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5Q: Richard Peddie, ex-CEO of MLSE

Jennifer Kwan
25 October 2013
5Q: Richard Peddie, ex-CEO of MLSE

In the final pages of his new memoir Dream Job, Richard Peddie draws comparisons between what it takes to run a marathon and to lead a successful business.

Working under high pressure. Having an addictive and compulsive personality. Keeping track of your progress in a journal. Those are key similarities, says Peddie, former president and chief executive of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which under his helm grew to be worth some $2 billion from $300 million in enterprise value.

What gets measured gets done, adds Peddie, and his 15-year stint at MLSE is filled with sometimes agonizing moments of hitting the wall, and lessons learned from pushing through it. He's proud of running a handful of marathons with a personal best time of 2:46; of running several companies and never getting fired in his 40-year long career.

However, many suggested he should have been fired, at least for his role in presiding over the perpetually inept Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC, a legacy that will forever hang over him. By the time he retired in 2012, Peddie, came to realize that while the job may have been the stuff of dreams, it certainly wasn't always a dreamy experience.

Hated by some fans, he recalls early-morning prank calls and death threats. "You're Dead" is a chapter title in his book, outlining those first encounters in 2004 during what was" undoubtedly the worst stretch" as president and CEO of MLSE, Peddie wrote.

His book, which hit stores this week, gives readers a glimpse of Peddie's career highs and lows, from running Pillsbury Canada and Hostess Foods to the SkyDome and MLSE.

Was Dream Job the original title of the book?
It wasn't the original title in my mind. I have never told anyone the original title and you're not getting a scoop, either. Larry Scanlan (who helped write the book), one day said to me why not Dream Job? When I was 20-years old, I wrote in a journal I wanted to run a basketball team. I had this dream at 20 and realized it at 49 as CEO of the Raptors.

There's some colourful stuff in there. For example, you call Vince Carter a "mama's boy." What advice would you give to executives/managers when dealing with high maintenance talent?
There's certain rules. It's listen, we're going to treat you well professionally, help you with all your media reviews, help you with your charity. But there's a line. There's values for the team and nobody should come above those values.

What lessons can be learned from the Carter debacle?
I think the mistake we made with Vince Carter -- with his graduation, with his mom getting a parking spot -- we basically catered to him and sucked up to him. It's a slippery slope.

You talk about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the issue of financial transparency, and on the idea of contraction (i.e. reducing the number of teams) What does contraction look like? What is the right size of the league?
To the best of my knowledge it's never been studied. If it was it was never shared with me or with any of the owners. The league has 30 teams. It's expanded from the original six. I suggested to Gary he should contract. I think I suggested 24 teams--12 and 12 is a nice even number.

On the tension of wining in business and losing in sports, why do you think you didn't win? In fact, you rarely even made the playoffs.
It's the ultimate meritocracy. In hockey, there's one winner and 29 losers. As Brian Burke says, there's only one parade. Are the management teams doing the right job and are they lucky enough? If your goalie gets hit and you lose a goalie for the year, that's horrible. I mean all of a sudden a promising season goes down the drain. In basketball, you might get lightening in a jar where 27 teams passed on a kid. The 28th team drafted him and the kid turned out to be an all-star. I hired Brian Burke, I hired Bryan Colangelo --proven winners--surrounded them with everything they needed. But they still weren't able to pull it off. 

You seemed to have run MLSE in the background and let the GMs be the stars. Tim Leiweke appears to be doing the opposite, putting himself front and centre. What do you think of that?
It's more risky. I was more front and centre in the media in my early days. It's a very sexy business. I wanted to use the term needle in my arm. Larry (Scanlan) really didn't like that at all. It's kind of like a drug. You see yourself in the news. When things are going well, you open up the paper and there you are and everyone wants to talk to you. You get asked for autographs. It's a heady thing.

How do you think Leiweke is doing so far?
Tim is really focused on winning. He's less focused on the business. But that's not to say he's not focused on the business, he's a good businessman. But he's made his thing about winning teams. Somebody recently asked me how do you think Tim's doing? Well, it's too early to tell. Check back at the end of the season. At the same time, it's not Tim's hockey team it's Brian Burke, Dave Nonis and a little bit of Richard Peddie. He doesn't own that team yet. What happens with the TFC next year? That'll be Tim's team. What Massai (Ujiri) does with the Raptors? That's Tim's team.

On opportunities, you've said you never bought the CFL because it was a "long run for a short slide." Looking back, couldn't you have made that really profitable?
I think I could've made $1 million a year and it was going to be a lot of work -- a lot work. If I put on four concerts I could've made that. And they 're not a lot of work.

On next generations and media convergence, is there a ticket price point where a team's long-term success is endangered? If kids grow up watching hockey on flat-screen, high-definition TV, how do you get bums in seats?
There is inflation in the real top-notch sporting events that you wonder how long that can last. I think there's still upside on Leafs tickets and I do believe there's upside on Raptors. If they get to be a winner, it'd be a hot ticket. High-definition television has never been better. I believe in technology so it'll continue to get better, but there's still nothing like being at the game.

You say you're in active retirement. What's next?

The book will keep me busy. I've got 17 speeches lined up. I'm hoping to be on a speakers tour. I teach. 2014 is a very important year for the city of Toronto with the municipal election. I want to get involved in that, but I don't want to run.

 *This interview has been edited and condensed

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