The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 10, 2008

The Hall of Fame CEO

The Brown County United Way will honor one of the most successful CEOs in Green Bay June 12.

That CEO is Bob Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers from 1989 until the end of the 2007 football season. The “Evening of Memories with Bob Harlan” will be held in the Lambeau Field Atrium, which Harlan helped build, June 12.

Harlan, of course, didn’t play one down of Packers football, and he didn’t make one coaching decision in his 37 years with the Packers. It’s notable, though, that between 1993 and 2007, the Packers had the best record of any NFL team, and the team had 13 consecutive seasons and 15 of 16 seasons with a record of .500 or better. In a league where teams go from getting to the Super Bowl to missing the playoffs entirely in the space of one season, that’s a notable accomplishment of consistent success.

What’s more notable is the Packers’ financial strength, thanks in large part to the $295 million Lambeau Field renovation, which accomplished the nearly impossible task of creating more places for fans to spend money without losing the tradition of Lambeau Field. The Packers have had many more national TV appearances at home than has been warranted for their record; part of the reason was retired quarterback Brett Favre, but part of it was the ambiance that John Madden has waxed eloquent about for nearly 30 years on CBS, ABC and NBC.

The Lambeau Field project is one example of how Harlan didn’t shy away from difficult or controversial decisions. He decided late in the 1994 season that the Packers needed to stop playing games at Milwaukee County Stadium — in part because the Brewers were trying to get a new stadium built, but mostly because of the financial hit the Packers took every time they played in Milwaukee. (This may be hard to believe in the era of perennial sellouts, but Milwaukee games often required the purchase of remaining tickets by the TV station carrying the game to have the game on TV. The NFL requires games to be sold out 72 hours in advance — never an issue in Green Bay, but Minnesota and Detroit occasionally have non-televised games.)

Harlan fired one general manager, Tom Braatz, replacing him with Ron Wolf. (I think that move worked out OK.) He also signed off on giving general manager duties to Mike Sherman, then took them away when the dual GM/coach role didn’t appear to be working out. Giving both jobs to Sherman was in retrospect the wrong decision, though there was little complaint about the decision among the chattering classes at the time.

The decision to expand Lambeau Field, the most extensive renovation project for any major professional sports stadium to date, involved balancing two factors — the tradition and history of Lambeau Field, and the reality of teams opening new stadiums and their associated revenue, which, unlike TV and merchandise sale revenues, teams didn’t have to share with their NFL brethren.

Some might say that being the Packers’ CEO couldn’t have been a very difficult job with all the TV money coming in. To that, consider the following list of teams that moved during Harlan’s time with the Packers: The Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland, the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis, the Cardinals moved from St. Louis to Arizona, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore (replaced in Cleveland by an expansion franchise), the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee (replaced in Houston by an expansion franchise), and the Rams moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim, then to St. Louis, replaced by … no one, yet.

In each case, teams that were well established in their home markets (well, except for the Raiders, the franchise on wheels), pulled up stakes (in the Colts’ case, in the middle of the night) and left for what they thought were greener pastures, leaving heartbroken fans in their wake.

Opponents of the Lambeau Field expansion (or, more accurately, opponents of taxpayers’ paying for it) claimed that there was never any danger of the Packers’ emulating the Raiders, Colts, Cardinals, Browns, Oilers and Rams in leaving. That was technically correct but factually incorrect. Certainly the Packers’ board of directors would never vote to move the franchise to, say, Los Angeles. However, the NFL did nothing to stop all those aforementioned franchise moves, since each of them was to bring more money into the NFL — in professional sports, as we’ve seen more times than you can count, money trumps tradition almost every time. Since the Packers’ franchise is part of the NFL, the NFL certainly could have pulled the plug on the franchise, held a dispersal draft to move the players to the remaining 31 teams, then awarded an expansion franchise to cover the hole.

I’ve interviewed Harlan a number of times. Every time I asked him about his philosophy of management, it’s been, essentially, to hire good people and let them do their jobs — he provided input where asked, but he didn’t meddle. That sounds like an obvious concept, and yet it’s amazing how often that advice isn’t followed, particularly in professional sports.

Harlan also displayed a notable unwillingness to adhere to the status quo at a time when, despite the Packers’ lack of on-field success, they were still selling out games; had he thought success was based only on attendance, he would not have fired Braatz in favor of Wolf. Building the Don Hutson Center and previous Lambeau Field and practice facility enhancements demonstrated that being in the smallest market in major pro sports didn’t mean team facilities wouldn’t match the best the NFL had to offer.

Professional franchises don’t have a huge history of success in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Brewers had six consecutive winning seasons between 1978 (eight years after they moved from Seattle) and 1983 (including playoff seasons in 1981 and 1982), and only five winning seasons and no playoff berths since ’83. The Milwaukee Bucks (an expansion franchise created after the Milwaukee Hawks moved to St. Louis in 1955) have won 53 percent of their games, but have had one successful season this decade. In contrast, the Packers are not only the most successful pro sports team in Wisconsin, they have the largest following by far, as evidenced by the number of radio stations that carry both the Brewers and Packers, but dump the Sunday Brewers game when it interferes with the Packers.

There is an old Boy Scouts saying that people should leave a place in better condition than they found it. Harlan certainly did that. Harlan is a member of the Packers Hall of Fame; he should probably be in the NFL Hall of Fame as well.

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