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy, so when we don’t get 40% response rates, when it drops way lower, that’s when we really need to be concerned. When we’ve got an angry fan, we can try and fix that. Right? Because we know about that angry fan and where they’re at, and we do it right now, but when they stopped talking to us is when we got real trouble and we’re not there.
KL: 26:37 Interesting. Yeah. You have a couple of different sides of the business. You have your sort of business side I think, and then you have your hockey side. And so, if that’s, if I said that correctly?
MM: 27:04 Yeah, it’s such a unique part of our industry is that they really are two different animals and any of these sports teams, in any sport, is a two headed animal. Where you have business operations and then the sport operation. In our case, hockey ops and so the, you know, the skills and experience required on both sides are completely different. We get up to do, we get up out of bed, everything every day to do something very different from each other. But somehow or another, we have to make sure that we’re working in concert at some point and we’re communicating with each other. And like pretty much any business communication is the key, right? So, Craig Leipold is our owner, Paul Fenton is our general manager. I run the business side along with several others. We have regular meetings. So, Craig and myself and a few others, where we are talking and making sure we’re talking a lot about what’s happening over there, what’s happening over here, and how are we integrating. And again, we don’t always get it right, but you know, communication is the key. You know, it’s just being vigilant about talking to each other, and listening to each other, and understanding each other. And again, we don’t always get it right, but we do get in a room once a week at least, and we talk and we listen. And when we get, when we’re the best version of ourselves is when we’re in sync with each other, we’re listening to each other, we’re respecting each other, and we’re helping each other.
KL: 27:36 You mentioned a word earlier that I think is one of the most important parts of this whole thing. It’s trust in leadership. And so, give me a little perspective on like how trust has shown up. And I mean that, that’s a big part of this.
MM: 28:10 Yeah, it really is. I think it’s in so many ways, the key to, again, any good culture is trustworthiness. So, I think it starts with, you know, having a clear picture of the type of culture you’re trying to achieve and then the traits and qualities of the individual employees you’re hiring. And if you’re, if everybody, if all the department heads are doing that well and on the same page about it, trust kind of happens naturally then because you have people with similar values working with each other, and its kind of works, right? When we get offtrack with each other, when we operate in silos and we sometimes do that, right? We at the Wild do at least, we can lose trust of each other, the various departments, whether it’s, I’m not just talking about hockey ops to the business, I’m saying even within business ops, when marketing has a little different agenda, it gets a little isolated from sales or, or public relations or whatever it might be. And then then the trust breaks down somehow or another. And again, it happens in the best run companies. That’s when we struggle, when we are working together, respecting each other and eventually, trust is the outcome of that. We do pretty darn well. And again, we happen to flow on that, you know, it’s, we’re all living, breathing human beings and our organization is a living, breathing sort of entity, and we ebb and flow on our success. And trust often is an indicator.
KL: 28:25 There’s another part. You mentioned the comment section and I knew you were going there cause I, I’ve had my fair share of news articles, and people have a strong opinion one way or another about what we’re doing. And you know, I learned a lot about myself. I just read the comments sometimes, some things I don’t even know exist. But when the team isn’t playing well, you’re frustrated not only from the president of the Wild but also as a fan. I mean you want to see the guys win too. And so, walk me through a mindset of a slump or like, how does Matt stay charge up? Keep the team still operating and that’s?
MM: 28:46 Yeah. Well, okay. So, yeah, it is tough. And also, I’ll point to this the last half of this year, you know, we struggled badly and we struggled, especially at home, which we almost never do. We, we’ve always, even when we were an expansion team, we were pretty good at home. You know, we’ve, lately we’ve been a great team at home for the past six years making the playoffs. And so, you know, this year we had a pretty awful, you know, run at home to end the season and you know, you’d have to say, that’s why we missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, seven years. And so, you’re right though, there’s a professional side to all of us and myself that is, hey, we’ve got a job to do and we have to disassociate our sort of, our feelings of, as a fan, from the work that needs to get done today. Right? There’s that. But at the end of the day, we’re still fans and we live and die a bit every loss and win. Right? We just, I think you’re not human if you don’t have that. Right? So, I just like our fans, you know, I walk away from a loss, especially a home loss, really deflated and beaten, and bummed out. You know, it’s just, it sucks. Right? You know, but I have to get up, you know, and I’ve got a process that after a lost, right. I will say after most games, I’ll go to Herbie’s these days and whether we win or lose, I’ll spend a little time at Herbie’s with some of our employees and with our owner who also goes there. And we try to process whatever just happened. Right? But I need to get away from that then and just kind of say goodbye to that loss, and the next day we all have to get up and do our best to forget about it. No matter how difficult a loss it was. No matter how debilitating it might’ve been, we got to get over it because we’ve got, another day, you know, we’ve got another game tomorrow and we’ve got to find a way to let go and have a short memory. And get up with the energy and the positivity and optimism that today’s a better day. And again, some days I do that better than others, but again, we’re not human, if we’re not affected by the wins and losses and ups and lows of a season, and we’ll do our best to disassociate, but it enters into the equation.
KL: 30:29 Oh, for sure. And so, let’s say the teams out on the road, and maybe you’re not, you know, you’re not on the road and you’re at home and you’re not at the game, depending on different variables. What are your thoughts around what, I mean, do you watch the game or do you record it? Do you turn it on at a certain time? Do you go live every time?
MM: 30:45 Yeah, I, you know, I, I cannot not watch a game. I mean, you know, I just can’t. And then there are other employees who I know who do, you know, do it differently? But if we’re playing, I’m watching and I don’t miss minutes of games. I’m watching pretty much every minute of our season. And on the road, I travel with the team occasionally, but I’m home more often than I travel cause this is where the business really is. And it’s, you know, I find the road games to be even tougher in a way because you’re feeling even more disassociated from what’s happening to some degree and you’re just, you know, watching helplessly. And not that I can do anything when I’m in the stands, but I feel more connected to it when I’m at Xcel Energy Center, and we win more often at the Xcel Energy Center. As do most teams do win at home more often. So, there’s definitely a better outcome, but it’s a difficult thing. For me, I have to watch, I can’t not watch. I will say there are times when we’re having a rough game on the road where I’ll just turn the sound off cause I just don’t want to hear anything. I just want to assess what’s going on all by myself and that works for me. But everybody approaches it differently. But I’m addicted to every minute of a Wild season and I go with it, you know?
KL: 33:03 So yeah, I’ve got a question. This is sort of, kind of, crosses between business and hockey ops and of course the Minnesota Wild, or professional organization in general, but it has a lot to do with like contracts and signing players, you know. And there are times where you sign a contract deal, and you hear it on the front end of the contract and the back end is, no, you don’t. I mean it’s just don’t know; you know. And so how do you handle some of the feedback that’s specific to the contracts and the peers and that stuff?
MM: 33:11 Yeah, you’re right and in any sport this happens, you make good decisions and bad decisions sometimes on players and, you live and die a little bit with that. Thankfully Paul Phenton, our general manager has to really deal with most of the [inaudible] management. I would say this, for an answer to it. The most important thing is to have a strategy for it, both the business strategy and a hockey strategy. And they have to integrate as well, as I said. The problem right now is transitioning our team a little bit regarding to the younger, faster, better. All right. And so, we have to be strategic about forming that, that strategy and sticking to it and then signing players that fit the strategy. I think when we get in trouble is when sports teams make moves that leave the fans scratching their heads. Now sometimes the fan doesn’t know as much as they should, and they’re actually wrong. It’s really a good decision, but sometimes, you know, it really is that it doesn’t fit the strategy, right? I mean, I think that’s when fans get a little alienated, or curious, or disillusioned with a team is when we, you said you were going to try to do this, but you signed that guy over there that falls outside your strategy, and I don’t get that. And so, I think having a strategy and sticking to it and reminding yourself to stick to it, most of the time you’re going to make better decisions then, and it’s going to make sense to your fans. All right. You’re going to still make mistakes. You’re going, you’re going to, hey I had this player fits our strategy perfectly. And it turns out that they don’t, you know, you, you didn’t do your homework right or player has a change in the way that they perform or something like that. But I think when you have a strategy and you stick to it, it gives you the best chance of missing those valleys in a sports team’s life where you fail and, or you alienate your fans because you’re confusing them with the way you’re doing player versus strategy.
KL: 34:25 Yeah. I mean I’m no expert in hockey. I mean I’m an avid fan.
MM: 34:38 Hockey ops is making these decisions and we’re sitting in a chair. Armchair quarterback making decisions. We’ve never, you know, we’ve never been in there. I don’t know, some of it. And then some of the trades we make turned out to be like some of the best things that’s happened yet. I think one of the things that sticks out to me just from a leadership standpoint, and I know the feeling a lot because we don’t always get our decisions right. And I’ve made a ton of mistakes. You got to get ahead of them and own it. And, and I saw a video from Craig at the end of last season. And I thought it was, I don’t remember all the words, you know, but I remember it’s like we’re not rebuilding. Right? Because all of a sudden there was a part of the fan base, I don’t know what the numbers were. You have like these trades, I mean change scares people, right? In general, not in sports in life, like we’ve had to make a lot of changes at our company. And change is always creating uncertainty and you’re not wow, what’s going on? And you know, like cleaning house, is it rebuilding time? And I really love that Craig recorded that video and got ahead of it with the season ticket holders and said, hey, we’re making some adjustments here. And just like, to your point about we’re going to get, you know, younger, faster, stronger. And yet we’re not rebuilding. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That wasn’t really a purposeful decision we made about, what do we say at that moment? It was the end of our season after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. What do we say? Who says it? And how do we deliver it? So, its kind of goes back to some of things we’ve been talking about. We thought that Craig was our best messenger there. The buck stops with Craig, and he cares a great deal. And that comes across in videos.
KL: 35:57 It was authentic and yeah, it had a lot of passion behind it.
MM: 36:31 Right. So, then we worked with our message, our strategy. You know, we’re going to get younger, better, faster and we are going to transition the team. But yeah, we won’t feel like we have to scrap this. We, we think we still have a core of a very good team here, but on the margins, we need to make some changes cause we’re getting a little old, a little slower and Paul had already started to make some of those changes and we can point to some of those in Craig’s words. So, we got a message worked out and for the last thing was the delivery because we certainly could have delivered that through a letter, you know? Right? But we no, the way our fans are consuming our content, our video. Like back to what we were talking about earlier is video. Again, it comes across pretty well on video so sit down and have a chat with them and, and you know, we’ll edit it, you know, but let’s not have like, where you’re reading from a script or anything like that. So, a lot of thought went into that and I do think he did a great job with it. I only hope that the message got through to our fans.
KL: 38:25 I thought it was phenomenal. And I’m a big critic of that stuffand delivering that. And listen delivering change or news is never easy. And you don’t know the feedback you’re going to get, the reaction, I mean again, so I thought he did a really good, a really, really good job. So, what if all of this, there are challenges and there are, you know, you lead a large team and I know that at times you have to adjust. Sometimes they’re tough adjustments with people. And so, is there any sort of like feedback on, you know, sort of what you’ve found works best for you on making adjustments?
MM: 38:39 Yeah. I think I would say this; we all have sort of performance metrics that we have for our businesses and even for our employees, right? We, a lot of times we have plans for an individual employee to perform at these standards and these metrics. And here’s your goals for the year. And so, that’s one thing. And those matter a great deal, I’d say. There’s also sort of gut thing too about, you know, how is that employee fitting in culturally and what kind of a team member is he or she? And the one thing I would say looking back on mistakes I’ve made and where we’ve succeeded, when you have an indication about the employee that your guts telling you this isn’t working, it’s probably a good idea to act on it sooner rather than later. I think the times in my career where I’ve known in my heart that an employee wasn’t fitting in culturally or even if they were performing metrically pretty well, culturally they were causing issues, or maybe it’s both actually, then you know, you’ve got an issue but you just, you know, it’s just, it’s hard. It’s hard work, right?It’s hard to end an employee’s tenure at all, that kind of thing. But the times I’ve made mistakes, my most grievous mistakes, were when I’ve let a problem fester and it’s affected our culture. When you do that, the burden isn’t actually, there’s a point in time when the burden that the employee is creating is one thing. But now your employees are looking at you as a leader and saying, and he’s allowing that to happen. And I don’t, I don’t have the same confidence in Matt that I did, or I don’t trust Matt, his judgment, because he’s allowing this behavior. So, I’ve made some mistakes along those lines and I now tend to want to act sooner on my gut feelings about a cultural fit in particular, even if the performance is there. And that’s a hard thing to do, but it has to all work together. You have to perform well technically in your job, and you have to be a good team member. And hurting culture not only hurts the culture, but it affects the trust of leadership. And you can’t have that.
KL: 39:54 That is so spot on. And I know through my years and the mistakes I’ve made is everyone’s around you can see it, they can feel it, right? And they’re thinking it, but they’re not telling you. Yeah, no they’re not going to say it to you, but you know now that they’re looking at you going, aren’t you going to do something about this? You know what I mean. You’re not? You know, that’s not good. It’s just not good.
MM: 40:20 No, and you know, we’ve had some times in conversations over the years, people that we absolutely love that played a critical part of where our company is today. And you know, and those are not easy conversations to have. It’s tough, and that’s why you put it off right as a human being, but, but you’re affecting so much more, with your other employees, your team environment. And so, that’s one lesson that I’ve learned.
KL: 41:58 Yeah. Earlier on you had talked about Bob Naegele, talking about, you know, being a great leader and the things that you’ve learned from him. So, you’ve had a lot of leaders that you’ve been connected with, and you’re an amazing leader. And I’m curious like from sort of your perspective and definition of the experiences that you’ve had throughout your life, like what makes a great leader?
MM: 43:06 Yeah. Well, again, we said this a few times already. The first thing I’d say is there’s a lot of different shapes and sizes out there of great leadership, right? But one that resonates with me the most, and I’ve already mentioned it as a sort of an organizational philosophy we have, I just always appreciated servant leaders. I just liked that style. Again, I’ve seen non servant leaders, people that don’t have that style succeed and be great leaders. I don’t mean to take away from that, but the one that appeals to me is servant leadership. I just like the humility of it. I like the style and, I read a book that’s a very famous business book that really changed my, who really affected my view of leadership. And it was, Good to Great by James Collins and he has a whole chapter devoted to leadership. And the beautiful thing about this particular book that James wrote was that he’d done all this research. He had studied two companies that are in the same industry across different industries. He had done numerous studies, right? And he had all his research and he was looking at leadership in this particular chapter. And he was, so I’m just going to pick on a particular industry. He had examined Walgreens demise as CVS’s gain. Right? Or fill in the blank with a different industry. I’m, I don’t mean to pick on that particular company. But what he found was that when it came to leadership, he expected and his team expected, that great leaders would tend to have the charismatic big personality guys or girls who took charge of an organization had great energy. And again, those leaders are out there and they can be effective. But what he found was a pattern that oftentimes the companies that succeeded the best were actually led by introverted leaders who tended to be servant leaders, humble and not really spotlight seekers, who put others success and accomplishments ahead of their own, and there’s this great line from, he has this model called the servant level five leadership with five different levels to it. And at the very top when you get to level five leader, his line is it’s a combination of humility, of personal humility and professional will. So, these people are really willful, strong people, but they have this humility about them that keeps them from the spotlight, but they’re driving companies to great success. And I liked that a lot and it resonated with me, and that’s the type of leader I try to be. I don’t always succeed, I sometimes fail at that, but I like that sort of humble leader, servant leadership but with strong will and conviction. That was a cool combination for me. That’s sort of almost like a, it’s almost a paradox, you know that somebody that could be sort of humble and have this strong will at the same time, and I do believe in that.
KL: 43:30 We’ve got a lot of emergent leaders that are listening and you’ve done a lot of research, you’re well educated in the leadership area, what recommendations would you give to someone that’s really trying to sort of build their leadership in their learning, what kind of advice, what kind of knowledge? You know, what kind of books do you think they need?
MM: 43:33 I’m a huge fan of James Collins, he’s written a ton of books and business books that are on the area of leadership. But I’m also a fan of just real-world experience. Right? So, my answer to your question is what advice would I give to emerging leaders in terms of how do you get to your best version of yourself as a leader? Is to simply paid attention to your world, right? Because you’re going to, in your professional career and even in your personal life, but in your professional career, you’re going to run into all sorts of different types of leaders, and or people that have leadership titles but aren’t particularly good leaders. Right? And I will say that I feel like I’ve learned as much from bad leaders as I did from good leaders. Right? And I’ve had bosses in my career who were less good at leadership. I learned a ton about how not to be from them, you know. And it was painful sometimes. And I’ve talked to some people at my little moments working under a boss that I wasn’t as fond of and they said, hey, you know, hang in there. You’re learning, you’re learning and growing right now. Even if it’s a little painful, you’re learning and growing about how you’re going to, if you ever get to that place, how you’re going to behave. And it won’t be that way. You’re going to do it in a different way. You’re going to do it in a way that would inspire you and you know what that is. It’s probably going to help. It’s probably going to be good for other people too. And then like I say, I’ve had some great bosses too, and I’ve learned a ton from how to emulate as well. But I would say be patient. When you find yourself in challenging circumstances with somebody who was a superior to you that you need to somehow answer to. Be patient, pay attention, learn from their mistakes, as well as the people that you really admire and maybe a mentor or mentors that you or that you want to be some day and emulate them, that’s awesome too. But pay attention to the people that are doing it wrong too cause you’re going to that’s valuable.
KL: 44:24 Yeah. Actually, that’s really, really, really good advice. Thank you for that. That is really good. If you were to give advice to Matt right out of college, you know, if you’re going back and do what you know today, you know, what advice would you sort of give back? And a little bit based on what we just said, but specifically talking to yourself there. And where you were when you, you know, when you graduated college, what advice would you give to what you know today?
MM: 44:58 Yeah, so the main thing I would say to my 19 year old self or 22 year old self or whatever, would be have a plan but be ready for life to happen too because it’s, I find, I am so impressed with the young people these days cause they’re quite more planful than I was back then. You know? And I really admire that and I really don’t mean to dismiss it. You need to have a plan but be ready for high curve ball. That might be a good thing. Know that there comes your way an opportunity, a professional opportunity that comes your way, or a personal opportunity that comes your way, that you didn’t expect or planned for, but might be intrigued by it. You know? I was like, well, I wasn’t thinking that, but boy, that’s kind of interesting. I didn’t expect to have that opportunity over there. And maybe my hearts kind of responding to that a little bit. And that’s what happened to me. I, again, I didn’t plan to be the president of the Wild. I’m really thrilled to be there now. But the opportunities that came to me weren’t exactly what I thought I’d be, you know, I actually wanted to get into sports broadcasting and I was really bad at it as it turns out. I mean, I went down a path with an internship and I created a resume tape. I wasn’t very good at it, actually, but so then another opportunity came my way, by the way of a want add that I responded to and ended up with a job at Rollerblade. And that led to a wonderful career of learning and growth. And then I met Bob Naegele, who has been a great leader in my life and that led me to the Wild. And then he sold the company to Craig Leopold, who’s also been a great mentor to me. And none of that was in my plan back when I was 22, you know, I thought I was going to be a great sports broadcaster, and that didn’t turn out at all for me, but I don’t regret one day of what happened. And I, and I stayed open to the possibility of something else. And I would suggest that.
MM: 47:03 That was great advice. This was an incredible interview and I just want to say thank you so much for being here. Yeah. I am so impressed by you and the Minnesota Wild organization. And it’s been fun to watch and I, you know, I feel like, you know, things in life happen for a reason, you know, and we’ve been in a partnership for a very long time with the organization and we share a lot of the same things. It’s been a nice to be a part of it. So, I’m just going to say for the listeners, you know, if you loved this episode, I’d love to see a five-star rating. And if we earned it and then if you want to leave a review or something in the comment section, hopefully we got kind words and, you know, any feedback that you have for me or for Matt, I always read all of them on our Behind the Billboard Facebook page. And if there’s someone else you think this would be a benefit for, share it on social media and, I mean, this thing is, you know, our Behind the Billboard Podcast is growing significantly by having guests like you. So, thank you.
MM: 55:46 Well, congratulations on that Kris. Thanks for your partnership with the Wild. Your longtime support of us, we’re really appreciative about that. You’ve been a great partner and I also really respect the way you run your business and what’s happening with your business. Congratulations.
KL: 55:58 Appreciate that. Thanks so much, thanks for being here.