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SBJ/May 10 - 16, 2004/The Most Influential People
Published May 10, 2004
Earl Santee would have made a great umpire, or at the very least a top-notch arbiter. Major League Baseball executives he has worked with to design and renovate ballparks say Santee is the ultimate mediator, a sports facility architect who knows when to step in and settle squabbles for the betterment of the project.
Earl Santee has consulted with 20 MLB franchises on the design and construction of their facilities during his 18-year career at HOK Sport in Kansas City. Others
|The 20 Most Influential People|
Spear, like Santee, specializes in Major League Baseball. Wellner, who ranks No. 5 on our list, is HOK’s go-to guy for the NFL and, in fact, played a part in hiring Santee in 1985. Radecic, the former Penn State linebacker, targets college stadiums. Miller heads the minor league baseball group. Martin designs NBA and NHL arenas.
Santee, however, was the person mentioned most often, both during internal discussions at SportsBusiness Journal and in talks with industry professionals, as being the most influential person in the business.
“His greatest strength is arriving at a consensus to all the opinions that come up from different parties,” said Bill DeWitt III, vice president of business development for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Earl is forceful when he needs to be. He knows when it’s time to make a decision.”
Bill DeWitt III, St. Louis Cardinals
Diplomacy is one of Santee’s traits that is most admired by people who have worked with him.
“Knowing what the other clubs have done is one thing, but Earl is good at negotiating and managing disputes,” said DeWitt. “Arguments are inevitable. These are huge projects and egos are involved. Once in a while, you can sense internal conflict. Earl is forceful when he needs to be. He knows when it’s time to make a decision.”
Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane recalled the way Santee handled the development of Minute Maid Park. There was no funding package or stadium authority to coordinate the project when the Astros hired Santee to plan the ballpark in the mid-1990s. The budget and the governing body came later, when HOK’s design was almost complete, McLane said.
“We were working with Earl and HOK way before we knew who was going to pay for it,” McLane said. “A lot of times people don’t like change when they find you don’t have the necessary budget.”
McLane said Santee and HOK faced a unique challenge but had no qualms making design changes to fit the $250 million budget, even though Santee was working on his first project with a retractable roof.
“There are always ebbs and flows and highs and lows when you’re dealing with a public authority,” said McLane. “You have to find a way to move in and out of that. I give him an A-plus.”
Said Santee: “So many projects don’t want to die, but don’t know how to live. I always looked at it this way — you can’t guesstimate when a project is going to happen. The teams take a lot of risk to continue a project moving forward.”
The Minnesota Twins, a team that has been fighting for several years to build a new facility to replace the Metrodome, hired Santee to find the best location in the Twin Cities.
“His track record speaks for itself,” said Twins President Dave St. Peter. “But what I like about Earl is that he has attempted to find a solution for both sites under consideration. There are pros and cons to each one, but Earl has found a way to work with both communities, whether it’s Minneapolis or St. Paul.”
The Kansas City Royals hired Santee to design major renovations to Kauffman Stadium, not far from HOK’s main office.
“Earl has superior listening skills,” said Mark Gorris, the Royals’ senior vice president of business operations. “He has a good feel for stadiums and what works best.”
It’s an intangible called “value engineering,” and Santee has a firm grasp of the concept, said Dick Freeman, president and CEO of the San Diego Padres.
The HOK Sport “design dream team” features Santee, sitting (at left) with Dennis Wellner, and, standing (from left), Bruce Miller, Scott Radecic and Joe Spear.
Santee said, “I will only compromise to a point where I have to ask myself if the project is still worth doing. That’s my marker. If my heart’s in the right place, I’m not doing it for the wrong reason.”
Santee’s clients praise his ability to juggle multiple jobs and still maintain direct contact with individual franchises. It’s not as difficult as it was a decade ago, when Santee was designing five to six venues annually and traveling 150 to 200 days a year.
“He’ll drop everything for the team he’s working for at the moment, even though he’s constantly flying to New York, Florida or Minnesota,” said Gorris.
Santee did realize a time when he couldn’t work on every project possible. “The most difficult part was balancing my personal life with the travel side,” he said. “On the weekends, I was one tired puppy.”
These days, Santee is less involved in the day-to-day grind as an architect as he concentrates his efforts on marketing the HOK brand. He helped incorporate the convention center business into the Kansas City office, a division previously operated out of the corporate office in St. Louis.
Santee supervises HOK’s event marketing group, which provides temporary venues and operational consulting for the Super Bowl, All-Star Game and the Olympics.
It was Santee’s idea for HOK to provide in-house expertise related to signs and graphics design, instead of hiring consultants for those jobs, said Spear.
Ron Labinski, a co-founder of HOK’s sports practice who is now four years retired, said Santee’s keen marketing prowess serves an important role for the firm in getting new business.
“Marketing is a real conceptual part of the business, although it’s not a term I really like,” said Labinski. “We all like to think of ourselves as doer-marketers, still hands-on and current and solving problems.
“The biggest part is selling ideas to our potential clients. It’s not about what we’ve done in the past, but selling new ideas. That’s a very creative side of the business as well.”
HOK has already sold the New York Mets and New York Yankees on ballpark designs, with Santee and others working with those teams during the last 10 years on their respective projects. Santee said he would like to see those facilities built before he retires in another 10 to 15 years.
“We haven’t done our stadium yet, but all the ones Earl previously worked on are for our benefit,” said Jeff Wilpon, the Mets’ senior executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We needed someone with vast experience and we like the learning curve they have been through.”