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Volume 20 No. 41
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MLSE’s chairman a quiet go-to guy in Toronto

By virtue of his 25 percent stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and his long-established reputation as a dealmaker, Larry Tanenbaum is one of the most powerful sports figures in Canada.

Chairman of MLSE since 2003, Tanenbaum oversees a company that touts $500 million in annual revenue and carries an enterprise value of more than $2 billion.

But don’t look for any public displays of that power from the low-key executive.

“I let the managers manage and, honestly, I manage by exception,” said Tanenbaum recently. “I have never been a fan of ownership that tries to manage a team. The day-to-day management should be managed by the professionals. They do it 24/7.”

Tanenbaum reportedly has a net worth of more than $1 billion, putting him on the list of the richest Canadians. His wealth is tied to the construction and real estate industry: He is chairman and CEO of Kilmer Van Nostrand Co., a diversified construction company, and he runs Kilmer Capital Partners, a private equity fund. Under terms of the sale of MLSE to Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, Tanenbaum’s stake in the company grew from 20 percent to 25 percent.

Larry Tanenbaum, at left with the Boston Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs (left) and the NHL’s Bill Daly (right), is known as soft-spoken but well-connected.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (2)
“Larry is a very accomplished guy,” said Paul Godfrey, former president of the Toronto Blue Jays who has been a city political leader and is currently chief executive of Postmedia Network in Toronto. “In greater Toronto, he is the go-to guy to get things done. He is a quiet man and he doesn’t seek the glory.”

The 66-year-old Tanenbaum prefers a behind-the-scenes approach. You won’t often find him quoted in the media, and when he does speak publicly, it is done in a very calculated manner — a measured approach, which also applies to his style of doing business.

“He is not walking into a room and taking control,” said Brian Cooper, who worked as a vice president of business development for MLSE and is president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group. “He has surrounded himself with smart people and he listens a lot. He measures every word he says and it is very strategic.”

As governor of the MLSE-owned Toronto FC of MLS, the NBA Raptors and the NHL Maple Leafs, Tanenbaum takes an active role in league matters. He is on the executive committee of all three leagues and is a member of the NBA’s finance committee. He also, last month, was part of the six-owner committee that negotiated directly with the players in the NHL lockout without league or union officials present.

The OT on L.T.

“You can do a deal with Larry on a handshake, and there aren’t many people you can do that with today.”
Paul Godfrey
Postmedia Network CEO

“He tends to be a moderate but firm voice in all of our deliberations.”
David Stern
NBA commissioner

“When he is in, he is full in.”
Brian Cooper
S&E Sponsorship Group president and CEO
“Larry’s style is very low-key but well-informed and issue-focused,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “If he makes a statement, you can be sure he has done his homework to support his observations, his view or his argument. He has become a very important voice in the NBA. He is a voice for the good of the league rather than looking at every matter through the prism of his own franchise.”

Added Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consultancy SportsCorp Ltd., “He is very well-connected and soft-spoken. He is like an old-school ambassador and an excellent representative of almost any organization you can think of.”

Tanenbaum’s trusted hand is attorney Dale Lastman. Together, they have played key roles in MLSE’s explosive growth while under the ownership of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and during the plan’s sale of MLSE to Bell and Rogers.

“He and Dale hooked up when the Leafs and the Raptors came together [in 1998], and they make a dynamic duo as far as business is concerned,” Godfrey said.

Do not, however, mistake Tanenbaum’s hands-off management style with the Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC for a sign of a dispassionate owner.

“He desperately want the teams to do well,” said Bob Stellick, former director of business operations for the Leafs who now runs Stellick Marketing and Communications in Toronto. “He feels it personally. He does love the fact that owning the teams has vaulted him into one of the best-known citizens in Toronto, but the downside is that the teams are continuing to struggle.”

For Tanenbaum, running a sports company has presented a far different set of challenges compared to his background in the construction industry.

“I came out of road building and civil engineering, where everything I did was planned and formatted,” he said. “I knew exactly where the bridge was going to be built. At the end of the day, the only variable was the weather. In sports, there are a lot of unknowns. It is different than building a road.”