Please excuse the indentions
in the furniture in Bob Hunter’s office at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
It’s what happens when one “knocks on wood” as often as Hunter does about
the state of the economy and what it means for the future of the three
venues under the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment umbrella, not to mention
the $500 million Maple Leaf Square commercial, retail and residential
development that looms outside Hunter’s window.
“Being in the sports and discretionary spending
business, we’re very concerned about what the next two years could mean to
us,” says Hunter, just a few hours before the Toronto Raptors will host the
Milwaukee Bucks in an NBA game at his arena.
Hunters’ is a legitimate concern shared by others in
all parts of the world. The ones who eventually suffer will be the
individuals who are not proactive in meeting the needs of their patrons. The
ones who work through the turbulence will be the people who anticipate,
research, and go leaps beyond in providing excellent customer service and
As executive vice president of venues and
entertainment, Hunter manages 180 full-time employees and almost another
2,000 who work part-time. He addressed the latter last September about their
important roles in a difficult time.
“People are going to be very, very cautious in how they
spend money,” Hunter says he told the employees. “Our good service and our
great service have to be exceptional and exemplary. It’s not to say you are
not always doing it, but you’ve got to be more cognizant of it. You can’t
control what happens on the ice and on the court, but you can control every
touch point you have with a customer. You have to be adding more and more
value to that touch point than previously because the expectation level is
so much higher.”
Based on his track record of success and proven
leadership in good times and bad, expect Bob Hunter’s mark to be indelible
as 2009 continues to play out. Just don’t expect that mark to leave too many
disfigurations from Hunter having to knock on more wood in his office.
Degree of separation
Aside from some time spent professionally across the country in Vancouver
and collegiately at the University of Washington, Hunter has pretty much
been a Toronto guy all his life. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, some 45
minutes from Toronto, and graduated from the University of Waterloo.
“I was a kiniseology—or human kinetic—grad,” he says.
“Then I never practiced a day! I went to the University of Washington in
grad school in sports medicine. At the time I realized that although I loved
sports both at the amateur and professional level, I wasn’t sure I wanted to
work with professional athletes. I eventually decided that I enjoyed the
business side of sports and the business of our industry on the facility
side. Now I’m part of an organization that owns professional athletes!”
The Air Canada Centre, Maple Leafs and Raptors are a
long way away from Hunter’s introduction into the public
assembly facility industry that took place following his graduation at a
theme park called Ontario Place in Toronto. Hunter proudly says he worked
there for five years, even though “our lovely winters allowed the park to
only be open four months a year. After working there for that long, I
thought I would go work at a place that was actually open 12 months a year.”
Hunter was recruited to go to Vancouver to help with
the final construction and opening of BC Place Stadium in 1982, where he
became the manager of operations for the 60,000-seat stadium that was about
a year away from opening. He stayed there for three years and was recruited
by the same parent company to go to work on the World’s Fair in 1984 in
Vancouver, where he stayed for two years prior to the opening of Expo 1986.
From there it was back to Toronto for the Skydome project in late 1987,
working as vice president of operations for a stadium that opened in 1989.
Hunter’s only move outside the industry came from about
1994-1997 when he was president and CEO of a facility management company
that was doing a lot of corporate real estate outsourcing for the
Hunter has now been “home” for 11 years. He served as
vice president and general manager of the arena at the time it was under
construction, and since then has taken over a number of business operations.
Tackling a difficult economy is much like tackling many
of the under-construction venues where Hunter has worked. There is the
uncertainty of just how everything will play out, despite all the
precautions taken in advance.
“Each one of the places where I have worked has had
different parameters,” says Hunter. “I’ve worked in the public sector, in
the public/private sector, joint venture and here it was totally private.
Some you have principal tenants, and here we own the tenants. Opening a
venue is the most thrilling thing you can do even if it probably takes 20
years off your life. But I’ve really enjoyed opening new buildings ... it’s
a real charge.”
Overcoming the Economy
Seeing the curtain go up at a new venue is one kind of charge. Staying
afloat through the angry, roiling waters of a battered economy is another
kind of charge. Hunter approaches both with the same resolute intention of
successful leadership and guidance while others around him might panic in
“We are paying a lot more attention to our customers,”
he says. “We have a pretty good understanding and do a lot of research on
what is happening in their (corporate) organizations.
“We are also much more focused on promotions. How can I
get in and out, enjoy the game on a fixed amount of money I know I can get
Hunter says his team emphasizes a “soft touch” of going above and beyond.
“It’s really showing your appreciation for them being
customers and being fans. We probably spent in excess of a million dollars
this year on trying to improve our relationship with our season ticket
holders. It was called the Leaf Revitalization and it was just for hockey
because here we are one of the premier hockey organizations in the country
and we haven’t made the playoffs for three years. Every season ticket holder
got a team jersey this year. We’ve had more player appearances than we’ve
ever had. It was really saying, ‘No matter how well we’re playing, we really
appreciate your business.’”
In particular, Hunter says that since the teams are
driven by corporate sponsorship, he is starting to see the corporate credit
card not used as extensively. “The $200 bottle of wine when you are
entertaining is now a $100 bottle of wine. When you’re with your wife it’s
an $18 bottle of wine,” he says with a laugh.
These days you have to laugh and laugh often to keep
your sanity. Advertisers are more reluctant to spend, fans are less likely
to fill facilities, and overall attitudes can become sour faster than you
can bite a lemon. Employees worry that they will keep their jobs and those
who are at work are often distracted by the financial news of the day.
That’s where being a strong leader can make all
the difference, and it is something Hunter does in Toronto with aplomb.
“It comes down to honesty, integrity and setting the
example,” says Hunter. “It is about being able to make tough decisions. It’s
easy to be a leader when things are going well. It’s tough being a leader
when things are going really bad.
“We focus a lot on candor. We really want our people to
be honest in evaluating their own performance, and it is incumbent upon us
to clearly set expectation levels for employees so they understand it and
you can measure and monitor performance.
“I always joke with my boss in my annual review ... but
it’s a lot about having an edge, and that edge is not being tough, but being
real, making sure everyone’s working to the best of their abilities. You can
tally that all up on a list.”
Different Kinds of Challenges
Once the economy shakes out, Hunter, like any astute leader, is ready for
the next set of challenges. He believes that sports and entertainment will
change dramatically with the next couple of generations, and that technology
will be a plus and a minus.
“Whatever the next generation is going to be called has
a different philosophy towards sports,” he says. “I have a 21-yearold that
can’t sit and watch a whole hockey game. He’ll watch while on his laptop,
wireless or cell phone. Sports has to be really cognizant of where their
future fans are and how those fans think.
“We do a lot of research. We understand what our fans
think and how they think. That research drives future strategies. The
concern we have in our marketplace is we are in a
five-and-one-half-million-person community in the greater Toronto area.
Recent research showed that 48% of the people in the area were not born in
“We have a very diverse, ethnic population. From a
hockey standpoint we’re concerned that in 10 to 15 years that 48% may grow
to 55% of the population not born in the country are coming from non-hockey
nations. Those kids might not become our future fans, nor be participants in
the game. But we have a great future in basketball and soccer!”
If this is how his fan base might change, Hunter
believes that the industry has changed over his 25 years with a greater
level of professionalism. “It has been so impressive to see the level of
professionalism grow every year,” he says.”
While the level of professionalism is a positive,
Hunter sees yet another potential downside in that next generation of
employee’s attitude to work/life balance. “Our industry is time demanding,”
he says. “It’s not that they don’t work as hard. They really and truly want
work and life balance. I say that as a ‘might happen’ due to the hours
required and weekends and nights.”
Hunter credits IAAM’s CFE program for adding tremendous
credibility within the industry, as well as the educational programs the
association offers. To drive home the value of the Public Assembly Facility
Management School at Oglebay, Hunter says that every year he sends at least
one staff member to the school where he taught for 16 years.
“Part of my enjoyment and education with IAAM has been
hanging around with some great leaders,” he says. “You can’t help but spend
time with people and steal their best practices and their leadership
“I met Robyn (Williams, IAAM president) many, many
years ago and worked on a couple committees with her. The likes of Robyn,
Brad Mayne, the icon Ray Ward, Kevin Twohig, Warren Buckley, Scott Williams
... some really, really fine people who encouraged me to be a better
facility manager and a better leader.”
Hunter, like an absorbent sponge, soaked up all
the knowledge he could gather over the years from his peers. Hunter was, in
essence, a hunter. Today, Hunter is the hunted for those newer faces in the
industry looking to learn from someone who serves as a leader, a visionary
and a respected name in the business.
It’s a role he welcomes with great relish.
“A lot of this business comes down to enjoying what you
do,” says Hunter. “You have to come to work every day wanting to come to
work. It can be a tough business on you. I believe if you are not having fun
at work, you shouldn’t be going to work. It’s the energy level and the
people I work with who are the fuel to help keep me going.”
And going, and going, and going.
R.V. Baugus is editor of Facility Manager magazine.