Penguins CEO addresses Management students

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Ken Sawyer, CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins, spoke to an enthusiastic audience in the third-floor lounge of the Bronfman building last Friday as part of the Faculty of Management’s CEO Speaker Series.

Within the last decade, the Penguins have propelled themselves from bankruptcy to the Stanley Cup. Sawyer began his talk by explaining how although there are some strategies for running an NHL franchise, the essential elements are the same as any other business.

One area that Sawyer highlighted was the differences of the economic structure of an NHL franchise, including salary caps, sponsor revenues, and local TV contracts.

When Sawyer assumed his position with the team as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 1999, the Penguins were in dire financial straits. However, he then pulled his Stanley Cup ring out of his pocket, emphasizing the importance of perseverance and success.

Sawyer also recounted some interesting anecdotes for McGill students to remember after graduation, encouraging the audience to take initiative. For those hopeful of a career in hockey management, Sawyer recommended to “start elsewhere, and make your mark elsewhere.”

Sawyer pointed to the franchise’s improvements and how he was able to contribute to saving hockey in Pittsburgh as his greatest successes. On top of that, Sawyer expressed great pride in the ongoing construction of the new Consol Energy Center, the arena the Penguins will call home at the start of the 2010-2011 season.

When asked about the recent trade of Ilya Kovalchuk to division rivals New Jersey, Sawyer assured the audience that his team is still in a solid position.

“We like the team we have right now, and it’s the team we won the Cup with last year, but sure, we’ll look at major transactions,” he said. “But it won’t make us do something that will disrupt our team on a huge level.”

Sawyer also argued that education is a life-long process, and cited his formal education in math, instead of business, as a prime example.

Kerry Jones, U1 Management, was impressed with Sawyer’s lecture, particularly how he combined aspects of both business and hockey.

“Sawyer was very well-spoken and articulate. What Sawyer said today about the business aspect was very helpful and what he said about the operational and management side of hockey was very interesting,” Jones said. “It was really interesting to understand that hockey is not just a game, but there is also a business side.”

The CEO Speaker Series will bring in other corporate leaders this semester, including National Bank CEO Louis Vachon and Sir Richard Branson.

The Series aims to supply McGill students with the opportunity to learn from executives and leaders in the corporate world. The series takes a unique approach to the traditional guest lecture format, beginning each event with a casual question-and-answer session led by an MBA student. Following this interview, the floor is opened up to students in the audience.

“The idea is for the students to get a sense of a senior leader’s view of the world. What is leadership?” said Professor Karl Moore. “Also, it’s about their careers. How did you get started, how did your career unfold, and if you were 20 years old, what would you do?”