Above all else, Geoff Molson is a Montreal Canadiens fan; of this there is ample evidence when you enter his corner office on the seventh floor of Bell Centre.
Photos, posters, hockey cards, jerseys, sculptures – there's a trove of memorabilia and it's, well, largish.
To the point where a framed 2010 Team Canada jersey bearing Jean Béliveau's meticulous signature is propped up in a corner.
"I'm not sure there's anywhere to hang that in here," says Molson, who acquired the memento at a Hockey Canada auction.
So yes, Molson runs a hockey team, and a storied one. He got into the business to reclaim the institution for his family and his city.
But the Habs, always more than a hockey team, have also become more than just a sports business.
When the brewing family scion and his brothers, Andrew and Justin, put together a consortium to buy the Habs, their arena and a concert-promotion business for roughly $575-million in 2009, it seemed a steep price.
It wasn't. If the Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for $800-million (U.S.) from potential suitors, what are the Habs worth? Forbes magazine reckons $1.2-billion.
The entertainment unit, rebranded evenko, has become a huge player in Eastern Canada (three years of wooing and the eventual acquisition of L'Équipe Spectra, which stages the Montreal Jazz Festival among other major events, has helped).
The Molson-led partnership also tore a page from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's strategy book and acquired a stake in a successful residential condo project – a second tower is in the advanced planning stages – and will manage a new 10,000-seat arena in suburban Laval when it opens in 2017.
By coincidence, the Canadiens' minor-league affiliate – which the club bought back from minority partner Michael Andlauer – has a two-year lease in St. John's.
This week, Molson announced a sizable investment to renovate the 20-year-old Bell Centre. With his team off to its best start in franchise history, the Habs' president and principal owner was relaxed as he welcomed a Globe and Mail reporter into his inner sanctum to talk about the financial state of the Habs.
If you have $100-million [Canadian] to spend on renovations, things are obviously going pretty well.
We've been lucky, and things have gone well. The lucky part for us has been a strong Canadian dollar, interest rates have lowered since we bought, so that's good for the financing model. It's also partly luck and partly not, but our team has performed well, with the exception of one really bad year. Especially in the past three years since [general-manager] Marc [Bergevin] and [coach] Michel [Therrien] have been in place. That drives performance.
Ticket prices have been tweaked a little this year, I'm wondering whether you have any fear of reaching saturation levels. How much do you worry about the future?
I don't think of it in terms of saturation. I think of it more in terms of two things. Performance of the team, and the fan expectation is that our team is going to perform every year. It's a very powerful expectation, and I take that very seriously and it makes me nervous. I'm not a negative thinker, but if there's something that keeps my up at night, it's that. The second thing I always keep a close eye on and can be concerning at times is the state of the economy, the affordability of entertainment. I keep a watchful eye on that, I try to stay as close to the pulse as possible.
How do you do that?
Interactions [with fans], Twitter, listening to people tell me about it, talking to scalpers. Season-ticket holders, suite holders, you can get a good feel. The Charbonneau commission [into corruption in the construction industry] had an effect. Season-ticket renewals are strong, but the use of nightly suites by companies potentially affected by the Charbonneau commission was impacted … we're lucky, we've overcome it.
You've talked about currency fluctuations in the past and that you try to mitigate it. How do you mitigate it?
It's a bit of everything. On my board, I have some great expertise on the banking industry and we are obviously partners with several banks – National Bank being the primary one, and they provide us with advice. We also have a CFO who solicits outside advice. But the simple way to do it, is when you believe it's the right moment – and I've learned you never get it right – you buy American dollars and protect yourself from the downside. You have to manage it on a daily basis.
How has the dip in the Canadian dollar affected you?
There's puts and takes in this whole thing. If you look at purely the salary cap and the exchange rate, you can do the math … but then, there's revenue that comes to us in American dollars. It makes you work harder to find alternative revenues, though. That's why this ride on evenko has been great, the acquisition of Spectra has been good – there's offsetting revenue streams. It's the same in the beer business, if you're all over the world, the better hedged you are. We keep bolting on things to our business.
You're privately held, but industry sources say you've paid back your financing and the partners have essentially been made whole in the past six years.
I wouldn't go into details as to what we've done, but we have a really strong partnership group and all of us are quite pleased with the results.
Is this as much fun as you thought it would be when you got into it?
Oh yeah, I love what I do, I'm very passionate about the people I work with, I could never trade it for anything else. It's a nice feeling knowing that what I want is what the entire population of Montreal Canadiens fans wants. We have a lot in common.
How does the partnership work between the brothers?
There's no conflicts, we're still a boring family. We're structured pretty well. The mothership is the beer company; this is an investment I'm particularly passionate about and I lead."
Do your kids [he has four, ages range from nine to 14] still bug you for NHL swag?
They're not too demanding. They like hockey tape, so I bring that home.
How close are you to Stanley Cup No. 25?
I think we're getting better.
Superstitious of talking about that, are we?
I'm a little superstitious. Last year, I thought we had a good team, and we did, we had a great team. Pretty much the same cast of characters is coming back this year with a few little upgrades. I keep touching wood we're going to stay healthy, which we were last year, and you never know.
This interview has been condensed.