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If you build it, they will come: Predators CEO Henry on putting down roots in Nashville

Nashville Predators CEO Sean Henry speaks with The Hockey News publisher Graeme Roustan as part of our ongoing Peer-To-Peer Q&A series.
Nashville Predators

Nashville Predators

Sean Henry, CEO of the Nashville Predators, spoke with The Hockey News publisher Graeme Roustan as part of our ongoing Peer-To-Peer Q&A series with prominent members of the hockey business world.

Graeme Roustan: Sean, welcome to The Hockey News. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Sean Henry: Hi Graeme, thanks for having me.

GR: You’ve got a long corporate executive history, starting with Volume Services. Can you tell us about Volume Services and what you did there?

SH: It used to be called Volume Services, it’s called Centerplate now, and it’s a very different company than when I worked there. When I started, I had the vision to help the sporting world, I was a 14-year-old kid working as a busboy at Jones Beach State Park (in Long Island, N.Y.), and I didn’t even realize that Volume Services worked with so many sports teams around the country. I worked there all through junior high, high school and college. I paid for my school, I worked full time all through college. If it weren’t for them, I probably never would’ve gotten through. So I’ve always been grateful to them. When I graduated, they set up a management trainee program for me. I was going to spend three months at four different accounts over the course of the year, with the first one being the new home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. So I went to Detroit in October, and that three-month opportunity turned into about five years. I was fortunate to get promoted a few times and had a chance to get close to the guys at the Pistons, who at the time were doing some revolutionary things. They controlled their own building, they had a venue that was designed around signage, and they had suites and hospitality and were a very dynamic group.

When I got promoted from there, I went to St. Louis to help build the new home of the NFL’s Rams as they were relocating and work with them on a few different fronts. From there, I left and was part of a startup, an HDTV company called Unity Motion. We were the first to broadcast HDTV to a national audience, the first to sell a product and retailers, the first to do a live sporting event in HDTV. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. We were the first to do a lot of really neat things, but we were also one of the first to go bankrupt.

While that was happening, the Pistons were in the midst of buying the Tampa Bay Lightning, and I was fortunate enough to work with Ron Campbell, who was CFO of the Pistons and became president of the Lightning. I was offered the opportunity to run the business side in Tampa, and we did a lot of fun things down there.

GR: That was your entry point into the hockey world, and you were in Tampa Bay for about a decade, correct?

SH: Yes, we bought the team in 1999, and I left officially in 2008 when we sold the team to Oren Koules, (but) I kind of stayed on as a consultant. Then the team was sold to Jeff Vinik, and I had the chance to work with him for about four or five months as I was transitioning to Nashville. And it was really nice to see the team go from where we built it. We took it over when things weren’t all that great in Tampa Bay or in that building and had a chance to create something really special with our fans and our employees. We really grew. And then to be able to do all the things we did in Tampa Bay back in Nashville again, it has been really fun the past nine years here, too.

GR: Do you look back at your time at Volume Services and see that as paving the road for Tampa Bay and Nashville?

SH: Yeah, I really do. No matter what event we were doing, when someone walked in the front door as a guest or a partner, we wanted to make sure they got the most out of what they were coming in for. And the busier the building is, the more opportunity you have to promote what a great experience it is, and that can help you sell more hockey tickets.

GR: Your organization is one of the best places to work in Tennessee, and you’ve received recognition for that. How important is it to create an environment for the employees to come to work, love what they do and be proud of the whole organization?

SH: Well, it’s everything. You know, everyone in the sports world, we get a lot of accolades, and sometimes we deserve them, and sometimes we don’t. And it’s nice. We celebrate all of them. But the one we stopped and paused on was that top workplace award, because that means we’re giving employees the foundation do everything else. We always talk about building an environment and a culture that allows people to thrive, to have their voice heard and be part of something a little bit bigger than themselves. It’s one thing to say, but when you win that award you realize it’s coming together because what you preach is what is being appreciated by your employees. And most importantly, when they thrive, we get to move forward and continue to do what we do, and that’s connect with our fans and the city of Nashville as a whole.

GR: Can you talk to us about how involved the Predators are in the community?

SH: When the team first got here, they understood they had an opportunity to sell hockey in the community. And the best way to do it was to let people get close to our players. We all know how good they are. So they set forth with a model of, we’re going to touch a lot of different places, we’re going to create something that really impacts the community more than the norm. Fast forward to where we are now, and we’ve taken that up quite a few degrees. We work with a couple hundred different organizations on our grant distribution that we do, and then another 700 organizations where our employees and our players touched them on a daily basis.

And what all of this has done for us, which was never the intent, was allow us to grow our business with people who didn’t know who the Predators were or what hockey was, because their first association with the team was us helping them do something. As we got a little bit more successful, the passion our fans have for our brand allowed us to further impact organizations day in and day out. We have a very simple philosophy: we want to work with as many organizations as possible.

GR: Your arena is kind of unique in that on game day, it’s crazy in there. It’s loud. It’s noisy. Your fans are well known in the hockey world for their enthusiasm, their excitement. Where do you think you’d be withoutthat fan support?

SH: We wouldn’t be in Nashville, there’s no doubt about that. You hit it well – we have such an odd build-up of the music industry and the passion for live events, as well as the passion for the sports that were here before us, NASCAR and NFL football and SEC football and college basketball, and you have all these different traditions coming together in one combination in our building, and then you throw the best sport of all on top of it. And that’s hockey, of course. And what you have is this explosion of the irreverent hospitality, of celebration, where you don’t know when a song is going to break out. But it’s fun. We always say our job is to get out of the way and let our fans just do what they do.

GR: Where do you see the next major investment for your team? Is it in the arena? Is it in youth hockey? What’s your next big focus?

SH: Over the past six or seven years, we’ve put about $80 million in the building, and we just struck a new 30-year lease with the city for us to stay at Bridgestone Arena. With that, we’ve identified a way to ride the success of the building and to continue to invest in it. So we continue that aggressive capital investment in the building to keep it one of the more modern buildings in the country. We also opened up our first rink four or five years ago, and we’re about to cut the ribbon on our second rink. The first one is 20 miles east of the city, the second one is 20 miles west of the city. And we’re about to announce two new deals with two other counties in the surrounding area, so that’ll give us four rinks, with a total of eight or 10 ice sheets, that are new to the community.

And that’s important. For us, it’s not just building the rinks to get more people playing and helping to promote the game. We work with the local government to put the new rink in a part of town that needs development. So it’s really exciting not just to build more and more rinks but to help change the economic success of certain areas in and around Nashville.

GR: You’ve obviously spent a lot of time building the business, but you also seem to have a lot of time for serving on not-for-profits. I know you’re involved with the YWCA. How important is it for a CEO to be involved in charitable organizations as well?

SH: I think it’s paramount. To take on something as serious as domestic abuse, as we do with the YWCA, there’s no bigger challenge to our community than the threat of violence against women. So it’s really important to make this a better place to live and just to do what’s right. It’s good to be able to leverage your position, if you will, to take on some important challenges in the community.

GR: Sean, I want to leave it there with you because you can’t finish on a better note than that.

SH: Thank you for letting me do this, Graeme, I really appreciate it.

Listen to the full Q&A with Sean Henry


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