You’ve been in the news lately, of course, because of your ownership of the Peoria Rivermen hockey club and the many changes taking place in Peoria hockey. Your business background includes a variety of activities, however. Tell us briefly about your background.
I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I moved to Pekin, Illinois, during the middle of my junior year of high school, which was an experience – Pekin being just a little bit different from Tulsa. I graduated from Pekin High School in 1970 and went to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri – the place where Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain Address,” the primary claim to fame for Westminster. I dropped out of college for a year to get a little more “dough,” then graduated in 1975. I went to work for Proctor & Gamble, selling products like Crisco, Duncan Hines, Pringles, and Jif Peanut Butter.
After moving to Peoria in 1978, I met my wife, Anne, and went to work for Ruppman Marketing. I worked for them until 1982, then founded my own company, Vertical Software, a computer software company specializing in PCs. I sold the company in 1992 to the employees. Since that time, I’ve been primarily working in consulting, writing shareware for various and sundry PC applications. Then one night, due to an obvious personality flaw, I bought a hockey team!
Before we talk about the hockey business in Peoria, can you give us a quick overview of where you believe the computer industry is going?
Software has evolved enormously since the advents of the PC. Actually, the hardware has evolved enormously; the software industry is really a strange beast as many of the programs and languages that I was writing back in the early 1970s still exist, and a lot of the programs – if you recompile them – will still run. That says the software business is lagging behind the hardware business.
There are a lot of new things – notably the Internet and the publishing of pages on the Internet – but actually, the writing of the programs for Internet (HTML) is still just as complex in the old days when I was doing everything on punch cards, but you still have to laboriously put together each individual page, and program all the links. There’s really been very little testing to shorten up the software cycle.
I have hardware on my desk right now that will run circles around the first computer I ever operated, which would even fit in my office or in two of three of my offices. But the software still takes forever to write. The hardware is there, but the software hasn’t kept up with it.
Probably the biggest think that is on the horizon is good speech recognition systems, and software written to take care of some of the necessary logical operations.
Back to your character flaw – hockey. For the past few years, hockey has not been noted as a profitable enterprise in Peoria. Why become involved?
I’ve asked myself that questions a lot of times and I’ve answered it a lot of different ways. I guess the most facetious one is that I was irrational at the time….
You don’t buy a hockey team to make a lot of money. If you take the same amount of money and invest it in other investment vehicles, your percentage return on investment would be a lot better.
I’m a hockey fan, to tell the truth. I didn’t buy the Rivermen as a lark, but it did sound intriguing. Running a business where you potentially won’t lose a lot of money, but will have a lot of fun, was very appealing to me. I assume it’s also appealing to many who have been in the business world for a while.
Many people don’t enjoy what they do. It’s not that I haven’t had fun with the things I’ve done in the past, but this has been a joyride everyday. We have worked very hard, but it has been a kick! We’re selling entertainment – something that makes people feel good. It’s a lot easer to sell than Duncan Hines cake mix.
Bruce Saurs, in selling the Peoria International Hockey League (IHL) franchise to San Antonio, maintained a 50 percent interest in that club, as well as keeping a minority interest in the new Peoria club. Give me your quick estimate of Bruce Saurs, as the man who kept hockey alive in Peoria.
Bruce does have a 30 percent interest in the Rivermen. We own 50 percent, and Tim Saurs, Bruce’s son, owns 20 percent.
Everyone in Central Illinois owes Bruce a vote of thanks, first of all. I think a lot of him. If he hadn’t stepped up to the plate when he did, we wouldn’t have hockey in Peoria today. Without Bruce doing what he did, it wouldn’t exist. The IHL, at that time, was not doing well. Bruce stepped up and took a big risk. The Civic Center was losing a lot on hockey.
I’m not going to criticize Bruce, but a lot of events overtook him this year. He made the best of it. Because he brought me into this, hockey is still here.
Tell us about some of the basics of your business plan for the Peoria Rivermen. Do you expect profitability?
I don’t expect to make a profit this year. If we break even, that will be terrific; if we don’t, it’ll be tolerable. We have done some surveying of our fans and our season ticket holders, and there were several things that jumped out at us from these surveys. One of them is that fans want – in no particular order – entertaining giveaways, and good value for their money. So, we have done things they said they wanted done.
First, every seat in the building – with the exception of the center ice sections (there are five sections on each side) – saw the ticket price go down. In those ten center sections the ticket price is $11, but the walk-up price went down on those center ice sections. In other words, if you don’t have a season ticket in the center ice sections, you can come to the game for less money and sit in the best seat in the house.
For the center ice season ticket holders we will provide a parking pass at reduced rates, in conjunction with the civic center. This is a first! There will be beverage and snack service to those center ice sections, delivered by energetic, young people employed by the Rivermen.
The second thing we’ve done is increase giveaways. They have been sporadic in the past, but we have already committed to 21 giveaways this season. One night we will give away 3500 jerseys, sponsored by CILCO. There has never been a jersey giveaway in Peoria to the best of my knowledge. Those jerseys sell in our shop for $20 a piece, so we will give away $70,000 worth of jerseys in one night. We also plan to give away youth hats, youth t-shirts, team equipment bags, etc. We will give away a special Valentine’s Day puck, which will be pink.
The third component is entertainment. We are booking ten different acts. During the Feb. 1st game, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders will be here; I don’t think they’ve ever been to Peoria. Another night we will bring in Debbie Dunning from “Tool Time” on the Home Improvement show. Debbie doesn’t sing or dance, but she does sign a lot of autographs. She’s not been to Peoria either. Plans also include the famous Chicken, the Philly Fanatic, the Ashton family, Royce Elliot, Sports Magic, and other acts.
We are also thrilled to be in a new partnership with WMBD, one of the most prestigious radio stations in town.
What’s it like stepping into a business venture where you really have no experience in the particular industry? How do you get up to speed?
Fortunately, there has been very little staff turnover. We’ve added three new individuals to the professional staff.
This year, the Peoria Rivermen will be operating under the East Coast Hockey League banner as opposed to the International Hockey League. The growth of the IHL has been well-documented, including its pricing itself out of a market the size of Peoria. With the Rivermen being affiliated with the East Coast Hockey League as opposed to the IHL, what differences will be apparent?
Hockey fans who have been watching hockey in Peoria for a few years will remember the late 1980s and early 1990s when we won our second Turner Cup. In those days, the IHL was a bus league, just like the East Coast Hockey League. The average age of the players was about 22 years.
As the IHL expanded into the bigger markets like Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, it became a skill league. We started seeing a large number of ex-National Hockey League players, so the average age of the players became 28 or 29. What you ended up with, instead of a developmental league where the guys were really fighting hard to get up to the next level (it was so much fun, it was unbelievable!) was a more sedate style. It was more skillful – don’t get me wrong – but more sedate for casual fan.
The true hockey fan would love the IHL because the players could skate and pass and do all these things so well, but I don’t think I appreciated it that much. I always liked the big hit. So what you’ve got is young guys fighting for a job and trying to get to the next level. That makes for more entertainment. The real difference between the IHL and the East Coast Hockey League is – yes, they’re younger players – but the net difference in what you’ll see on the ice is that in the East Coast they score more goals and drop their gloves faster. What’s wrong with that picture?
Obviously, from a business standpoint, the switch in leagues also means lower salaries and lower overhead. That has allowed us to lower the ticket prices and we have done that, except for the center ice section.
You have your head coach in place now, Mark Reeds. How does an affiliation with the St. Louis Blues or another NHL franchise look at this point?
I know Mark has been talking with the Blues; but there’s nothing definite. I’ve never met with them. I would love to have an NHL affiliation here. Under the rules of the East Coast Hockey League, if there is an NHL player with an NHL contract with a two-way or three-way contract (that means he plays with the East Coast Hockey League, the American Hockey League, and the National Hockey League) we are limited to four veterans under the East Coast Hockey League Rules. If they have an NHL contract, that guy doesn’t count. So we could have several NHL contract people and still have our four veterans. We have a long affiliation of being with the Blues here.
Another interesting thing is that the East Coast Hockey League publishes a list of players who have gone from the East Coast to the NHL. The whole East Coast League has only been in existence since 1988 and they have 35 players who have been promoted to the NHL. I believe we have had a few more than that, just from Peoria.
We are a great developmental city; we develop great players and St. Louis knows that. And Peoria is a lot closer to St. Louis than other East Coast teams.
The Rivermen book more dates at the Peoria Civic Center than any other client. How would you characterize your relationship with the Civic Center?
Absolutely terrific! Don Welch, representing Spectator, has been nothing but helpful to us. He wants hockey to succeed. He likes having us in his building. It was Don that agreed to the special parking pass for the season ticket holders, something unprecedented here in Peoria.
Peoria has a very exciting riverfront development plan going. One of the elements being planned is an ice rink on the Riverfront. Is your organization going to be involved in that?
There’ve been a couple of ways we have discussed being involved. One is using the proposed rink as our practice facility, which we would be interested in doing. An arrangement like that would be a good thing for any proposed rink, since our practices are in the morning or early afternoons, which is a down time for them. The other thing that has been talked about is bringing in a Junior A team; that is definitely up in the air, as I’ve been told a 2,500 seating capacity would be needed to accommodate that. The Rivermen would be very interested in participating in such a franchise, as a capital partner, a management partner, or some combination of both.
How supportive of Peoria hockey is the business community? What does having hockey in Peoria mean to the community at large?
The business community so far has been extremely supportive of our efforts to increase the entertainment value for the fans. One of the most notable ones has been CILCO. CILCO has agreed to sponsor an absolutely major league light show. It is really big time. The Florida Panthers have it; the Dallas Mavericks have it; the Chicago Bulls do not have it. Peoria has never seen anything like this. We’ll be running a light show at every game; it’ll knock people’s socks off. They’re computer driven lights, similar to the ones that move around at concerts except while those lights may be 18 inches long, what we are installing are lights five feet long. They are computer-synchronized to music. It’ll just be something spectacular!
Obviously, businesses can use hockey to entertain their clients. Hockey also gives Peoria an overall additional presence throughout the country. I can’t tell you how many ties, when I visit other cities and am wearing my Rivermen shirt, people recognize it and say, “That’s Peoria, isn’t it? Are you associated with the Rivermen?” This happens in airports. It really is amazing how recognizable it is across the country.
When is the Rivermen opening home game?
Opening night with the Rivermen will be a big production. It is Saturday, October 26, 1996, at 7:30 p.m. against the Dayton Bombers. Peorian Bud Gingher owns this team and he specifically requested to be our opponent for our opening home game. We are bringing in Retired General Wayne A. Downing as our special guest. Wayne recently retired as a four-star general from the Army. However, he came out of retirement because President Clinton requested him to assess the bombing in Saudi Arabia and security at other military installations in the Middle East. Until his retirement in April, he was commander in chief of the United States Special Operations Command. He commanded all Special Forces, including all Navy SEALS, Green Berets, Rangers, etc. Probably the best thing about him is he is from Peoria, graduated from Spalding, and is married to former Peorian Kathy Bickerman.
Also that night we will introduce the light show sponsored by CILCO. We will be giving away inaugural game pucks sponsored by CEFCU. There are a few more surprises in store.
You are a wine collector, almost to the point of it being a business in its own right. Tell us about that enterprise.
I do collect wine; however, I don’t collect it to look at it, but to drink it. It’s a great hobby if it’s viewed correctly. If you have to make a mistake, you just drink it! Yes I do buy and sell wine at auction; it’s been a hobby for a long time. A lot of people view wine collecting as a snobbish activity and, believe me, there are a lot of snobs in it. However, there are also some people who view it like I do, in that it’s real enjoyable. If you drink too much, you fall down. The main reason you have any hobby is to have fun, and I have fun with this.
I have written some software for wine collectors so they can keep track of their inventory, when they bought it, when they drank it, etc.; and I do sell that to wine collectors. It’s done on a shareware basis – if someone uses it, I’m counting on their good graces to send me $20. It’s not exactly a big profit center.
You’ve active in the not-for-profit world as well, at Lakeview Museum and Father Sweeney School. Tell us about your interests in these areas.
This past year I was a sponsorship chair for Lakeview. I’m the guy who goes our and raises the money to fund the exhibitions that come to Lakeview, who convinces the corporations to give the money so exhibitions like “Backyard Monsters” can come to Peoria. Lakeview is a terrific asset to Peoria and deserves our public support.
Father Sweeney School for the Academically Talented is the only Catholic gifted grades school (grades four through eight) in the country. Father Sweeney is a Catholic school; however, some 40 percent of the students are non-Catholic. It is fantastic for an area our size to have this gifted school. It is near and dear to my heart; my two children attend Father Sweeney. There is an awful lot of support today for special education students, but very little for the other end of the Bell Curve. These kids are just as special as anyone else. I feel we must support our brighter students as well as those who are disadvantaged. It’s very gratifying work, and the kids are great.
What excited you about the Peoria business climate, the local economy, and the future of the Peoria area?
It seems to me there are more things going on now than ever in the 19 years I’ve lived here. There seems to be an energy that certainly wasn’t here 15 years ago. The Riverfront is going forward. Downtown almost died a few years ago and it’s now revitalizing. The Civic Center is a huge part of that; we owe a lot to Dick Carver for putting it here. Peoria is growing and evolving; it’s an exciting place to live. If you like Midwestern values, this is it! The businesses here seem to be growing and thriving.
Is there any message you want to give to the business community?
Buy tickets. IBI