Former airline executive Michael Friisdahl has been named as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.'s new chief executive officer, ending a 14-month search that had its share of turbulence.
Mr. Friisdahl leaves the top job at Air Canada's Leisure Group, which merged the airline's vacation and discount brands, including Air Canada Rouge, in 2012. For much of his earlier career, he held executive roles in the travel industry with Thomas Cook North America and Thomas Cook Group PLC.
His appointment, beginning in December, signals a shift in tone at the top of the organization that owns the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs, the National Basketball Association's Raptors and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC. Whereas outgoing CEO Tim Leiweke was a sometimes brash power broker in the sports world who made his reputation in Los Angeles and rubbed shoulders with stars, Mr. Friisdahl has no immediate connection to sports, bringing instead a background in travel, marketing, sales and corporate mergers.
He sums up his vision for MLSE with one word: "Winning."
"We're going to want to deliver to [our fans] championships. And that is clearly one element of what's been missing," Mr. Friisdahl said, stopping short of promising any parades, as Mr. Leiweke famously did early in his tenure.
The hunt for a new president and CEO to oversee MLSE – "a fairly intense search," in Mr. Friisdahl's words – had some false starts since August, 2014, when Mr. Leiweke announced he would leave by June 30 of this year.
By May, MLSE board chairman Larry Tanenbaum told The Globe and Mail the organization was "close" to naming a new CEO, contradicting Mr. Leiweke's comments that he would be staying on longer. Days later, MLSE pushed back Mr. Leiweke's departure indefinitely, unable to agree to terms with a candidate.
Based in Toronto, Mr. Friisdahl led the 2013 launch of Air Canada Rouge, the airline's discount brand, which has since grown from four aircraft to an expected fleet of 36 by the end of 2015, despite stiff competition from Air Transat, WestJet Vacations and Sunwing Airlines. He sought to instill a friendlier culture at Rouge, sending flight attendants for training with Disney in a move that was seen as a test case for Air Canada's wider corporate culture.
At MLSE, he plans to focus on community events and the fan experience, for which he draws parallels to the large numbers of customers airlines must keep happy.
"The credibility he brings from the leisure travel space will suit him well as a sideways step into the leisure sporting and entertainment industries," said Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc. "He gets things done. He's able to see the big picture."
At MLSE, the CEO's role is now expected to focus more on corporate tasks, including the live entertainment and real estate portfolios, leaving sports decisions to Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri, and Toronto FC's new president Bill Manning.
"You're not going to find me involved in any of the day-to-day operations of any of the teams," Mr. Friisdahl said, pledging to support the team leaders.
Before the CEO search began, he had no personal relationship with MLSE's board, which includes representatives from co-owners BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. But he fit the job description.
"Given our unparalleled sports executive and team leadership, MLSE's CEO search focused on the appointment of a seasoned Canadian business executive to lead the organization, and we've found exactly what we were looking for in Michael," Mr. Tanenbaum said in a statement.
Mr. Leiweke, who joined MLSE in 2013, is reportedly planning to join soccer star David Beckham's investment group in Miami. A spokesman confirmed it is an option Mr. Leiweke "is looking at," but said he is "still involved" at MLSE until Mr. Friisdahl takes over.