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True leadership shows up in tough times

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Published Thursday July 14th, 2011 in the Telegraph Journal
Photo: Kâté Braydon/Telegraph-Journal

Dave Veale interviews Wayne Long, president & part owner of the Saint John Sea Dogs hockey team as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

Wayne Long, president of the Saint John Sea Dogs, has been with the club since its inception six years ago, from the rocky first couple of seasons as a QMJHL expansion team, to President’s Cup and Memorial Cup championships this season.

It has also been quite a ride since Wayne and his partners brought the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) to Saint John in 2005 with an expansion team. In their first year, the Sea Dogs won only 15 games. That pales in comparison with the league-leading 58 games won in last year’s regular season. This year has been incredibly impressive, especially given the humble beginnings of a few short years ago.

Wayne has an interesting background. Well-known and respected in the North American aquaculture industry, he parlayed his experience in selling salmon to leading a major junior hockey team. He spent more than 15 years working in the aquaculture industry, including leading his own company for seven years. During that time he was a four-time recipient of the North American Award of Excellence in Sales and Marketing.

To add to his collection of awards, Wayne was recently awarded the John Horman Trophy for executive of the year. The trophy is awarded annually to the top executive in the QMJHL.

The entrepreneurial spirit that has driven him in a variety of industries continues to keep him energized today. I began my interview with Wayne by asking him if he has always had this drive.

A: Yes, some people call it a sickness (laughs). It is almost an addiction. I’m constantly – even today – looking for the next opportunity.

Q: What do you think helps an entrepreneur become a success?

A: There are always key ingredients to every business that make it successful. It can be the people, the leadership, the timing, having the right products at the right costs, the right connections and it usually also helps to have a lot of luck.

Q: So tell me how you went from selling salmon to the business of hockey?

A: I’ve always been a hockey fan. I loved the sport. I was a fan of the game. The business of hockey excites me as much as the sport of hockey. I also love growing the business.

[Tweet ” I’ve always been a hockey fan. – Wayne Long”]

Q: What is involved in running a hockey club?

A: The Sea Dogs are a year-round business that happens to play hockey between September and March. There are five other months in which we are not playing hockey – we are marketing, selling, building brands, forging relationships and making roots in our community.

Q: How did the idea of bringing a major junior hockey team to Saint John come about?

A: It really started in the spring of 2000 in Halifax after watching their junior hockey team. I said to my friend, “I’m going to start down the road of getting a major junior hockey team in Saint John.”

Q: So now you fast forward to 2011. Given where you started, what are you most proud of?

A: I am most proud of the fact that the Saint John Sea Dogs are a big part of Saint John. What is so rewarding to me, and everybody in our organization, is that we are having an impact on people’s lives in this city. A sporting organization has a chance to engage a community – it is a common uniting rallying point.

[Tweet “I am most proud of the fact that the Saint John Sea Dogs are a big part of Saint John. – Wayne Long”]

Q: Can you give me an example of how you feel the Sea Dogs have impacted this community?

A: I recently took the Memorial Cup down to Ridgewood Veterans’ Wing because the Cup is a tribute to our fallen soldiers. The veterans were overwhelmed by the Memorial Cup visit. I was overwhelmed by their reaction.

Q: Has it been a clean ride to becoming a successful organization and the top team in our nation?

A: Actually no. By the end of our second year we were like a ship taking on water. I would go as far as to say on the edge of bankruptcy. We were a team that had lost a significant amount of money.

Q: What turned things around for the organization?

A: We hired a controller, Rick Walsh, who’s been a really big part of the turnaround in this whole organization and getting our costs in line. This is a business. We have budgets, we plan and we prepare.

Q: Did anything change within the work culture?

A: We got everyone pulling in the same direction. Culture is very important – we work hard but we play hard and we have a very good atmosphere in our organization.

We treat people with respect and we believe in letting people develop. We are as excited about office staff moving on and up as we are with a hockey player moving on and up. We had two people last year that moved up to the next level. Our media communications guy moved on and up with the Detroit Red Wings and our game day community manager went on to be Bob Nicholson’s executive assistant with Hockey Canada.

Q: What are the most difficult decisions you have to make as a leader?

A: We have had to change a lot of people in and out of our organization – coaches, general managers and some staff. There have been a lot of hard decisions made to improve our organization.

The hardest thing that I deal with is remembering that we do run a business. With hockey comes emotion and passion and, at times, not a lot of objectivity. As excited as we are, there are times when I have to haul the reins in and make tough business decisions. I find it very challenging.

[Tweet “There have been a lot of hard decisions made to improve our organization. – Wayne Long”]

Q: How would you finish this question, “A leader’s job is to…?”

A: A leader’s job is to deal with the good but also the bad and not to shy away from making tough decisions. A good friend calls it “the penalty of leadership”. You can’t just take all the good stuff. You also have to lead in bad times, and to me, true leadership shows up in the tough times. I remember our lean times where we had to go on the radio and apologize for the performance of the team in Year 2 and meet with people who were going to cancel their season tickets.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. Email Dave at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com or follow him on twitter @dave_veale. Don’t miss any of Dave’s interviews with leaders…get blog updates in your inbox by signing up over here, at the top of the right column ==>

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