1 on 1 with
Burton Lee is the Executive Director of Business Operations for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Behind the scenes, we’ve been connected with Burton Lee for a while now. Over time, we’ve grown increasingly interested in the work he does with the Petes. Interestingly, he run a weekly meeting with my staff called “Showtime!”, at which he brings in industry experts to discuss trends, best practices, their individual backgrounds, and next steps with his employees. Sounds a lot like what we do at the SPort MAnagement (SPMA) Hub with industry profiles, eh? Burton Lee is as energetic, enthusiastic and astute as it comes in this industry. It was super interesting to hear how Burton’s work with the Petes has changed now that the global COVID-19 pandemic has effectively put the OHL to a halt until further notice. What we can guarantee is that Burton’s optimism and principles of continuous learning still remain!
My day-to-day has changed since the pandemic hit, our season/playoffs were cancelled, and our physical distancing measures came into place (but “change” is the normal state, anyway). As of now, we are operating like in any off-season: preparing for our next games, ensuring customer relationships are positive and working on longer-term initiatives to grow the team, the league, and the sport as a whole.
My role as Executive Director is all about driving positivity at the Peterborough Memorial Centre, in the hearts and minds of Petes’ fans, and ultimately in team revenue. This has never been so evident as during the current global pandemic.
I oversee our business operations department, directly managing a team of full-time and part-time employees, and indirectly overseeing our many interns and volunteer team members.
Reporting directly to the Petes’ Board of Directors, I am responsible for ensuring the financial viability of the OHL’s longest continuously operating franchise. Our team operates as a not-for-profit organization, which is extremely unique in both pro sport and elite-level amateur athletics. As a result, every dollar must be made before it is spent, so for us to expand and grow, we must first drive profit to eventually invest.
In general, though, the cliché is accurate: no two days are the same. My priorities are ensuring that all staff have the resources and tools they need to meet their unique goals and key performance indicators. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time in meetings (e.g. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Jitsi and FaceTime!) and on phone calls in an effort to build and maintain key relationships, including those I develop with staff from the league and other OHL teams, our facility (which is owned and operated by the City of Peterborough), community partners, and our hockey operations department.
There’s nothing like seeing a full, energized crowd at a home game. This requires all staff to be working in sync, including our ticket sales department who work to sell out a game, our game operations and marketing staff who entertain the fans, our corporate partnership sales team who ensure the sponsor activations are fun and engaging, and our communications staff who tell the stories (not to mention the hockey operations department who try to put a good team on the ice, but that’s beyond my control).
We’re fortunate that our strategic changes have paid off, as we’ve seen consistently improving revenues along with double-digit attendance growth year-over-year since 2016. Crowds lead to crowds, and the more butts we can put in seats, the more other people want to join in on the fun, which keeps our entire team going.
On top of that, I love hosting our weekly Showtime! Sales & Marketing meetings in the Petes’ Office. We invite guest speakers from across the industry and around the world to chat with us about their career, current roles, industry challenges and opportunities, and more, all in an effort to give the Petes’ staff members a more global context. It can be extremely easy to fall into various bubbles in junior hockey, and this helps us stay up-to-date with the industry.
Every job is absolutely essential on the business operations side, and weak links reveal themselves pretty quickly (see former GE CEO Jack Welch’s “Vitality Curve,” but be careful to read too much into “hard-and-fast” systems like that!). With that said, finding quality ticket sales staff is always a challenge. It takes a special type of person to fully buy into the sales process and commit to “owning” their ability to sell tickets.
Training for these positions is also time consuming, so when teams get into a position of high turnover in sales departments, it can be a vicious cycle.
Despite what most interviewers say, having “a passion for ” is not all that important. You need passion, but it’s not likely that your passion for that sport will sustain your employment in the business past a few years.
To build a sustainable career in sport, you need to find a passion beyond the “sweaty men [and women] running up and down the court/field/rink,” to take a line from LA Clippers sales executives. For me, that passion is bringing people together and making connections.
In general, these three skills are very important:
Being able to make genuine connections and grow the relationship will take you far, either as you build trust with clients, grow your media relations presence, or generate buzz in the community, you will need to be able to connect and relate to people.
No school program will teach you everything you need to know to be successful in the industry. What you should aim to learn at school is how to learn. Being able to find effective solutions to problems and challenges.
If you can’t find fun in working in this industry, it’s just not worth it. There are plenty of high-paying jobs with better hours and other perks out there. If you don’t look forward to coming into work most days, cut your losses (but I would suggest you wait at least a few years in the industry before making this decision – it takes some time to find your place).
Spend a little time making connections and being curious, but most of your time putting your head down and doing your job. Attend every conference call, meeting, and panel discussion you can to learn more about your job and others, but you will really get ahead in the early days by blowing your job expectations out of the water in the first few months. You’d be surprised at how quickly new opportunities open up after 12-24 months if you shine in your first job.
And go read ‘The First 90 Days’ before you start your next opportunity (or read the summary, at least).
The Petes’ are very keen on learning and development. Much like our players on the ice (we’ve graduated more players to the NHL than any junior team in the world), we want our staff to learn a ton, grow fast, and then advance in the industry within a few years (either into new positions with our team or at other organizations in the industry).
This starts with our interns, who we task with real opportunities that will help them prepare for full-time opportunities.
With that being said, even though we’ve made great strides in the past several years, we have a LONG way to go in every area of our operation. We try to get better every day, and I hope that we never settle in and get comfortable.
Above all else, Burton Lee embodies the Peterborough Petes’ mantra of continuous development both on and off the ice. He motivates his colleagues by hosting speakers from all different areas of the sports world to provide an up-to-date perspective on the industry. It also helps foster creative new ideas from his staff to help excel the Petes’ organization. After getting the opportunity to connect with Burton Lee and learn more about his philosophies, the future shines brightly for the Petes’ organization and the Ontario Hockey League.