In 2011, the Dallas Stars were bought from bankruptcy, and Jason Farris published his fourth book, Behind the Moves: NHL General Managers Tell how Winners are Built. A short time later, the Stars’ new CEO tasked Farris with a turnaround effort. Today, the Stars are on the rise, and Farris sat down with Profile to talk about the unique opportunities for hockey in a southern market and how rebuilding a championship team begins in the back office.
In all the research for your most recent book on successful hockey general managers, were you able to take away anything that helped you acclimate to this industry or become a better leader?
Jason Farris: I wouldn’t say I took away any specific skills, but having been in the executive world most of my life, the research confirmed a lot of leadership traits and things you observe in executive circles that are true of strong general managers [GM] as well. I’ve said for a long time, there are many GMs who could run organizations in the non-sports world. One thing that becomes evident in both realms is the need for attention to detail. But what it really taught me was that there are a lot of ways to win. The guys who are successful stay true to themselves and surround themselves with complementary talent.
You may not have researched it, but you do have experience bringing an organization back from bankruptcy.
Farris: Well, it was darn near close. Fincentric was a company that had been earning $12 million in revenue and lost $12 million the year I joined. A couple of us were brought in to turn that around, and we successfully grew it into a profitable financial services business in a tough global economy.
It seems like you enjoy a challenge.
Farris: I’m not afraid to clean up a bit of a mess. While I’m fairly entrepreneurial, I like to begin not necessarily at the raw, start-up stage of a business, but rather with a few assets. Often those assets can be tarnished or underutilized; that was certainly the case for us in Dallas. The Stars have a strong tradition and terrific marketplace, but it was a franchise in drift. Combining the sports world with my executive background was a dream come true.
On your first assessment, what objectives stood out as top priorities to get the club back on track?
Farris: An organization like the Stars has a lot of history. It was created with the Texas Rangers, and when economic times got tough, they were ripped apart. The threads of that memory were shredded, and the Stars were left under custodial ownership of the NHL for three years of bankruptcy. It needed a new direction that not everyone was ready for. It wasn’t by design, but we turned over roughly 75 percent of our staff in the rebuilding so that we could have the right people and leadership to pick up the pace and get the organization back on its feet. We always recognized there were a couple key drivers for our business that we needed to fix to go from significant loss to generating profit. We set a three-year time frame to do that. Broadcast drives a lot of top-line revenue for teams. Collectively bargained player cost and revenue share are big factors. And finally, ticket sales and corporate sponsorship make up the bulk of our local revenue. We basically turned over every rock and renegotiated every agreement to maximize value.
How did those decisions and a new workforce impact the culture?
Farris: We’re still evolving there. I come out of what I call the knowledge-based and creative industries—software and publishing—and I can see the similarity among them and sports entertainment: your assets are your people. We’re a sales and marketing organization that sells our talent on the ice. Our ability to attract and retain good talent is very important. To do that, we have to invest in everyone’s growth and treat them with a level of maturity and respect. Sharing quarterly results with staff, having them see the holistic picture of where money comes from and how it’s spent, sparks creativity about new revenue sources or better ways to do things. That approach is important, and we’ve tried to make information a lot more structured and understandable for management and staff alike.
You said ticket sales are one of the big drivers of the turnaround. How has community outreach been incorporated into your plans and bolstered game attendance?
Farris: We owe a great debt of gratitude to our former owner, Tom Hicks, for his foresight to build six Dr Pepper StarCenters in our market. As a southern, nontraditional market, we’re very blessed to have access to ice for kids and amateur players. We approached the four local rinks we own and operate, and the two we help operate, with an open mind, while asking ourselves, “Are we in the business of running rinks or winning Stanley Cups?” It occurred to us quickly that the two are not mutually exclusive. Growing the game in our market is an important long-term strategy for us to develop a fan base of people who’ve picked up sticks and been on a rink and know what that’s about.
In the offseason, we looked at youth hockey in the Dallas area and realized it had become very top-heavy with high costs to play. With too few kids, those who were maybe not prepared or skilled enough to play high-level hockey were being channeled into this expensive realm of the game. To broaden the talent pool and help those families that couldn’t afford it, we started the Little Rookies program, which gives kids who’ve never played—sometimes never skated—the chance to try the game at no cost for four weeks. We have on-ice instruction at any rink, whether owned by us or someone else in Dallas.
Off ice we’ve created a program called Fitness Stars through the Dallas Stars Foundation. In many school systems in and around Dallas, we’ve equipped elementary schools for floor ball to incorporate it into their physical education. More than 14,000 kids participated this year, and we are hoping to reach 40,000 kids next year. Students also collect stars on a bracelet for skills like agility and endurance, and many of them will ultimately take a field trip to a community rink.
How would you evaluate the Stars right now compared to when you came in? What have been the improvements and what’s the future look like in the short term?
Farris: As an organization, we really feel like we have the right people on the bus now. We made some big changes on the hockey operations side that are meshing really well to create a strong, healthy relationship with the business side and our ownership—the triumvirate, I call them. Season ticket sales are up well over 50 percent from when we began this turnaround, and we’ve still got a way to go, but we’re certainly moving the needle in that area. The biggest change that has positioned us to continue improving and expanding is that we’ve done all the behind-the-scenes work to scale the business. When we began this process, the Dallas Stars didn’t have a repeatable business. Nothing was written down. Success relied on a few key individuals, and there wasn’t any way to replicate results with new people. Now that we can replicate our successes, the next step is to layer the business with new revenue channels without incurring commensurate levels of cost.