Many Montreal Canadiens fans feared the unknown American when he bought control of the National Hockey League team in 2000 for US$275 million.
But the media-shy billionaire owner has taken a very low key approach to his acquisition, said Jean Gosselin, a sports marketing specialist at National Public Relations, and a lifelong Habs fan.
“It’s an iconic team and he builds on that. He respects the fans.”
Unlike some primadonna professional sports owners, Gillett never makes waves publicly. No outbursts in newspapers or on TV. No efforts to Americanize a Canadian and Quebec institution.
“He built on the traditions and managed it financially pretty well,” Gosselin said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “But he never tries to transform what the Montreal Canadien (club) is. It’s one of the most significant teams in the world.”
The 68-year-old owner of Booth Creek Management Corp. has a checkered history in sports management and business.
In 1992, bankruptcy cost him the Vail ski resort, which he nurtured after buying it in 1985, after the junk bond collapse hurt businessmen who had raised money by borrowing from investors at high interest rates.
A decade later he partnered with Dallas buyout firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst to buy 54 per cent of ConAgra Beef Co. for $1.4 billion. The U.S. company, where former prime minister Brian Mulroney serves as a senior counsellor, was renamed Swift & Co.
The Dallas investment company’s chairman, Thomas Hicks, is part-owner of the Dallas Stars and Dallas Mavericks and is said to be partnering with Gillett to try and purchase the Liverpool team in the English soccer league.
Gillett got his break in the mid-1960s when as a 27-year-old, he phoned NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to ask about ownership opportunities. Believing he was from the Gillette razor empire, Rozelle gave him a lead on the American Football League expansion franchise Miami Dolphins.
He went on to buy a 22-per-cent share but sold his interest before the team made history in 1972 with a perfect season and won the Super Bowl, the Dolphins’ first of two successive championships.
He bought the bankrupt Harlem Globetrotters from the estate of team founder Abe Saperstein in 1967 before selling it nine years later.
Gillett used some of the proceeds to purchase meatpacking company Packerland in Green Bay, Wis. He went into the business after being asked by the state’s governor to determine what ailed the city’s largest employer.
Lean dairy cattle weren’t the norm in those days. But he created a market by promoting the product.
In 1979 he launched Gillett Communications by buying three small television stations.
These days, Booth Creek owns BC Natural Foods, car dealerships, regional ski resorts, an organic landscape-supply company, the giant Swift & Co. meat operation, and a Seattle-to Alaska barge operation.
Gillett’s holding company is operated from Vail with the help of three of his four sons – Geordie, Alex and Foster. The latter’s twin, Andrew, is the only son not in the family business.
“We look at them more as platforms,” Geordie Gillett said of Booth Creek’s approach to acquiring and developing businesses.
“Usually we won’t just get into a totally new industry with one business,” Geordie Gillett said in a Colorado Biz Today feature on 250 private companies. “There’s a plan there – either there’s a really good management team in place and we leverage that management team by adding on companies, or there’s a geographic-expansion opportunity or product-line expansion opportunities.”
Gillett’s early business exploits were rooted in a desire to provide excellent customer service.
As owner of Vail resorts, he was a pioneer in the snow sports industry by introducing high-speed quad chairlifts, expanding hill grooming and establishing a new reservations system.
He also attempted to bring an understanding of the customer to how he managed his business.
He was often seen talking to customers to get their feedback, says David Scott, executive director of the Colorado Ski and Snowboarding Hall of Fame, which inducted Gillett as a member last year.
“George is a listener,” he said in an interview. “He looks at and tries to understand what the needs of the market and people are.”
While many sports owners seek acquisitions to boost their egos, Scott said, it’s not Gillett’s motivation.
“I don’t think he’s the acquirer of toys.”
Known as a down-to-earth resident of wealthy Vail, Gillett is an approachable person who is often seen around the town, where he owns a home and operates his many business ventures.
“He’s the type of guy that if you’re sitting on the chairlift next to you, he’ll just start up a conversation,” said Justin Henderson, curator of the Colorado Ski Museum.
But he also puts his own people in place and lets them do their jobs, observers say.
“He’s savvy enough to know that what you do is bring in the right people to manage it for you.”
His son, Foster, works in Montreal with the Canadiens.
The estimated $275 million deal to buy the Canadiens included the Molson Centre, a 21,300-seat arena that hosts more than 100 events a year as well as at least 46 hockey games.
The team had fallen on hard times, but the Canadiens’ first-ever U.S. owner brought in new management that acquired better talent and has made the team better.
Dean Bonham of the Denver-based Bonham Group, a sports marketing and consulting firm which worked with Gillett on a failed bid to acquire the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, says Gillett recovered quickly from that disappointment.
“I can tell you that nothing keeps him down for long,” Bonham says. “He’s as passionate and enthusiastic about the business of sports as anyone I’ve met in my career.”