Linda McMahon looks back at building the WWE into a successful business as she launched her newest venture.
Linda McMahon has been the most impactful force in the the growth of the professional wrestling industry, but you will never hear her admit it.
While her husband, Vince McMahon, was and still is critical to wrestling, it is Linda McMahon who pushed the business to grow in ways never envisioned–or imagined–by any other promoter.
“Vince and I, together, had the wonderful ability to grow many businesses,” said McMahon. “We developed and grew a licensing business from scratch.”
While Vince directed the growth of wrestling’s pay per views and on-air product, Linda McMahon worked behind the curtain to create publishing, music and licensing deals–like action figures–for the company.
“We built each division at WWE one step at a time, except for the LIVE event,” said McMahon. “The LIVE event was the business that had been done with professional wrestling until the time we really took over. We expanded to licensing and music rights and publishing–all of those different aspects that came in under the umbrella of WWE – and we just learned it from the ground up.”
McMahon also has the rare distinction of out-smarting her husband.
“We did a surprise party for Vince at Radio City Music Hall, and it was incredibly clever on my part, I must say,” said a laughing McMahon. “Vince is very hard to surprise.”
The party was a celebration of Vince’s birthday, the couple’s twenty years together in business and a wedding anniversary all under the guise of a roast for former chairman of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol.
“We were good friends with Dick Ebersol, Susan Saint James and Bob Costas,” explained McMahon. “I got Susan Saint James to call Vince and say she was having a surprise party for Dick and she asked if he would be one of the roasters. She said it was going to be a surprise, so please don’t give it away.
“Vince had gotten an invitation, which our creative services at WWE had done, which had the NBC logo and peacock and the whole inside was printed and the roasters for Dick Ebersol were listed. It was amazing–and he said, ‘Well, I’m in some pretty good company here.’ So he totally bought in, and it was really, really fun.”
Vince prepared his speech, and was even rehearsing his delivery on the way to the event. However, the WWE Chairman soon realized that he was in for a surprise.
“Just as he was walking up to the room where we were having the party, he saw three or four of our wrestling talent outside and a couple of the announcers–and it dawned on him,” said McMahon. “He couldn’t believe it, and said to me, ‘What have you done?’ It was a roast, and it was such fun.”
The McMahon’s two children, Shane and Stephanie, also played a role in the surprise.
“Stephanie and Shane did a skit as though they were conducting the first WrestleMania on the moon,” shared McMahon. “Shane played Vince, and Stephanie played me in that back-and-forth conversation. It was just their commentary back and forth that was very funny–‘What do you mean you’ve lost your boots and you’re now going to be floating up around the ring?!’”
The 67-year-old McMahon left the WWE in 2009. She is now busy with her newest venture, Women’s Leadership LIVE, which has made its mission to “educate, inspire, and empower women to stand out as catalysts for change and to build a world where women obtaining and exercising power is both expected and commonplace.” McMahon is a co-founder of Women’s Leadership LIVE with Debbie Saviano and Stacey Schieffelin.
“We’re giving women the opportunity to network with each other and hear experts in different fields,” said McMahon. “We want to let women know, ‘This is how these women were successful, and they’re sharing their story with you.’ Our goal is to train women, give them the tools for success–ever how they define success, and that’s what is critical. We want to reach into each of those pockets to give them access to that knowledge and experience.”
There was never a blueprint for how a woman could succeed in pro wrestling, but McMahon never needed one. She thrived due to her intelligence, hard work and creativity.
“I didn’t really start out thinking that I was part of a man’s business,” said McMahon. “I was just really working with Vince, helping him at what he was trying to do. Each of us has different strengths, and mine were detail, organization, administration and the financial picture.”
McMahon is also an anomaly in pro wrestling, but it has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her character. The cutthroat, braggadocious business encourages bluster and bravado, but McMahon is humble, smart and willing to share credit with those around her–and she accepts her role as a revolutionary force in the business with her typical humility.
“None of that ever crossed my mind,” said McMahon. “It was a natural growth with our business. Vince and I did everything until we couldn’t, and then we hired somebody else to help, and then we hired somebody else. We really built, strategically, the foundation of the organization as the business grew and developed. We built a concession business, if you will, because we started selling t-shirts at live events, which was not being done at that time.”
Speaking from the conference room in her Connecticut office, McMahon explained that Women’s Leadership LIVE is the product of her life’s work–and her desire to empower the current and future generations of women.
“I want Women’s Leadership LIVE to be an incredible success, because I would like to feel that we have given so many women the opportunity to rise to the level that they want and ought to be,” said McMahon. “We want to be a catalyst. We want to finally get to the point that women are exercising power and accomplishing all these things. It’s not, ‘Oh wow, they did that!’ but it’s expected. That is the way it ought to be.”
McMahon is the only child of Henry and Evelyn Edwards, and she was raised in New Bern, North Carolina. A major component of Women’s Leadership LIVE is mentoring, and McMahon’s parents served as incredible role models for her.
“I was my father’s son and my mother’s daughter,” said McMahon, who lost her father but is still grateful to have her mother, Evelyn, who is 89 years old. “There was never any time when I felt I wasn’t equally capable–whether it was being the only girl in the county who could hit a jump shot in basketball or playing first base in the baseball with the boys. I was always encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do.”
McMahon’s parents worked at the Cherry Point Air Facility in North Carolina.
“They married young,” said McMahon, “but they’d known each other for a long, long time. She was a budget analyst with the government, and she had a very high-powered job in her division. She was always an incredible role model for me. I never really thought about the fact that there weren’t female role models because I had them in my life. The women I knew in my life were so strong.”
McMahon excelled academically, and she loved to push herself in the classroom. She admitted that school was simply another chance to compete against herself as well as others, having fallen in love with the spirit of competition at an early age.
“My parents were both competitive, so it’s in my DNA,” said McMahon. “I’ve always been competitive in sports, competitive in academics, and I had a lot of support and encouragement from home. I remember one time I came home with an A-minus on my report card, and my dad wanted to know what happened. They always encouraged and praised me for being successful, so I wanted to succeed. I always wanted to be as good as I could be at what I was doing.”
Life forever changed for McMahon at the age of thirteen when she met Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
“Vince’s mother worked at the same military base as my parents, and they knew of each other, but that’s not how we met,” explained McMahon. “We met at church. His mother sang in the choir and she actually introduced us.”
McMahon laughed when asked if she had ever met anyone quite like Vince.
“No, I’ve yet to meet anyone like him,” said a smiling McMahon. “I was the honors student and the civic leader in my hometown, and Vince was the local badass. There was a little bit of that bad boy aspect that I think was incredibly appealing, and it must have been–we’ll have our fiftieth anniversary this coming August. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and a very shrewd businessman.”
Linda and Vince McMahon married in August of 1966, and she actually finished college in three years so she could graduate with her husband.
“My parents’ greatest wish was that I graduated from college,” said McMahon. “Neither of my parents had a college education, and they really wanted me to have one. I was a French major, and I just wanted to finish as close to his graduation as possible. As it turned out, we graduated together.”
Wrestling aside, Linda and Vince McMahon have succeeded in marriage due to their willingness to sacrifice for each other.
“We shore each other up and we support each other,” said McMahon. “Someone asked me recently if marriage is 50-50–it averages out to be 50-50, but sometimes it’s 75-25, sometimes it’s 90-10. In the end, it has to average out to be 50-50, that’s how you support each other.”
After earning her college diploma, McMahon began working at the internationally renowned Covington & Burling law firm in 1969. She was hired at an entry-level, but quickly proved her value to the firm by translating correspondence from French to English.
“This law firm had a huge international division,” recalls McMahon. “I was a receptionist when I first went to work there, so correspondence would come in first thing during the day and, to get things going, they’d come to me for more information.”
McMahon’s work at Covington & Burling allowed her to study intellectual property, which turned out to play a key role in her success with WWE.
“Covington and Burling had an opening in the probate division and I applied,” said McMahon. “There was an opportunity to apply, and I was a kid right out of college, all they could do was say no. But they took me on and trained me, and that is where I learned about intellectual property. Vince Lombardi was a client of the firm, and I was able to learn about the trademarks of our clients and what copyrights they had. It was a real learning experience.”
By 1972, Linda and Vince McMahon moved from Washington, D.C. to New Britain, Connecticut as Vince was just cutting his teeth as a promoter.
“Vince had two jobs, actually,” said McMahon. “He was an independent promoter of wrestling events for his father’s company, Capitol Wrestling Organization. The brand name was World Wide Wrestling Federation, which was shortened, subsequently, to World Wrestling Federation, even before we bought it, but the company name was Capitol Wrestling. As Vince was the local promoter for live events, he was also a television announcer for Capitol Wrestling. My job, really, was assisting and making sure that the accounts and all of that were settled in an administrative role. It was really helpful and fun for him to be able to rely on me to do that.”
The McMahon family–which included nine-year-old Shane and three-year-old Stephanie–then moved to South Yarmouth, Massachusetts in 1979 after purchasing the Cape Cod Coliseum. In addition to raising the children, McMahon was willing to do whatever was necessary–including turning her kitchen into a factory–to help the family business grow.
“We had brought down the Boston Bruins for an exhibition game at the Coliseum,” recalled McMahon. “We had to guarantee a fair amount of money from them to skate and have a game at the Coliseum, so we sold VIP tickets. One of the things VIP tickets got you was into the conference room to meet some of the players and food. One of the things that I’d made my whole life were these cocktail meatballs, so Vince and I–for three nights in a row–made all these meatballs, hundreds of them. We were sold out within a couple of hours, thank God.”
Success was never a guarantee for Linda or Vince, but the duo refused to stop working until they were successful. McMahon’s inquisitive nature, and her willingness to research, have helped constitute the foundation of her success–and served as the stimulus for one of WWE’s biggest money makers, the action figure.
“I called Hasbro because Shane played with G.I. Joe,” said McMahon. “I looked on the back of the packaging and it said Hasbro. So I called and said, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s what I would like to do, but I have not a clue how to do this.’ We were no threat to anybody, and they really didn’t even know who we were. I was talking about doing wrestling action figures, which at the time were called figurines, and they were very happy to give me information about how the licensing process worked–and actually gave me the name of a licensing agent.
“We did the first licensing deal for our articulated action figures, as they were later known. Then all the other licensed products grew from there–that was a whole business. The music publishing business–and, to this day, we have Jim Johnston, who writes a great deal of our music–and we learned the publishing business, because we had to learn about publishing rights. We hired music lawyers, and the contracts were done, and I was the point person. I learned the music business, the publishing business, and I wrote the [WWF] Magazine for a long time under the name ‘Linda Kelly.’ I was the editor, but I wrote a lot of the articles.”
McMahon’s work, in addition to a very exciting in-ring product and television programming, allowed the company to flourish.
“It was just so busy and always so much to do,” said McMahon. “It was so fun and challenging and stimulating.”
McMahon is careful to always share the credit, noting that there were always talented people working with her.
“Look at [WWE’s] Tribute to the Troops,” said McMahon. “That was not me. I was part of the support of it, but Vince has always taken our troops very seriously. He wanted to visit war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait–and the first place was Kuwait. Tribute to the Troops was not my impetus, as that was something he wanted to do. I was clearly supportive of getting that done, and he still goes–and I’m very happy when he gets back, because it is still very dangerous to go.”
McMahon thrived at multiple roles professionally, yet still made time for her children and family.
“It was hard,” she admitted. “You have a lot of guilt that you maybe aren’t spending enough time with your children as you need to. There is almost seven years difference between Shane and Stephanie, so that was different, too. For a while, there was just one child–and organizing someone to watch him and take care of him while I went to work was easier–and then, when Stephanie came along, we had two children–but in both cases, we were very fortunate to find good people who helped take care of them, and people who loved them and they loved.”
Women’s Leadership LIVE’S first conference this past May in Dallas, Texas was a success, and its next major event is in October in Salt Lake City, Utah. McMahon is such a unique resource because of her skill set with product merchandise, negotiations, talent relations and she even played a role in WWE’s move to a PG-rating.
“That wasn’t me, so much, moving to a PG-rating,” explained McMahon. “The development of WWE programming, over time, has mirrored the market place. During the time that WWE was in the ‘Attitude Era,’ which was TV-14–if you looked at television programming and movies that were produced, they were edgier during that same time frame. Then, as that opinion shifted, WWE’s opinion shifted, as well, and sponsors had different demands. It was more of a family-friendlier audience to come back to PG-TV.”
McMahon exited the WWE in 2009 to run for political office. She won the Republican nomination for United States Senator in 2010 for the state of Connecticut, but lost the general election. She won the nomination for a second time in 2012, but again finished in defeat (“I wanted to win and I ran as hard as I could,” said McMahon).
Even without the title of Senator, McMahon has continued to fight for the causes in which she believes.
“While I was at WWE, we had started the ‘Get Real’ program,” said McMahon. “That really morphed into more of a reading program for children with the Young Adult Library Services Association. That’s still in existence today–there is still a contest at WrestleMania. That really gave a touch-feel point for education.
“I’ve always been passionate about education. I wanted to be a teacher–that’s why I majored in French. I’ve been very passionate about education, and I was appointed to the Board of Education in Connecticut by Governor [Jodi] Rell and I went to her because I’d read an article in The Greenwich Times that said the state of Connecticut was not meeting the standard of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I started delving more and more into the whole education process, and there was an opening on the Board of Education and the Governor appointed me. I wanted to continue to be involved in these types of projects, and I am today. When I was campaigning, that’s really when I became aware there were so few women role models.”
McMahon was shocked at the amount of young girls who attended her political rallies.
“Their mothers told me, ‘They have so few women role models, and they want that association with you,’” said McMahon. “That gave me the first indication that there weren’t enough women role models. Because I had been so busy running a company and being involved in the growth of that company, and not having to bump up against the glass ceiling on my own because it was a company I helped build, I really started to look and listen more to the market place.
“It really still is a man’s world, in terms of business. As we started looking at the research, more and more has been made over the past several years about the lack of women’s leadership, or discrepancies in pay with women getting seventy-eight cents on the dollar. Women are fifty-one percent of the population, make eighty percent of the buying decisions within a home, yet so few of them are on public boards. All of this started weighing on me, and I wanted to know how I could help more and give women more support and an active voice.”
Co-founders Stacey Schieffelin and Debbie Saviano originally created Women’s Leadership LIVE, and they brought the idea to McMahon.
“Stacey and I had become friends, and she was a strong supporter of my campaign and believed in what I believe in, and knew we had simpatico thoughts,” said McMahon. “Then she and Debbie came to me to ask my opinion of Women’s Leadership LIVE. I looked at their business plan, I heard about what they wanted to do, and that very day, I said, ‘I want in,’ and they were thrilled.”
McMahon, who is also a grandmother of six (“That’s been the really sweet part–the grandchildren”), is tying together every facet of her life with Women’s Leadership LIVE.
“The only ceiling is the one you should set for yourself if you allow yourself to have that boundary, but you shouldn’t bump into a glass ceiling. You have to advocate for yourself, and we have to keep pushing for women to be the best at what they can be and help them have the confidence to do that.
“Women, in general, are much more successful if they are mentored, much more successful if they have a community of support–I call it a little wind beneath their wings. There are a lot of ways to toot your own horn, and women are much more hesitant to go in and talk about their accomplishments to their boss or to the community. That’s why I’m so pleased with my granddaughters–they are just having this incredible world of support. They see their mother [Stephanie] is a performer in the ring and she also has an incredible career, and to see the respect and admiration that she gets wherever she goes, and I’d like to think they see that a bit with me, too.”
McMahon remains thankful for her business partner and husband, Vince McMahon, who she described as an extremely forward thinker.
“Obviously you play a role on television,” said McMahon. “Stephanie is obviously not this overly aggressive, over-the-top, very bad women that she portrays on television. She’s this wonderful, gregarious, fantastic mom, accomplished professional, respected in many segments–it’s no different than any other actor who plays a role. Vince McMahon is as progressive a thinker as anyone.”
McMahon would not list her proudest accomplishment, as she is still active and pursuing her next goal.
“I am proud of everything I have done,” she said, “and I am looking forward to that next horizon.”
The most influential behind the scenes force in pro wrestling then returned to her spot in the background, quietly and tirelessly working toward another successful venture.
“If I’m not growing and learning every single day, then that’s the day I’ll die,” said McMahon. “Everything is yesterday. You have to look forward to tomorrow, and expect to grow and learn, keep your mind open and bring in as much information and as much knowledge, interacting with as many people and as many subjects and as many ideas as you can, because that’s so stimulating, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.