SBJ/February 11-17, 2013/Opinion

Talking coaches, culture with Lonnie Cooper

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I recently traveled to Atlanta for the day and was able to spend some time with longtime sports business executive Lonnie Cooper and his team at CSE. Many of you know that Lonnie built his business on representation and now, after 27 years, has more than 250 clients, made up of NBA general managers and coaches — Doc Rivers, Kevin McHale and P.J. Carlesimo among them — baseball players, broadcasters, announcers and journalists. And he continues to build. CSE occupies two floors with consulting, event production, advertising, PR and a digital operation. There is an upbeat vibe that fills the office of 130 employees, and much of that is attributed to the culture Lonnie has created. Showing me around his office at the crossroads of Interstates 75 and 285, just north of Atlanta, Lonnie exuded genuine enthusiasm for his work and staff. Afterward, he and I sat in his 19th-floor office, which provides a stunning view south toward the city, and talked about the state of the coaching business, leadership, culture and what he’s looking for in his new hires.


Positioning coaches and a new “breed” of owners

Cooper has represented NBA coaches his entire career, starting with Mike Fratello when he worked at the Atlanta Hawks. He currently has 38 clients, and he’s frank in saying that coaches live “in the moment.”

“It’s my job to look ahead in how we are positioning ourselves if, God forbid, they get fired. Because I know that’s inevitable, and it’s hard to live your life that way. Not everybody gets to retire on their own terms. So you have got to be positioning them for what they are going to do next,” he said. “That is how I got into broadcasting. My guy started getting fired and I had to get him into something else. It couldn’t just be coaching, so I got him into TNT. Mark Lazarus helped me tremendously, and Turner Sports was one of the best places for ex-coaches to go work. And they still are.
“We have always tried to position our coaches, of knowing that there is a time and a place after they get fired. We are constantly coaching our coaches on how to handle themselves, say the right thing. If you get fired, say all the right things, because that could lead to your next job.”
 
“You never saw owners sitting on the front row cheering and screaming at referees.”
Lonnie Cooper,
on the “different breed” of owners
Photo: CSE
We talked about his years in working with various team owners, and a few family names jump out among his favorites, including the Gund family, which owned the Cavaliers for 22 years, and the DeVos family, which owns the Magic. Today, he sees a changing face of ownership: “It’s a completely different breed. The owners today are more invested. They’re more involved. They are really true, true fans. Years ago, owners knew their place. They were the pillars of the city. They were part of the fabric of the city. But you never saw owners sitting on the front row cheering and screaming at referees. Now, they’re more part of the fan fabric and I think fans are appreciating that. It does put more pressure on coaches. One hundred percent.”

“I won’t run an office that’s full of stress”

When our conversation shifts to culture and people, Lonnie excitedly leans forward, practically standing up in his chair as he outlines his management philosophy. “My management style is communicative, supportive and working toward positive solutions. I don’t use the word, we have a ‘problem.’ We have a ‘challenge.’ We’re always going to figure out a solution. There’s not a lot of stress in this office, and I won’t run an office that’s full of stress.” 

“The biggest gift I give to my colleagues is that I’m involved along the way,” he adds. “I never put them in a position to feel as though they made a mistake. If there is a mistake, we made it together. I never, ever make them feel like they failed. It’s ‘Hey, we tried it. We tried it together.’”

We shared time talking about staff engagement, motivation and morale. I was told about “Lonnie Days.” It was a concept he started seven years ago, where he offers staff one day off a month that doesn’t count against their vacation time. He paused when I pushed him on it, but then leaned forward toward me and said, “These people work five days a week and all their errands and responsibilities have to be done on Saturday and Sunday. They don’t have a day off because they have obligations. So I decided to do something, and I started it in pencil. I said, ‘This isn’t in ink. I’m going to try something. Once a month you can take a day off to take care of errands, doctor appointments, all the rest. The only rules? You have to stay in town, you’ve got to be available just in case.’ In seven years, we haven’t had a single issue and I have received countless thank-you notes. ‘Lonnie, thank you for the Lonnie Day. Because of you I was able to read on Wednesday at my kid’s school.’ ‘Lonnie, I was able to take my mother to the dentist.’ That’s the atmosphere I want here. Family comes first.”

“I’m not a big sports fan”

All leaders focus on hiring the best people, but Lonnie stressed the social makeup of an indvidual is far more important to him than a résumé and grade-point average. “I want my head of legal and my CFO to have a 4.0. Everybody else better have a 2.8 to a 3.2, and they should have had a social life in college and be very active and current. Because that’s what we are. We are a marketing company. The grades never really meant as much to me. It was more about the person and their experience and the way that they handled themselves.”

And how does he handle it when he makes a poor hire? He said the writing is on the wall. “People don’t get fired here. The floor fires you. You can’t hide here. If you’re not doing your job, you’ll get exposed.” And sadly, Lonnie expressed a sentiment I’ve heard more and more, “Young people today aren’t as realistic about what it takes. There’s an entitlement. And that word we use too much, and you hear it at cocktail parties in my age group when we meet the young people. I think they got too much too quickly.”

Finally, as we finish up, the conversation turned back to sports and games and matchups. Lonnie was engaged, but he had less passion than the previous topics. “I’m not a big sports fan,” he said. “I usually don’t say this because it doesn’t come across as well as it should. I’m a business fan that understands and respects the power of sports. That’s who I am.” But who do you root for, I asked again.

And with that, he laughed, and gave an answer any client would love. “I don’t really have a favorite team. I have favorite people I cheer for. And I can switch on a dime if they get fired.”

> A FRIEND LOSES HIS FATHER: I’ve been fortunate to call Terry Lefton a friend and colleague for nearly 20 years, and many readers have known him for far longer. Recently, over a quiet dinner in New Orleans, I was lucky to hear him tell stories about his youth, growing up outside Philadelphia and the influences that steered him to a career writing about marketing, advertising and branding. Terry told me the story of his father, who took over the family advertising business, which was founded by his grandfather, Al Paul Lefton, in 1928. The agency had among its clients brands like Schmidt’s Beer, Brillo, RCA and Michelin. Terry’s father, Al Paul Lefton Jr., then ran the agency for 46 years. It was clear just how much that heritage shaped Terry’s fondness for the subject and expertise in his reporting and writing.

So it was especially sad that Terry’s father died just a few days after our dinner last week, and one day after Terry had also lost his mother-in-law. Everyone within our sports business group has Terry in our thoughts, and I know many of you who know him will want to offer your best wishes and support as he and his family go through this difficult time.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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