SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2011/People and Pop Culture

From intern to EVP: Bills’ Owen follows up on opportunity with hard work

Q&A with Mary Owen, executive vice president, Buffalo Bills

Owen
BUSINESS FIRST OF BUFFALO
Mary Owen, niece of owner Ralph Wilson, has worked on the Bills’ regional efforts.
As Mary Owen recalls, she was 12, maybe 13, when she first met Ralph Wilson.
To most of the world, Wilson was the owner of the Buffalo Bills. But to Owen, Wilson became family when her aunt married him.

When she was in high school, her new uncle said to her, “You’d be great in marketing.” A few years later, in 1997, she became a college intern in the Bills’ marketing department.

She’s been part of the team since, and last month was promoted to executive vice president.

“I’ve been very fortunate that he saw that ability in me,” Owen said recently during a half-hour interview that touched on subjects ranging from one of her top duties — regionalization — to a question on the minds of most Bills fans: Would she be willing to someday take over the team for her 92-year-old uncle?

“It’s been a great blessing,” she said of the opportunity she has received from the man she refers to publicly as “Mr. Wilson.” “But it’s also been a lot of hard work.” Following is an edited version of that conversation:

In the news release announcing your promotion, Wilson was quoted as saying, “My vision for Mary since she first joined our organization in 1997 was for her to earn her way into a senior management position.” When you started, did he actually tell you that?
Owen:
I don’t think we’ve ever had that conversation. I think he’s always believed in my ability. He saw something in me from a very young age. He provides me inspiration. He provides me motivation to do things maybe I didn’t think I could do. I walked in the door as an intern, and every step of the way, believe me, he wouldn’t have me here if I wasn’t doing my job. But every step of the way we’ve had a conversation: “I believe in your ability, I’d love for you to do more for us, but it’s up to you. What’s going to make you happy? We know you’d be great here, we know you can help this organization, but make sure it’s what you want to do.”

We’ve always had that dialogue and it’s turned out to be a great path for me. My motivation every day when I come to work is I have to prove myself; I have to be challenged. I have to be sure I’m doing what’s best for this organization. So it’s worked out, but I don’t think it was like a predestined (pauses) ... you know what I mean?

I get the sense that the key word in Wilson’s statement is “earn.”
Owen:
Right. I never lost that message. (laughs)

Has the Bills Toronto Series been part of your responsibility since its inception?
Owen:
Even prior to that. We’ve been trying to regionalize into the southern Ontario market since the late ’90s. I remember as an intern going up to Toronto to talk to a banquet hall about coming down to the Bills games. We’ve been trying to tap into the fan base for a very long time. As time went on, this opportunity emerged, we started talking and ultimately came the Bills Toronto Series.

What’s the overall goal in southern Ontario?
Owen:
We want them to see the Bills as their team. We want them to love us. Rochester embraced us; we want southern Ontario to embrace us, as well. There’s a tremendous amount of support for the NFL in southern Ontario and the Greater Toronto area. We’ve seen that through research we’ve done and through the Bills Toronto Series. But we want to convert them to being avid Bills fans, not just NFL fans. There’s quite a percentage — over 30 percent, almost 40 percent — of NFL fans in that area who haven’t picked a favorite team, which is quite an opportunity for us.

We do have a tremendous fan base from there. On an average game day, 15 percent of our attendance is from Canada. That increased exponentially since the Bills Toronto Series started.

On a broader note, what are the objectives with the team’s regionalization effort?
Owen:
We’ve been very successful with Rochester. I may be biased, but our training camp [at St. John Fisher College] is known as the best training camp in the NFL. We want to continue to regionalize to Rochester and make sure those fans stay engaged. And then southern Ontario — it’s 5 million people in the Greater Toronto area. It’s a great opportunity for us to be able to develop fans there. So continue with the Bills Toronto Series, continue to develop our fan base in Southern Ontario and bring fans down to Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Our whole regionalization effort is to be able to continue the strength of the Bills in western New York. That’s my No. 1 priority and, I think, the priority of everyone in this building.

How important is regionalization to doing whatever you can to make sure the team stays in western New York?
Owen:
I think everyone comes to work every day doing everything they can to ensure the franchise stays here. It’s a testament to everyone really loving this area, and Mr. Wilson doing everything he can to keep it here.

Since [CEO] Russ Brandon got here in the late ’90s [to head the team’s marketing department], his track record speaks for itself: being able to keep the fans engaged, and being able to provide value to the fans and have a great fan experience on game day, and just being smart about our business. With the Buffalo Bills, every decision that is made, we consider: What is the return on investment? And how will this benefit our fans?

What are your long-term goals?
Owen:
This is a new, big adventure for me. Right now I’m just very focused on doing my job, looking ahead at what we have going on. There is no lack of challenges, but I love challenges. We also have a lot of really great things happening. My focus right now is, let’s do the job.

Would you be willing to take over the team someday?
Owen:
That is not a question I can answer. I’m really focused on doing this job now.

You presumably could have left to work elsewhere at any point. What’s kept you here?
Owen:
I could have gone my own way. … but it wouldn’t mean as much. I love working for Mr. Wilson because I believe in what he’s about. Every day I walk into work hoping I can make a positive impact for him and for our fans and this company.

There’s something in sports. You have a passion. It’s beyond a job. Especially in this job, it’s a lifestyle; you have a mission. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and I’ve always enjoyed what I do.

Tim O’Shei writes for Business First of Buffalo, an affiliated publication.

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