Catching up with Tony Ponturo: Relationships and reinvention
Uncertain what was next at the age of 56, he received plenty of advice.
“Friends in the business said, ‘Take six months and go sit on an island.’ But that didn’t seem right to me. So, I just began throwing things at the wall and seeing what would stick. I ‘retired’ from Anheuser-Busch on Dec. 31, 2008, and by March of 2009, I had moved back to New York and got involved in two Broadway plays (“Lombardi” and “Memphis”) and was getting back into the flow. Soon after that, I started teaching a master’s class at Columbia on sports marketing.”
Ponturo was charting a new professional life amid the backdrop of the worst economic crisis the U.S. had seen in more than 50 years.
“It was a unique time; a time of everybody reflecting. Your knees get wobbly. But at 56, I was like, ‘I still have some tread on the tires.’ So how do you go and do it?”
He did it by tapping into the equity he had built over his years in the business, the depth of his relationships, and an emphasis on learning, listening and a willingness to adapt in reinventing himself during the midlife of his career.
On a mild May morning, Ponturo made a 30-minute walk from his Upper West Side home to our midtown offices, looking lean in a blue dress shirt and sports coat. He suggested the morning time frame — “our minds will be fresher” — and over 90 minutes, we talked about the good, bad and ugly related to career choices, reputation, leadership and reinvention — challenges facing virtually everyone in today’s unpredictable work environment.
After InBev took over Anheuser-Busch, Ponturo left St. Louis feeling unsettled. “You have to stand on your own two feet. It was very scary, because you start to doubt yourself.”
“I couldn’t see myself going to another consumer product. I would’ve probably been intrigued to go to a league. But I just started on my own path, and my internal instinct started re-engineering what I wanted to do based on my background, and instinctively, it took over.”
Once in the market, he learned the industry’s perception of who and what was Tony Ponturo without A-B’s millions of dollars in sponsorship and media support behind him.
“What I’ve learned quickly is that we’re all a brand. You build a brand, essentially your reputation and image. Most people want to spend time with brands they like. What I didn’t realize at the time was you’re building your own personal brand over the years even though you’re identified with, in my case, Anheuser-Busch.”
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A turning point came when Ponturo pitched the NFL on the concept of doing “Lombardi” on Broadway. Immediately testing the strength of his Rolodex and reputation, Ponturo went right to the top, pitching NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the idea over breakfast. Goodell quickly bought in, and Ponturo left the breakfast with a newfound confidence, reassured that he had done business the right way at Anheuser-Busch if the NFL’s leader was comfortable taking a chance on a Broadway show with a rookie in theater. “Because of the relationship and how I treated the marks, the shield and the trophies as a business person, he said. ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s when the light bulb went off and I said, ‘You’ve built your own reputation.’”
He immediately felt more at ease about his future.
“You learn that if you built a reputation where you didn’t abuse the privilege of a lot of spending and worked as a real partner, then people still want to hear what you have to say and find other ways to do business.”
Along the way, he went through personal re-evaluation and experienced discouraging responses from colleagues.
“You learn a lot of things about yourself and about others, and they’re not all positive. Most people will take your call, but you have to have something in return. You can’t just ask for a favor. You learn a few things very quickly: You have to tuck your ego in. You realize you are your voice, your support staff and your administrative group, so there’s no job too small. And you become a salesperson, not only for yourself, but for any project.”
But how long is it before one turns from being a valued partner to a professional nuisance?
“You have to decide at what point do you overstep your boundaries or wear out your welcome. I’m more than eight years removed from A-B; you wait for people to say, ‘How long are you going to play the Anheuser-Busch card?’ I don’t play it, but the industry does because that’s how I’m identified. Your ‘street cred’ is something you never lose.”
That “street cred” is capital, and comes from years of doing business and relationship building.
“When I was raising money for ‘Lombardi,’ I had someone say, ‘I’m going to do this, not because I necessarily believe I’m going to see my money again, but when I needed help on a new venture, you said, ‘Here’s $50,000. I’m going to help support this. I’ve never had a chance to repay that.’ That’s what starts to come around.”
It was an indicator of people seeing Ponturo the brand, not Ponturo on his own, asking for help.
“In business today, there’s very few times when someone says, ‘I know you can use some support now, and I know somewhere down the road, it’s going to be repaid.’ There’s no contract or even a handshake. It’s tough to explain to people today because everything seems black and white. But over the years, you learn that there can be respect, real partnership and real friendship that doesn’t go away.”
But doesn’t such nostalgia about the old days and old ways of doing business reek of the cynical old-timer, out of the business, out of the loop and bitter over times changing?
“I try to be sensitive to that because the business does change. I’ve watched executives, some even at Anheuser-Busch, start to become caricatures of themselves and you see how it repels people. Some good advice I’ve received was, ‘When you’re consulting or coaching, you don’t have to say, ‘This is how we did it at Anheuser-Busch.’ You have experience, so instead say, ‘Have you tried or thought about this?’”
Ponturo says a number of people will be forced into a career decision after being surprisingly or suddenly uprooted from their current job. He sees it frequently in his current role as executive coach for Turnkey Sports.
“The rude awakening is there could be a point where it doesn’t fit anymore at your current company, for whatever reason. Could be philosophically or it could be your voice isn’t as important as it was. You know that you have something to give, but it’s a tough position.”
Executives in their mid-40s to mid-60s are most vulnerable to losing their job to younger, more tech-savvy candidates or a more affordable alternative.
“I tell people to take their experience and build it into a new career or new opportunities that may not be as obvious to those who know you and may not be a direct line to what you did in the past.”
Acknowledging age is a factor in career opportunities, Ponturo scoffs at companies who hire based on age.
“Attitude, reputation, respect, integrity and action should be your barometer. Organizations averse to hiring seasoned pros are insecure. They don’t want the pressure of a high-level person on their team. I have met 30-year-olds that are very stuck in their ways and don’t think they need to learn any more and, quite frankly, are not good managers. What could be better than having an individual with 25 to 30 years experience that has the perspective of the past but continues to have a vision for the future?”
They can also impart tremendous value to a young staff.
“I’ve been hit by the locomotive coming down the track — meaning I’ve made mistakes and failed. An experienced person can see the locomotive coming down the track and say to the young colleague, ‘You don’t see it coming, but you’re about to get hit, so I’m going to protect you from that.’”
While at one time Ponturo was interested in working for a league, he offers a warning for team executives who may be challenged in moving up the ladder.
“It’s very sexy to go work for a team. But if you had to rank that position in terms of understanding the entire sports business, that would be in the bottom quartile. The more you can get exposed to the broad sense of the business and the more you can get exposed to the marketer’s mentality, the better. If I was the owner of a team, and I had someone who only worked for teams versus someone who worked for teams, a brand and an agency, I’d much rather have the latter because they’ve got a different perspective. You need someone who has shown a vision for a business, who has been exposed to more things rather than a narrow focus.”
Ponturo’s been teaching for more than five years between Columbia and the NYU Tisch Sports Institute, and he admits one the greatest challenges is the 65-year-old instructor trying to connect with the 20-somethings.
“I always say at the beginning, ‘If we do this class right, I will learn as much from you as you learn from me.’ I learned this year that some of the old standards of leadership were not connecting, and there is a generational shift out there that needed to be talked about.”
The form of leadership that wasn’t connecting was, as Ponturo states it, “the older white male perspective of the world.”
When I ask him to elaborate, he does so, gingerly.
“We used the Fox News situation as an example. You have these older guys and then you have James and Lachlan Murdoch coming in to change the culture. It’s a generational difference.”
He also cited NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as an example of a generational shift in how handling a crisis served as a tipping point for the NBA’s business.
“After the Donald Sterling issue, Steve Ballmer comes in and pays $2 billion for the Clippers, and the whole economics of the NBA changed overnight, because in 72 hours, Adam Silver did the right thing. It was a classic case study of crisis management. There were a lot of things he did quickly in those 72 hours after just a few months on the job. By doing it right, and not worrying about all the other consequences, he ended up increasing the value of all 30 teams. Then, ultimately, you get ESPN and Turner paying amazing rights fees and the economics of the NBA changed in a two-year period. We all wish we trained for 20 years under David Stern, but you still can’t prepare yourself for that situation.”
He focuses on preparing students for their own careers.
“Be honest and have the highest integrity. The one thing no one can take away from you, but you also have to earn, is your integrity. The second is they need to be a voice wherever they go, and they have to hope that their bosses want to hear their voice. That young voice has to be there. When you voice your opinion or perspective, you have to do it respectfully. There are so many agendas out there today, but if you bring it forward respectfully and it has sound logic and support, then people will listen. But if it’s just a rant, it can be ignored. It’s very delicate.”
Being around the students has kept Ponturo young, providing fresh legs and perspective.
“Younger people really want someone to look up to, learn from and be a part of something special. They don’t want leaders who don’t practice what they preach, but leaders who set an example. People want to be a part of something. They want a job that’s protected, but they also want to feel like they’re part of a team that’s all working towards one goal.”
He also has a simple formula when deciding who to do business with: “It’s all about the human connection.”
“If someone walks into the room to do business with me, and they walk in and make me feel comfortable and there’s a sense of warmth, I’m going to be more open to do business with that person. I always try to walk into a room and make people feel comfortable. ”
At 65, Ponturo is comfortable with his professional makeover and healthy in his lifestyle — he sees a personal trainer twice a week and walks five miles a day. Personal reinvention has suited him well, and he admits he’s a better person since leaving St. Louis nearly a decade ago.
“I feel much smarter as a person than I was when I left A-B. I’m broader. I’m more sensitive to make sure I understand a younger person’s perspective. They are important voices. Also, I listen more.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com