By the scorecard most CEOs use, Richard Peddie was a roaring success as boss of Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment Ltd. He built a money machine powered by hockey’s iconic but chronically mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs, basketball’s Toronto Raptors, soccer’s Toronto FC and the Air Canada Centre. When the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan agreed to sell its 80% stake in the company to BCE and Rogers last December, the enterprise was valued at more than $2 billion. Yet, says Peddie, 65, who retired at the end of 2011—while preparing to write a book on leadership—he knew that winning on the balance sheet would never be enough.
Did you go to the hockey game last night? No, I’ve made a point of staying away for a while. I spent 15 years going to games and I’m a little burned out. The Leafs need to sort out leadership and I don’t want to be a complication, so I’ll just stay away.
Since the merger of the Leafs and Raptors in 1998, the value of the company has gone up about six times. Isn’t that the only score that matters? Not in sports. If you were to get hold of the planning binders we prepare every year, it would show each fiscal year has its own objectives, but the long-term goal is to win. My record wasn’t pretty. Oh yeah, they say I was all about the money, but I’m a fan, I’m human and the losing really got me down. The hot dogs don’t taste as good when you’re losing. And if you’re getting blown out, it will affect the gate five games from now, so the winning part is huge for the person and for the company.
What was the toughest leadership lesson? You’ve got to hire the right people. We try to make it as scientific as we can, but it’s still 50% art. My first hires as general managers for the teams were wrong. The Leafs’ John Ferguson Jr. and the Raptors’ Rob Babcock were too junior. I joked that when I ran Pillsbury Canada and fired a vice-president, nobody talked about it. But here everyone starts talking and speculating—the coach-watch and general manager-watch start months before you make a change. I think some sportswriters like to think, “I got that guy. It’s a notch on my belt.” That was the toughest thing—making the wrong decisions and having them played out so publicly.
Did you develop a thick skin? After a while, you get used to it, although your skin can still be punctured. When players and coaches say they don’t read the criticism, I’m not completely sure that’s true. I had to read it—there may have been an angle we had to address. Sometimes, I’d phone the writer up and say, “You got that wrong.” But as Leafs GM Brian Burke says, there’s only one Cup victory parade every year. So there are 29 losers and only one winner. It was different in my other business roles. When I was running Pillsbury and having a great year, my friends at Campbell’s soup and Nestlé were usually having a good year, too.
So you have to take the hits for the team? You have to have the biggest shoulders. Some people say it was the teams that didn’t win, and that wasn’t my fault. Well, I hired the general managers, so it was my fault. But you don’t want to say that a lot, or you’re not going to be around very long. Thankfully, our business decisions were very, very good.
What’s the big advice for your successor? They’ve got a really attractive business; it’s very sexy. I’d really like them to stay with the culture we worked at—an outgrowth of vision and values. And don’t get caught up in the media. I had the needle in my arm at one time—I loved being in the news. I still get interviewed quite a bit, but you have to let the general managers talk about the teams.
Was there a really dark moment? When I was hiring the general manager for basketball. I had let Glen Grunwald go in 2004, and it was being played out in the media. There was a firepeddie.com website. I got obscene phone calls and had the police come in. One fellow rented a plane with a banner. I remember one night I couldn’t sleep and I walked into a Starbucks as soon as it opened in the morning, and the person behind the counter said, “Who are you going to hire for GM?” I’m not a celebrity, but I’d bet I’m recognized much more often than any of the bank CEOs, and they run much bigger companies.