Florida Panther's President Michael Yormark

By
Services for Real Estate Pros with ALC Risk Solutions and The Jewish Business Magazine

From the Jewish Business Magazine

 

As I looked over the empty arena in the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida, I had numerous questions I wanted to ask my interview subject, Michael Yormark. This man was already very interesting to me because he had the title of President of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, which owns, in addition to the empty, ice-less, rink I was standing over, The Florida Panthers and Sunrise Sports Channel. Essentially, this man has the final say over all operations involving a National Hockey League franchise. Needless to say, I was impressed before he answered my first question.

However, that’s just where the admiration would start. Michael grew up in Springfield, NJ and along with his twin brother, they moved to Morristown, NJ for high school. Like a lot of other Jewish kids in NJ, they quickly realized that professional sports would only be a career for them if they were not trying to make money on the playing surface. Michael says, “As we grew up we realized there was going to come a time when we weren’t going to be able to play. We were so enamored by the industry and had been exposed to it from a very young age that we dreamed about leading professional sports teams one day.”

Easier said, than done, however, not only is Michael Yormark now leading the Florida Panthers as the President of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, his brother, Brett Yormark, is the CEO of Nets Sports and Entertainment, the owner of the New Jersey Nets. To me this feat is absolutely incredible. In the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB, combined, there are approximately 3,850 players.  There are only 120 professional sports franchise in the four major sports leagues in the United States and Canada. Everyone knows just how hard it is to become a professional athlete, so imagine the difficulty of becoming a CEO of a professional sports team, and for twin Jewish boys from North Jersey, without financing the purchase of the club themselves, both became the heads of professional sports clubs.

So what’s their secret?Michael Yormark Florida Panthers President and CEO

“First of all, it’s all about hard work,” says Michael Yormark. “As a young child I dreamed about being in this industry and I had a focus. I didn’t allow that to waiver, regardless of the challenges of getting into the business. So number one, if this is an industry that you want to be a part of, then do whatever it takes to open up that first door.” Speaking with Yormark’s friend, Herman Lebersfeld of Capitol Lighting, he told me a story about wanting to have a relative check out what Michael Yormark does for the day because he was interested in sports management. Yormark said it was no problem, just to drop him off at the arena at 4 am when he gets there.

As much as hard work has been important to the success of Michael Yormark, it’s also about working smart and he does that by networking. Michael says, “network within the industry; meet as many people as you possibly can and maintain those relationships, because you never know when those relationships will be a help to you going forward.”

Yormark’s last key to success isn’t something one can really achieve if through practice or training. “You got to be in it for the right reasons, you got to be in because you believe in it, because you have a passion for it, you have a love for it, you have an affection for it, and you want to make it your life long career. If you have that mindset, you’ll be successful.”  If you have a passion for whatever industry you are in, you’ll be able to put the time in necessary to be successful. You need to make a lot sacrifices, especially early on, but if you push through, you’ll be rewarded. Yormark continues, “But at the end of the day, as I tell my staff, it’s all about working hard, paying the price and being passionate and believing in what you’re doing. That’s why I’m sitting where I am today. For me it was about a intense focus, it was about a strong desire to be in this business, to do what I’m doing today.”

Jewish Involvement

I asked Michael if he thinks that his Jewish identity has played a role in his success. He says “In some of the markets I’ve worked, in some of the communities I’ve worked, where there was a significant Jewish population, it helped me open up doors that otherwise may have been closed… But, outside of that I’m not sure if my religious or more specifically my Jewish identity has had a significant impact on my career” Michael and his family are active at their synagogue, B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida. Michael has also been involved with the Jewish National Fund, but he admits that he is not involved with as many Jewish causes as he’d like. However, he and the Florida Panthers are very involved with local charities.  Michael is a board member of the boys and girls club, in Broward County. He is the President of the board of the City of Sunrise Foundation.  He is also on the board of Broward Health, and serves on the board of Winterfest.

Michael feels that serving in the community is important for him, and is important for the Florida Panthers. A major initiative the Florida Panthers are undertaking this year involves, “finding ways to give back to local community, being a good corporate citizen. It’s also something that is very, very important to us.” Michael admits, “Our foundation has not been active as it needs to be. We need to give back to our community at a much higher level. And one of the things that will become mandatory and we will announce officially in the next coming weeks, for every employee of ours, it will be mandatory, moving forward for every employee to donate at least 10 hours of volunteer time to local charities in the community, starting immediately and every employee that is a Vice President and above will donate 20 hours of work to assist local charities in the community. Those are the types of initiatives that will help us become better corporate citizens.  And become more involved in our community and hopefully impact our community in a positive way.”

Goals On-Ice & Off

Now that Michael’s harJohn Vanbeesbrouk's Section in the Florida Panther's Den of Honord work has paid off and gotten him into this position, he is uses the same attitude and work ethic to excel in his position as the head of the Florida Panthers and the Bank Atlantic Center. The Bank Atlantic Center is a world class facility, and has been recognized as such.

“A big goal of ours is to continue to provide a strong value proposition as it relates to the entertainment side of our business. When you think of our business, Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, we really repositioned our brand over the past five to six years. I remember when I first joined the organization, everyone looked at us as a Hockey company. Today they look at us an entertainment company that happens to be in the hockey business. There’s a big difference there. And so, one of my jobs is to make sure we continue to dominate the market from an entertainment perspective. That we get every big show that is on tour; that we maximize every available date that we can bring into this facility. We’ve done a terrific job of that over the last couple of years. Most recently, in Pollstar rankings for the first quarter of 2010, Pollstar ranks all of the entertainment facilities in North America, and we are number 7 in the US and 15th in the World. We’ve come a long way in that side of the business and we need to continue to work on that continue to push forward and that’s going to be a big goal of ours this summer.

As great of job that Michael has done with increasing the entertainment proposition for SSE, he has had many struggles with the hockey operations side of the company. Michael is well-aware of the struggles the Florida Panthers have had on the ice, and he is committed to turning around the performance on the ice, which will help with all business operations. Michael says, “For us, in light of our history, keeping our staff motivate, keeping them upbeat, passionate about what they do every day is probably my biggest challenge. I joined the organization; I believe it was September 2003, that season we didn’t make the playoffs. Then, obviously the next year, we had the work stoppage.  That was a significant set-back for the franchise. We came out of the work stoppage, knock on wood, in pretty good shape, but unfortunately, as it relates to our product on the ice, we have not been able to turn the corner. We haven’t been in the playoffs in 10 years, 9 seasons and that’s a challenge.” Michael emphasizes the solution, “so you got to kind of start over ever year and try to create a fresh identity for the franchise in order to push the business forward. For me it starts with trying to motivate the staff and making sure they come into the office with a lot of passion and energy everyday and that’s not easy. So we try to build a lot of activities for the staff, a lot of team building functions. We are very sensitive to the long hours that our staff keeps. We are also sensitive to the mindset they may be in because this is a very emotional business. When you win you feel very good about your product, about the company you work for,, and when you lose, you may not feel as good. There are lots of ups and down, it’s a very unique part of our industry. And it’s one of the things that make us very different from other industries. So you have to watch that closely to make sure you get maximum productivity from your employees. That’s something I really focus on quite a bit. That’s one of my three or four top challenges in this position.”

Long term, big picture, we want to position ourselves as the premier organization of it’s type here in South Florida. It’s a competitive marketplace, there are multiple entertainment venues, there are multiple sportsFlorida Panthers Den of Honor at the Bank Atlantic Center teams and we want to be position as the best of the best, and we’re not there yet and we have a long way to go. We’ve been in transition for quite some time and I think with the new ownership structure put in place in November we’ve got the chance to be a very successful company. So long term that is my goal. When our employees wear an SSE golf shirt or a Florida Panther’s golf shirt, in public, whether it’s at Publix, or a local diner, or at a movie theatre , or at the ball park, I want people to come up to them and say, ‘wow, do you work for that company, my gosh, that must be awesome.’ That’s the kind of response I want my employees to get. We’ll only get there if we’re perceived as a first class company that is the best of the best. And I want every one of our employees to have that experience, to feel that positive feedback from people in the community. To be able to walk outside, with their head held high, knowing that they work for a world class organization that is successful both on the ice and off and most importantly gives back to the local community, if we can accomplish that, we’ve done one hell of a job.

For Michael, he has to have his eyes on many different areas, and many of which are hardly within in his control. If you’re the CEO of a Bank, you need to watch the credit department, the commercial banking, the personal banking, human resources, accounting, ect. As a bank CEO you need to pay attention to the regulatory market and you don’t really have much control over the Federal Reserve or the stock market, but you can manage your risks and have a stable operation. If you’re the head of a professional sports franchise you need to worry about human resources, ticket sales, advertising sales, team travel, entertainment at your venue, programming for your channel, and then at the end of the day, you have a sports team that’s reliant upon injuries, psyches of pro-athletes and talent.  It’s not an easy job. But, Michael loves it, and that’s why he’s got it. But what he really wants is to get his team to the promise land, and in the National Hockey League, that’s the Stanley Cup. “If we won a championship here, even though we haven’t sold out every game every year and attendance is a challenge for us here in a non-traditional hockey market, especially since we haven’t won, I think if we won a Stanley Cup Championship, those things would fall into place.”

One thing that the Florida Panthers has, which Michael is very grateful for, is a large, core base of fans that are ravenously loyal to the Florida Panthers. Yormark said to me, “we are very, very fortunate to have a very, very loyal core fan base. More loyal that the core fan base of the Dolphins, the Heat or the Marlins. When you come in to the Bank Atlantic Center on a Tuesday night when we play against Ottawa, that absolutely is not a draw here in South Florida, and we have thirteen, fourteen thousand fans, fifteen thousand fans, cheering on the Florida Panthers, that’s loyalty, that’s commitment, that’s passion. So I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing a core fan base and maintaining a core fan base, but in order to grow it from there, we‘ve got to win.” And Michael knows that there’s only one way to keep that fan base happy and to grow it from there. “We’ve got to expose the casual fan and the non-fan to what Playoff-Hockey is all about.  The intensity and passion of playoff hockey is nothing like anything else in our industry. You can’t compare it to major league baseball playoffs, or the NBA playoffs, or the post season of the NFL. It truly is that unique. If you go back to 1996, when this team went to the Stanley Cup finals here in South Florida, I still believe it’s the greatest sports story this town has seen in the last 20 some-odd years. Everybody became a Florida Panther fan. Everybody was talking about the Florida Panthers. Everybody wanted to experience it live down at the Miami arena. And I think he we were able to duplicate that and show people here in South Florida what that experience is all about they’d jump on this band wagon big time. And so, we need to do a better job of making the right decision on the hockey side; putting a product on the ice that our fans can be proud of and that our fans will want to support and ultimately get back into the post season and ultimately create excitement for this community. If we can do that we will grow this sport exponentially over the next couple of years and we will be as successful as any professional sports franchise in this market.”

Michael Yormark Interview

How did you decide to get into the sports management industry?

I have a twin brother also in the industry. Growing up in Springfield, NJ and then Morristown, NJ, we had a passion for sports. As we grew up we realized there was going to come a time when we weren’t going to be able to play. We were so enamored by the industry and had been exposed to it from a very young age that we dreamed about leading professional sports teams one day. So quite frankly, ever since I got into high school, I tried to prepare myself, for one day to lead a professional sports team, and I’m obviously blessed at 43 years old I was able to accomplish that.

What is your favorite part of your career?

I had the opportunity to work in a lot of different markets and the relationships I’ve made along the way have been the most satisfying thing in my career. Relationships that I developed 20 years ago have helped me get to where I am today and those are the people that I communicate with on a regular basis. I often tell people that sports entertainment industry is very small, it’s a close knit fraternity and you’re able to develop a lot of close friendships along the way.  That to me has been extraordinarily satisfying.

Is there any animosity amongst teams on the business side or does that stay on the ice?

In most cases, when you look at the industry, there’s hundred and something-odd professional sports teams and we all have very similar goals and objectives in terms of building our franchises in our local markets. I’ll use my brothers team as an example, the NJ Nets, we much rather help each other than consider ourselves competitors. And even here in South Florida, I don’t consider the Heat, the Marlins or the Dolphins, competitors per se, I think there’s enough business, there’s enough opportunities for all four of us to not only survive here, but really to thrive in this marketplace. The closer we work together, the more successful we can all be as we try to build our business. You know some teams, and some of my counter parts may not have that same philosophy, but I’m a big believer in sharing best practices and I’m a big believer in trying to build the market while working with our competitors as opposed to not communicating with them.

Do you think your Jewish Identity has played a role in your success?

Not directly, quite frankly. In some of the markets I’ve worked, in some of the communities I’ve worked, where there was a significant Jewish population, it helped me open up doors that otherwise may have been closed. I remember when I moved to Tampa Bay in the late 90s, I was befriended by a couple members of the Jewish community when I first arrived there. They made the transition for me much, much easier. They introduced me to many of the Jewish business leaders in the community, that helped me jump start my role as the executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Lighting.

Obviously, here in South Florida, there is a significant Jewish community. I think obviously being Jewish helps me from a business perspective. But, outside of that I’m not sure if my religious or more specifically my Jewish identity has had a significant impact on my career.

Are you active in Jewish organizations?

My family is very active in my shul up in Boca Raton. We are members of B’nai Israel. My daughter goes to their private school, so we are very very active and we give back to the synagogue, I think in a significant way. I have been involved in the JNF, the Jewish National Fund, when I was in Tampa Bay and when I first arrived here in South Florida, but probably not as involved as I’d like to be or should be, and hopefully that is an area I can get more involved in as I move forward.

What other charities are you passionate about?

I am. I am a board member of the boys and girls club, which is a dominate organization here in Broward County. I sit on the board of the City of Sunrise Foundation; I’m actually the president of the board. I’m also on the board of Broward Health here in Broward County. So I am involved in the community, specifically here in Broward County. So I’m involved in a lot of charities, but its all about time management. You know being on the board of the Boys and Girls Club and being the president of the City of Sunrise Foundation and being on the board of Broward Health, and I also sit on the board of Winterfest. So those four organizations keep me busy.

In addition to running the Panthers, a television station and a major arena?

Exactly.

Have you ever face anti-Semitism in business?

As I think about it I’m not sure if I ever faced direct anti-Semitism. You know growing up in Morristown, NJ it was somewhat prevalent, going through high school, I was one of few Jewish people. Morristown has a significant Jewish population, but the high school I went to was very mixed and I experienced some anti-Semitism there. But not much in my career.  I’ve been fortunate to work in pretty mature communities that had a pretty good Jewish community whether it was New York, South Florida, Tampa, which had significant pockets of Jewish communities.

What is the most challenging part of being President of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment?

For us, in light of our history, keeping our staff motivate, keeping them upbeat, passionate about what they do every day is probably my biggest challenge. I joined the organization, I believe it was September 2003, that season we didn’t make the playoffs. Then, obviously the next year, we had the work stoppage.  That was a significant set-back for the franchise. We came out of the work stoppage, knock on wood, in pretty good shape, but unfortunately, as it relates to our product on the ice, we have not been able to turn the corner. We haven’t been in the playoffs in 10 years, 9 seasons and that’s a challenge. So you got to kind of start over ever year and try to create a fresh identity for the franchise in order to push the business forward. For me it starts with trying to motivate the staff and making sure they come into the office with a lot of passion and energy everyday and that’s not easy. So we try to build a lot of activities for the staff, a lot of team building functions. We are very sensitive to the long hours that our staff keeps. We are also sensitive to the mindset they may be in because this is a very emotional business. When you win you feel very good about your product, about the company you work for,, and when you lose, you may not feel as good. There are lots of ups and down, it’s a very unique part of our industry. And it’s one of the things that make us very different from other industries. So you have to watch that closely to make sure you get maximum productivity from your employees. That’s something I really focus on quite a bit. That’s one of my three or four top challenges in this position.

Would you rather have a team with lesser known players that win the Cup, or have a great player that brings in the fans, but doesn’t win the cup?

That’s a tough question. I would probably lean towards a great team that wins the Stanley cup, that may be a little challenged from a ticket sales stand point because I think that ultimately, if you build a championship team, and sustain it over time, you’re going to be able to fill your building. I’m not sure if winning the Stanley cup one year can turn a franchise around from a business perspective. But, I think I’d much prefer the challenge, of having a championship team, bringing a championship to a community, and leveraging that to build my business moving forward.

I think if you look as South Florida as an example, if we won a championship here, even though we haven’t sold out every game every year and attendance is a challenge for us here in a nontraditional hockey market, especially since we haven’t won, I think if we won a Stanley Cup Championship, those things would fall into place. So I’d prefer that scenario over having a team with a star that sells tickets, but ultimately doesn’t get to the promise land.

What are your top 5 goals for the panthers this off season?

  1. Make our brand relevant again. We just spent a couple days outside the office in an executive management retreat trying to put together our business plan for the summer, the fall, and for next season. That will help us better reconnect to the community, I think that’s very, very important.
  2. Finding ways to give back to local community, being a good corporate citizen. It’s also something that is very, very important to us. Our foundation has not been active as it needs to be. We need to give back to our community at a much higher level. And one of the things that will become mandatory and we will announce officially in the next coming weeks, for every employee of ours, it will be mandatory, moving forward for every employee to donate at least 10 hours of volunteer time to local charities in the community, starting immediately and every employee that is a Vice President and above will donate 20 hours of work to assist local charities in the community. Those are the types of initiatives that will help us become better corporate citizens.  And become more involved in our community and hopefully impact our community in a positive way. So that’s something that is a major priority for me.
  3. Number three, we got to do a better job of selling tickets and getting more people to support this franchise. We understand that this is a challenging time from an economic standpoint. And we know that people have a lot of choices in terms of disposable income. But we got to find a way to get people excited about our product. And how do we create a new image for our brand that will help us connect to the consumers and hopefully entice them to support us, whether it is by buying a mini-plan, half season package, full season package, but in order for our franchise to be more successful, we have to sell more tickets. And that’s something we really need to focus on this summer.
  4. The fourth thing that is a big goal of ours is to continue to provide a strong value proposition as it relates to the entertainment side of our business. When you think our business, Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, we really repositioned our brand over the past 5-6 years, I remember when I first joined the organizations, and everyone looked at us as a Hockey company. Today they look at us as an entertainment company that happens to be in the hockey business. There’s a big difference there.  And so, one of my jobs is to make sure we continue to dominate the market from an entertainment perspective. That we get every big show that is on tour; that we maximize every available date that we can bring into this facility. We’ve done a terrific job of that over that last couple of years.  Most recently, in Pollstar rankings for the first quarter of 2010, Pollstar ranks all of the entertainment facilities in North America, and we are number 7 in the US and 15th in the World. We’ve come a long way in that side of the business and we need to continue to work on that continue to push forward and that’s going to be a big goal of ours this summer.
  5. Lastly, we want to build a great company here. I think if we can accomplish one through four that the final goal of establishing a first class organization, that is looked at as the premier company of this type, here in South Florida, is a very achievable goal. But we need to accomplish one, two, three and four in order to get to five. It is not a goal we are going to be able to achieve over night. It’s not a goal that we are going to be able to achieve over the next four or five months, which is our summer. It’s going to take a little bit more time, but we need to start to lay the foundation, to achieve number five. We can do that by achieving one, two, three and four.

What are your long term goals for Sunrise Sports and Entertainment?

Long term, big picture, we want to position ourselves as the premier organization of it’s type here in South Florida. It’s a competitive marketplace, there are multiple entertainment venues, there are multiple sports teams and we want to be position as the best of the best, and we’re not there yet and we have a long way to go. We’ve been in transition for quite some time and I think with the new ownership structure put in place in November we’ve got the chance to be a very successful company. So long term that is my goal. When our employees wear an SSE golf shirt or a Florida Panther’s golf shirt, in public, whether it’s at Publix, or a local diner, or at a movie theatre , or at the ball park, I want people to come up to them and say, ‘wow, do you work for that company, my gosh, that must be awesome.’ That’s the kind of response I want my employees to get. We’ll only get there if we’re perceived as a first class company that is the best of the best. And I want every one of our employees to have that experience, to feel that positive feedback from people in the community. To be able to walk outside, with their head held high, knowing that they work for a world class organization that is successful both on the ice and off and most importantly gives back to the local community, if we can accomplish that, we’ve done one hell of a job.

What can be done to increase the fan-base for hockey in South Florida, both from your perspective and what the NHL can do to help?

I’ll tackle the NHL first, then I’ll talk about what we can do. I think that at the end of the day, we’re a local sport, so I don’t know what the NHL could do to help us improve our fan base here in the market. The only thing I think that what they could assist us with is really enhancing the profile of the game. And making sure that the stars of our game are promoted as aggressively as possible and making sure that our games are available to as many household as possible. Right now if you look at the national TV partners that we have, NBC and Versus; Versus is not in every household, and we have limited schedule on NBC, so on a national level our games might not have the penetration we’d like to see them have. Those are the two things I’d like to see from a league perspective.

On a local level, it starts and ends with our product. We are very, very fortunate to have a very, very loyal core fan base. More loyal that the core fan base of the dolphins, the heat or the marlins. When you come in to the Bank Atlantic Center on a Tuesday night when we lay against Ottawa, that absolutely is not a draw here in South Florida, and we have thirteen, fourteen thousand fans, fifteen thousand fans, cheering on the Florida Panthers, that’s loyalty, that’s commitment, that’s passion. SO I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing a core fan base and maintaining a core fan base, but in order to grow it from there, we‘ve got to win. We’ve got to expose the casual fan and the non-fan to what Playoff-Hockey is all about.  The intensity and passion of playoff hockey is nothing like anything else in our industry. You can’t compare it to major league baseball playoffs, or the NBA playoffs, or the post season of the NFL. It truly is that unique. If you go back to 1996, when this team went to the Stanley Cup finals here in South Florida. I still believe it’s the greatest sports story this town has seen in the last 20 some-odd years. Everybody became a Florida Panther fan. Everybody was talking about the Florida Panthers. Everybody wanted to experience it live down at the Miami arena. And I think he we were able to duplicate that and show people here in South Florida what that experience is all about they’d jump on this band wagon big time. And so, we need to do a better job of making the right decision on the hockey side; putting a product on the ice that our fans can be proud of and that our fans will want to support and ultimately get back into the post season and ultimately create excitement for this community. If we can do that we will grow this sport exponentially over the next couple of years and we will be as successful as any professional sports franchise in this market.

What advice do you have for young Jewish professionals interested in Sports and Entertainment management and marketing industry?

First of all, it’s all about hard work. As a young child I dreamed about being in this industry and I had a focus. I didn’t allow that to waiver, regardless of the challenges of getting into the business. So number one, if this is an industry that you want to be a part of, then do whatever it takes to open up that first door. Network within the industry; meet as many people as you possibly can and maintain those relationships, because you never know when those relationships will be a help to you going forward. Be willing to make sacrifices, because when you get into this industry, you are not going to make a lot of money initially. You got to be in it for the right reasons, you got to be in because you believe in it, because you have a passion for it, you have a love for it, you have an affection for it, and you want to make it your life long career. If you have that mindset, you’ll be successful. But at the end of the day, as I tell my staff, it’s all about working hard, paying the price and being passionate and believing in what you’re doing. That’s why I’m sitting where I am today. For me it was about a intense focus, it was about a strong desire to be in this business, to do what I’m doing today and not doing anything else and I was willing to move anywhere in the country in order to climb the ladder and I was willing to work as hard as necessary to get here and that’s what it takes.

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