SBJ/February 27 - March 5, 2006/This Weeks News

More longtime IMGers depart

On the eve of a high-level meeting at which owner Ted Forstmann would lay out his vision for IMG’s future, the giant sports marketing, management and media company last week lost a little more of its past.

“For those of you who know me best, you’ll
know this was not a decision I took lightly
nor was it based on Peter resigning.”

Stephanie Tolleson
Forstmann sent an e-mail in the early morning hours Wednesday telling employees that Bill Sinrich, who for years ran IMG’s most profitable division — media arm TWI — was leaving “effective immediately.”

Just hours before, on late Tuesday afternoon, Stephanie Tolleson, who ran IMG’s human resources, corporate communications and tennis divisions and was the company’s senior female executive, sent out her own e-mail. “This month, I passed my 25th Anniversary with IMG,” she wrote, “and I made the decision that it’s time to move on.”

The two departures laid the groundwork for Forstmann’s meeting last Wednesday with about 100 company executives at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, followed by a private dinner at restaurant “21.”

Outside of IMG’s inner circles, the sports industry was abuzz. Few people would talk on the record, but everyone was waiting to see what would happen next. “I think everybody at IMG is keeping their heads low, hoping they don’t get fired,” said an industry executive with many friends at the company. Another high-level manager at a sports marketing company said he was getting calls from IMG employees looking for a place to land if they lost their jobs.

That pessimistic outlook differs sharply from the opinion held by Forstmann, a Wall Street financier whose firm Forstmann Little & Co. bought IMG for $750 million in September 2004 from the family of IMG founder Mark McCormack, who died in 2003. Forstmann told SportsBusiness Journal last month that the company has never been financially healthier and is poised for tremendous growth. He echoed those statements at last week’s meeting. “Ted was very upbeat,” said one IMG executive, “and it was a very upbeat meeting.”

Barry Frank, vice chairman of TWI (which he said will soon be known as IMG-Media), was also optimistic. “I know it looks like a lot of people have left,” he said, “but there are a lot of us who are still here and are very, very happy with the new management.”

Tolleson’s resignation was not unexpected, an IMG spokeswoman said. In fact, it had been rumored for weeks. She is, after all, the wife of Peter Johnson, the former CEO of IMG’s sports and entertainment division who resigned in late January after Forstmann gave former NASCAR COO George Pyne virtually the same title Johnson held: president of sports and entertainment.

In her e-mail, Tolleson said her resignation wasn’t prompted by her husband’s. “For those of you who know me best,” she wrote, “you’ll know this was not a decision I took lightly nor was it based on Peter resigning.” Sources said Tolleson disagreed with the direction the company was taking under Forstmann.

That was also the reason for Sinrich leaving, according to Forstmann’s memo, which said: “[Sinrich’s] departure stems from differences over recent organizational changes and the future course of IMG and TWI.”

Sinrich couldn’t be reached for comment, though he did immediately hire Maitland Consultancy, a London public relations agency, to represent him. “We don’t have a comment at this point,” said new Sinrich spokesman William Clutterbuck, “but that may change.”

Although Tolleson’s resignation had been rumored for weeks, Sinrich’s departure was a surprise. His division was responsible for more than half the revenue of IMG, and he seemed to be in Forstmann’s small, favored circle of executives, at least at the start.

In early 2005, Sinrich, along with former IMG co-CEO Bob Kain and former IMG CFO Bob Ryder, was named to Forstmann’s “Office of the Chairman,” a group responsible for strategic planning. At that time, Alastair Johnston, who had also been a co-CEO, was demoted to vice chairman. In recent months, Kain has stepped down from his position as president to become vice chairman, and Ryder, who was brought in by Forstmann from American Greetings, left the company.

A year ago Sinrich, an American who ran TWI out of IMG’s London office, was optimistic about Forstmann’s IMG, saying, “It’s an incredibly exciting time.” His photo and message as TWI CEO were still on IMG’s Web site last week, stating, “The future for TWI looks extremely healthy.”

An IMG spokeswoman last week would not respond to questions about Sinrich, including whether he had resigned or was fired. British sports business publication Sportcal reported that Sinrich was “forced out.” And unlike Johnson and Tolleson, Sinrich did not send a goodbye memo to other IMG employees.

It’s too early to tell what effect Tolleson and Sinrich’s departures will have on IMG.

“In Stephanie and Bill, they are losing two brilliant people, and some of the most talented people in the [sports] business,” said Larry Scott, chairman and CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. “Stephanie leaving IMG I think it is a huge blow for the sport of tennis and in particular women’s tennis. She has played a critical role (in growing the sport).”

Keven Davis, attorney for Serena Williams (a former IMG client) and her sister, IMG client Venus Williams, said he was saddened by the news of Tolleson leaving, noting she is “very smart and very, very creative.”

Venus Williams’ primary agent at IMG is Carlos Fleming, but Tolleson, as well as Johnson and Kain, were “an integral part” of the Williams family’s decision to choose IMG as the sisters’ agency years ago, Davis said. He admitted that Tolleson’s departure may make Venus Williams re-evaluate her relationship with IMG. That said, he added that “nobody is going to make a rash decision because one person leaves.”

Sources said Chuck Bennett, who runs IMG’s fashion model business, would be running tennis on an interim basis, but that was not confirmed by press time.

As previously reported, Johnson’s resignation triggered clauses in the contracts of IMG football agent Tom Condon and IMG baseball agent Casey Close that allow them to leave IMG and take clients with them. Last week, though, a source familiar with the IMG agent situation said, “Tom and Casey are not the only ones. A number of agents and people have been talking to a group of us … about breaking off and doing something together.”

Cathy Griffin, who owns the Griffin Network, a Los Angeles search firm, said that people outside IMG “are now thinking, ‘Maybe there is room for me at IMG.’ IMG has always been this very guarded, well-built castle.”

Having those IMG people now available for other companies to hire, could also have reverberations through the sports world, Griffin said. “They have top-notch people,” she said. “Having IMG on your resume is what we call ‘an academy company.’ It means you have been trained by the best and have worked with the best.”

It is what some in the industry call “the IMG mystique,” something Tolleson referred to in her farewell note.

“No matter how much money our would-be competitors spent trying to create another IMG, they all failed because they could not duplicate our unique DNA,” Tolleson wrote. “The camaraderie and relationships forged here over years of supporting, motivating, sacrificing for and inspiring one another, just can’t be replicated. The personal history set us apart.”

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