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Geoffrey Molson by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Geoffrey Molson by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

the lunch

Geoff Molson: An entrepreneur with an eye for entertainment Add to ...

The Chicago Blackhawks were to face the Boston Bruins in game three of the Stanley Cup finals that Wednesday, and the keenly fought series was tied. Lunching with the president and CEO of the Montreal Canadiens, it seemed like a given that hockey would be the main course.

Geoff Molson arrives in a hurry at the Grinder, a noisy restaurant in the gentrified neighbourhood of Griffintown, just downhill from the Bell Centre, and to break the ice, I shoot a hockey question. What did he think of the Bruins’ game-two comeback after their crushing defeat in triple overtime?

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“I didn’t even watch the game,” he says flatly.

Coming from the guy who eats, sleeps and breathes hockey, this apparent detachment is startling. Mr. Molson gets so quiet and intense when he watches the Canadiens play, intertwining his fingers, rubbing his thumbs, that you could cut the tension with a knife. His passion borders on obsession, and he harbours superstitions he only reluctantly confesses to. He blinks three times when he sees 22 on the clock or on a jersey, the number worn by former left winger Steve Shutt, his favourite player when he grew up, for example.

“We had a great run, but once you’re out, you’re out,” Mr. Molson says of the Canadiens’ disappointing showing in the playoffs after finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

Even more surprising, however, is what kept Geoff Molson from watching that hockey game. On that night, he was at the FrancoFolies. The French music festival was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a show featuring 25 Quebec artists, such as Ariane Moffatt, Loco Locass and Pierre Lapointe. His choice demonstrates how the man best known as owner of the Habs is working to become an entertainment mogul.

Mr. Molson watched the outdoor concert with Alain Simard, the music producer who co-founded the FrancoFolies and the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, the biggest jazz festival in the world. The new men became acquainted two years ago at social functions and realized they shared a passion for Montreal’s cultural economy.

They are now negotiating a deal by which L’Équipe Spectra, the company that oversees the two festivals, would be sold to the Canadiens’ holding company, the CH Group. The talks, news of which leaked in June, are “pretty advanced.”

“This is about ensuring the longevity of the Jazz Festival, [Alain Simard’s] life work,” Mr. Molson says.

Should the deal go through, Spectra would become a sister company to Evenko, the CH Group’s entertainment division, but remain independently managed. The two companies would cut costs by sharing venues, ticketing and food services. They could also increase their revenues by cross-promoting their shows and events through their different channels and partnerships.

Evenko is already an entertainment powerhouse, with revenues roughly equal to those of the Canadiens – although with all the middle-men, producing shows is not as profitable as owning the Sainte-Flanelle, Mr. Molson points out.

Last year, Evenko produced more than 1,000 shows in Quebec and in New Brunswick. It was the world’s eighth-biggest promoter in 2012 by tickets sold, according to the concert tour industry magazine Pollstar. And Evenko keeps on growing: Its Osheaga outdoor music festival, only in its seventh year, sold out with a record 120,000 spectators.

Evenko can book shows in the Bell Centre, the smaller Corona Theatre and the yet-to-be-built Place Bell in Laval, a new 10,000-seat concert hall and arena where the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Canadiens’ farm team, could end up playing when their 3-year contract ends.

The Bell Centre is already the busiest concert hall in North America, and the fifth in the world by revenue, in front of Paris’s Palais de Bercy and the Los Angeles Staples Center, in the 15,001-to-30,000-seat category. With Spectra, the CH Group would also control the Metropolis, a mid-size concert hall where close to 40 per cent of the events are currently booked by Evenko. With this acquisition, CH Group would become so big that some commentators wonder if the Competition Bureau should scrutinize the deal.

“This is an opportunity to become a bigger entertainment company that brings more to Montreal,” Mr. Molson says.

It has been an hour since our conversation started, and music has accompanied us all the way through the salmon tartare and the salmon filet Mr. Molson ordered in an Omega-3 splurge.

Geoff Molson readily admits he is no music connoisseur, even if the 43-year-old man with a boyish figure was crazy about Nirvana in his early 20s. Tellingly, he doesn’t even own an iPod or another portable music device. When he exercises, it’s accompanied by the same Tragically Hip and Eminem records he’s run to for the past three years – CDs that were forgotten at the Bell Centre gym, where all the hockey players bring their own music to work out. But repetition has its virtues. “That is where I do my best thinking,” he says.

His interest in the music industry is rooted in what he calls his entrepreneurial spirit. Evenko was a “coincidence” – something that came with the prized hockey team he dreamed of owning since he was a boy. But the Canadiens are a mature business, and this is a chance for Mr. Molson, who has worked for multinationals such as the family-controlled Molson Coors Brewing Co. or The Coca-Cola Co., to build something of his own.

“With the Canadiens, we can do things better but we can’t expand, really,” he says.

That is not to say that running the Canadiens is an easy job. There was the four-month NHL lockout which wreaked havoc in the 2012-2013 season, even if it has given the Canadiens predictability on the team’s all important payroll costs. “We know the math,” Mr. Molson says.

There is the intense scrutiny on the Canadiens’ performance, such as Carey Price’s uneven goal tending, about which Geoff Molson gets an earful at the amateur hockey rinks where he accompanies his three sons when they play hockey.

And there was the controversy over temporarily replacing head coach Jacques Martin by the unilingual Randy Cunneyworth – which became an “affaire d’État” or national crisis in Quebec. (The Montreal Gazette even lamented the team had given a Christmas gift to the separatist Parti Québécois.)

“I learned that our relationship with the fans is fragile. You always have to have your fan hat on,” Mr. Molson says. He has since won back the affection of Montrealers, who applauded spontaneously when he appeared on a giant screen at the men’s final of the Rogers Cup.

The Habs president believes that with the team being put together by general manager Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens now stand “in a good place.”

“I want to build a team that has a chance of winning the Cup every year even if, obviously, it doesn’t always happen that way,” Mr. Molson says.

In contrast, there is less pressure and possibly more upside to growing the CH Group into an entertainment giant, as Evenko is widening its reach by managing artists, such as comedian Philippe Bond. “If you land a Céline Dion, a 16-year-old phenom that wants to go under management with us, then you are laughing,” he says.

That ambition has put Mr. Molson on a collision course with Pierre Karl Péladeau, the Québecor Inc. vice-chairman whose company has launched a court challenge over the management contract for Place Bell, which the City of Laval granted to the CH Group. Mr. Péladeau is building his own amphitheater in Quebec City, and both groups are vying for the biggest artists and shows.

But Mr. Molson dismisses the notion that it’s a rivalry. “(Mr. Péladeau) may think differently than me, but I don’t see it that way,” he says. “My goal in life is not to beat others. I am thinking we have a nice business here, so let’s build it into a long term success.

“Our competitors,” he adds, “are on the ice.”

Which may explain why he advocates bringing the Nordiques back to Quebec City. The Canadiens are waiting.

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Personal

Born July 23, 1970, in Montreal. The youngest son of Eric Molson and Jane Mitchell shares the controlling interest in the CH Group with his older brothers Andrew and Justin.

Married to Kate Finn, an American from Boston he met in an economics class at St. Lawrence University in upper New York State. They have three sons ages 8, 11 and 12; and a six-year-old daughter.

Drives an Audi Q7 because it is big enough to hold four hockey bags.

Education

Bachelor of arts in economics, French and Canadian studies from St. Lawrence University; studied in Rouen, France, as part of his program.

MBA from Babson College in Boston.

Career

Worked in media for Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta and as a consultant for CSC Consulting in New York before joining the family-controlled Molson Brewery in 1999, first in the United States, then in Canada.

He was vice-president marketing for Molson Coors when he left his executive role at the brewery in 2009. He still sits on the brewery’s board.

Hobbies

This defenceman doesn’t have as much time as he once had to play hockey in his Notre-Dame-de-Grâce garage league, but attends almost every game and practice of his three sons.

In his own words

About his Twitter account, where he describes himself as a “fan of the Canadiens and the president of your team,” and which is followed by 57,985 people: “I don’t tweet if I have nothing to say. I find Twitter useful to listen to the fans.”

About what he hopes to accomplish: “I am from the seventh generation [of Molsons] and there is an eighth one, too. I am building a business that hopefully will stay in our family for another generation. And the stronger I make it, the better are the chances.”

On the Nordiques returning to Quebec City, which Mr. Molson supports. “I see way more positive than negative. I don’t put my business hat on. I see an intense hockey rivalry that will generate so much interest that it will offset any potential financial issue.”

Sophie Cousineau

 

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