Matt Majka, the president of the Minnesota Wild, spoke with The Hockey News publisher Graeme Roustan as part of our ongoing Peer-To-Peer series with members of the hockey business world.
Graeme Roustan:Matt, I’ve got to go back in time with you a bit, because we have a mutual friend in (Minnesota Wild founding owner) Bob Naegele. He meant so much to not just Minnesota hockey but, really, the game. Everything he touched, from the inline skating industry to the dasher-board business to the Minnesota Wild, everything. That’s really how you got your start. Can you share some thoughts with us?
Matt Majka: Bob is really an icon in Minnesota and, as you said, beyond, because he made contributions to the game well beyond Minnesota. But he happened to be one of us, so he’s beloved here as well. He was given the Lester Patrick Award in 2008, which speaks to his reach beyond Minnesota. I worked for Bob right out of college in the early ’80s, when I took a job with a company called Rollerblade. It started out as a hockey training tool, that’s where Bob’s heart was, always in hockey, and it grew into something bigger, which was an education all in itself for those in marketing. Bob owned that company for more than 10 years and guided it to great success. And then he sold it, and decided it was time to bring NHL hockey back to Minnesota. What a legacy that is, to bring NHL hockey back to the State of Hockey. Bob’s fingerprints are all over Minnesota hockey and beyond. It was sad to have him pass last year, but his imprint will be felt for decades to come.
GR: What was it like working for him? Everybody knows about the iconic figure, with his big hair and big laugh and big smile. I remember going to trade shows, and you always knew where his booth was because that’s where the biggest laughs were coming from.
MM: He was a gregarious guy. He was loved by everybody because he genuinely cared about others. One of the things that everybody remarks about Bob is how he always remembered everybody’s name. No matter if he met you once, he knew your name, and he often knew your kids’ names and would ask about them by name. And there was no trick to it. I once asked him, “Bob, how do you do that?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know.” Ultimately, I just figured it was because he cared about people. He had a way of rallying people around him without needing to be the center of attention.
GR: My history with Bob is I owned a company that competed with him – a dasher-board business. As you know, in the business world, it’s competitive, and some people sort of hate their competitors. But Bob would embrace you. We competed head-to-head selling dasher boards, but that didn’t matter to Bob. He said, “You’re in the same business, you must love hockey, and I love hockey, so we’ve got something in common.”
MM: Exactly. That was another lesson I learned from him early in my career. It was disarming that he not just embraced competition sort of strategically, he cared about people. He made friends with enemies, or supposed enemies. Like you said, we’re in this for the same reasons. We want the industry to grow, the category to grow. To the degree we can, let’s work together. Let’s be friends and not mortal enemies. I remember being sort of thrown off-guard by that but then figuring out that’s a logical and reasonable thing to do, and it makes good sense. And Bob was really good at that.
GR: I remember getting a call from him in 2007, and he said, “Hey Graeme, I hear that you’re in the process to buy Bauer.” And I said, “That’s right.” And he goes, “Well, so am I.” He owned Mission-Itech at the time, with Kevin Compton, owner of the San Jose Sharks at the time. Bob said to me, “You know, we’re going after it hard because we think if we combine Mission-Itech with Bauer, it’s a perfect fit.” I said, “Bob, I agree with you.” And I jokingly said, “OK, well, here’s the deal. If you win the Bauer competition, you put those two things together, and I agree with you. But if I win the Bauer competition, you sell me Mission-Itech.” And he laughed hard, and he said, “You’ve got yourself a deal there, Graeme.”
MM: (Laughs) That’s a great story.
GR: And then he called me when it was announced that I won the Bauer process from Nike, and he was laughing, and he goes, “Graeme, congratulations on buying Bauer. When do we start talking about me selling you Mission-Itech?” It was the next day. It taught me a really important lesson in business.
MM: (Laughs) That’s great. That’s pure Bob right there.
GR: It taught me a really important lesson in business, that it’s OK to enjoy the process and the people on the other side of the table, and embrace the big picture. You don’t always end up with Bauer and Mission-Itech, but you’ve got to be excited about the possibility of growing the business even if you’re not at the helm of it. He believed in the business and the industry. Is that a good assessment?
MM: I absolutely agree. So many of us, especially early in our careers, think business is a zero-sum game, where I win and you lose in equal parts, right? But Bob wasn’t that way at all. He viewed it as a win-win, and we can grow the pie together, even as competitors, and what’s good for me can be good for you as well. Those that were paying attention always learned lessons like that from him.
GR: For him to take on the task of bringing back the NHL to the state of Minnesota, in my mind it was something that only Bob could do. When a franchise leaves a city, there’s so many bad feelings, so much damage to the community. And when I saw Bob bringing back NHL hockey to Minnesota, I believed he was the only guy who really could do that. (The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993. The expansion Minnesota Wild started up in 2000.)
MM: That’s probably not far from the truth. You’re right, the psyche of the Minnesota hockey fan was badly damaged by the North Stars’ departure. I’m sure it’s true that not just anyone could have won back the league and won back the fans. You had to do both, and Bob was uniquely suited, because he was viewed as authentically caring about the marketplace in Minnesota and the deserving fans of the State of Hockey, and he had built great relationships with the NHL. Bob was uniquely suited based on his personality, the relationships he had and his approach, his business philosophy.
GR: Moving on to your new owner, Craig Leipold. I see Craig as a visionary, a bold leader, a person willing to make tough calls. That’s a different style than Bob, who was more of a friendly, big bear of a guy. Craig has that side to him as well, but he’s also got the tiger in him.
MM:You’re right. Craig’s not afraid to make tough decisions. He’s an interesting person to work with in terms of processing information. He wants information. He doesn’t make decisions impulsively. But there’s a point where he’s got enough information, and he’s going to act. He’s not going to analyze anymore, and when he makes his decision, he doesn’t look back. Not to say he’s perfect, but he stands by his decision, and moves on. He has a propensity for action. He is predisposed to act, and I like that.
GR: How important is it for the team to reach out beyond Minneapolis and St. Paul?
MM: Hugely important. The success of our sport goes well beyond the boundaries of the metro area. So many of the great Minnesota players and great lore of Minnesota hockey exists elsewhere in Minnesota, in greater Minnesota. There are so many great stories, great personalities and legends that come from outside of the metro. Bob knew that. Craig knew that as well. The Wild is a part of the State of Hockey, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. After 20 years, we’re still kind of earning our place in the State of Hockey’s history, and that’s OK. We’re here to be stewards for the sport, to grow the sport and to celebrate the sport. And Craig got that from Day 1.
GR: Running a franchise is a complicated business. There’s a lot of moving parts. How important is it to your overall business to have an arena that is a revenue generator and a year-round building?
MM:We’re really unique, because we own and operate the Minnesota Wild but we also operate the arena and convention center that is attached to the arena, so we’re booking concerts, scheduling events at our convention center, and Craig recently opened up a restaurant on our campus. That’s diversified our business substantially. Make no mistake, the Wild is the economic engine that runs this place, but the peripheral opportunities of operating the arena and convention center contribute to our success, and we continue to look at opportunities to find related businesses we can be successful with.
GR: Lastly, 23 years with the organization. Looking back, can you sum it up?
MM: I’ve been blessed both at Rollerblade and here to work alongside outstanding people, great mentors in Bob and Craig, and in interesting businesses. Rollerblade was a interesting business, and it was an education for me in sales and marketing in particular, and then being able to take some of that over to the Wild. Even though it is quite a different business, some of the skills of sales and marketing apply almost no matter where you go. I’ve worked with great people. I still work with great people. I have great mentors in my life. I pinch myself that I’ve been able to do this. I’m still enjoying every minute of it. We’ve had peaks and valleys, but that’s part of the package. And those valleys make the peaks that much better.
> Listen to the full Q&A with Matt Majka at TheHockeyNews.com/P2P