Kelly Murumets enters her sunny office at Tennis Canada and smiles widely when she finds a friendly note on her desk.
It’s well-wishes from her predecessor, former president and CEO Michael Downey, who was hired away last fall to reside over the Lawn Tennis Association in Britain but stopped by to say hi while on a recent vacation. Murumets is now five months into the job, embarking on her first Rogers Cup at the helm and taking over at a golden moment in Canadian tennis.
Murumets describes herself as a mediocre tennis player and long-time fan, but admits she has never worked in tennis. Then again, Downey hadn’t either. Murumets says she appeared – on paper – to be underqualified for every job she ever landed, yet thrived at each, from rescuing near bankrupt businesses to tackling youth inactivity as the CEO of ParticipAction. She inherits an association that has piqued the curiosity of the global tennis community, with stars like Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic playing deep into Grand Slams and skyrocketing into the Top 10 while driving a growing interest in tennis at home. One in which (and you couldn’t ask for a better marketing script) two Canadians make history by playing in the final of an ATP event on the eve of their arrival at Rogers Cup.
“Now is a very special time in Canadian tennis, and if we can’t capitalize on that, shame on me,” says Murumets, settling into a leather chair across from a wall of photos that sees her pictured at high-profile events with everyone from Roger Federer to Jesse Jackson, framed newspaper clippings of the athletic businesswoman running with the Vancouver Olympic Torch or being pushed to the limits by her personal trainer.
“Everyone at Tennis Canada aspires to grow tennis into one of Canada’s biggest national sports, and to be the best on the world stage. That really spoke to me, the fact that the bar was set so high.”
Murumets was born in Kitchener, Ont., but moved around as lot a kid. She played every sport under the sun, including tennis at the same club in Welland, Ont., where WTA chairwoman and CEO Stacey Allaster was also starting out in the sport, although the two can’t recall meeting as girls.
She got her BA from Bishop’s University, and then did an MBA at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western. She worked as a business consultant before leaving to travel the world for a while, and returned with an urge to “change the world.” So she did a master of social work at Wilfrid Laurier before practising as a social worker. She later returned to business and became president of a publicly traded U.S telecommunications company that had just lost $64-million and desperately needed help.
“My friends were like ‘oh, you are taking over a technology company?’, and I said ‘well yes, I am,’” Murumets said. “It took us four and a half years, but we turned it around. It was losing a million dollars a month when I started, and we turned it into a positive cash flow.”
After that, she was tabbed to take over ParticipAction, originally launched by the Canadian government in the 70s when it was best known for its Body Break television spots before it lost funding and shut down in 2001. It was being revived in 2007, and she was enlisted to build it into the national voice of physical activity and combat the epidemic of sedentary kids.
“The greatest challenge was getting people to believe it was important,” said Murumets, who is also an avid skier, golfer, and hiker and has summited both Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. “Many people still think physical activity is something nice to do for kids, but they don’t understand the gravity of kids being physically inactive – they won’t perform as well academically, they won’t be as self-confident, they won’t be as physically or mentally healthy. Kids who are physically active do better in all phases of life.”
Tennis Canada’s board of governors reviewed some 80 résumés over a rigorous three-month search and interview process with many finalists before settling on Murumets and her wide-ranging skill set.
“She came from a great business background, and when she took it on, ParticipAction wasn’t a very strong organization, but in the seven years she was there, she took it to a well-known organization from coast to coast,” said John LeBoutillier, chair of Tennis Canada’s board of directors.
“With ParticipAction, she criss-crossed Canada from east to west. We want to focus on tennis development – not just in Toronto and Montreal – but across Canada, and Kelly is in a great position to work with the provinces.”
Since taking office in March, Murumets has found herself at both the French Open and Wimbledon to watch Canada’s young stars shine. There, in addition to fielding interviews with international press about “what’s in the Canadian water”, the exec was also studying the finer details of what makes a Grand Slam pop, and what lessons could help further improve the fan experience at Rogers Cups in Toronto and Montreal.
“I want our tournaments to feel like Grand Slam tournaments, because we’re not just in the business of tennis, but also the business of entertainment,” Murumets said. “We want to understand who our fans are and how to delight them. Building the profile of our stars is helping us a great deal to connect with our fans.”
Murumets isn’t directly involved in elite development but has looked over the structure of Louis Borfiga’s high performance program. She’s quick to say she won’t mess with that, which isn’t broken.
Her expertise is business and galvanizing partners. She says their research shows the nation’s tennis participation has grown by about 5 per cent annually in recent years, and she wants to see even more growth for 2015. Tennis Canada has identified four key markets for strategic growth projects, like new indoor facilities: Winnipeg, Calgary, Halifax and Vancouver, which was home to successful Davis Cup events last year.
While more indoor courts would help in a nation with such long winters, Murumets says the messaging needs to change, to help dispel some barriers to playing the sport here.
“We’re working with all of our provincial partners to make tennis so accessible that you can just as easily play in PEI as you can in B.C.,” Murumets said. “We want to send a different message. You don’t necessarily need a club. I learned on the school yard. You just need a racquet and sneakers. Play in the school yard or the school gym. Having more indoor facilities is the dream, but people can be playing tennis in different forms and fashions everywhere in the country.”