Peter McLoughlin is a people person.
“I’ve just always liked people, and that’s what has been really enjoyable about my career, because we’re really in a people business. There’s just a lot of really, really good people in this business.”
The longtime sports executive and I are talking about his career journey while sitting in a hotel lobby restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. We are both here for the Super Bowl and I asked him if he’d be willing to talk about his path to the corner office in the sports business. I’ve known McLoughlin for nearly two decades, and he is one of the few brand executives who has successfully crossed over to the property side, bringing consumer marketing principles to amplify a team’s marks and identity. I also feel his people skills are among the best in the business. Warm, kind and empathetic, balanced by a business savvy taught at NBC Sports and reinforced over 20 years at Anheuser-Busch, where he learned from some of the best in brand building and relationships, and continuing the last eight years as president of the Seattle Seahawks and as CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment since 2012.
What I learned from sitting with him for two hours was that throughout his nearly four-decade career in sports, he has followed a few consistent principles: Build relationships, work hard and don’t stick to a master plan.
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Growing up in Princeton, N.J., McLoughlin was the youngest of four, and his Depression-era parents stressed education and work ethic.
“They really valued a dollar and taught us to save, work hard and develop a really strong work ethic,” McLoughlin recalled.
His mother was a homemaker and his father was a packaged goods executive, working at such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble.
Hockey was a big part of McLoughlin’s formative years spent in the shadow of Princeton University. He went to prep school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and was captain of the team.
He followed his father’s footsteps and went to Harvard, studying English Literature in hopes of reading the classics and important literature he normally wouldn’t pursue.
“I challenged myself to do it and I did,” he said.
But school was more than academics. “I was an OK student. I was determined to do well enough, but it was more important to be well-rounded by taking some leadership positions in school and playing sports.”
During his senior year in 1979, he did a lot of soul-searching for what was next. “My parents gave us really good advice: You will graduate college in four years and you won’t come home after graduation. They stressed us to find something we would be passionate about, where we would wake up every morning and go to work feeling good. I took that very seriously.”
He had visions of being a sports writer, but he eventually landed at NBC Sports as a unit manager, arranging logistics, accommodations, flights, and meals for on-air talent and the crew. It was there that McLoughlin learned the value of building relationships.
“I was on the road every weekend for five years,” he said “I was single, it was awesome. I learned to get along with different people — union employees, top talent, producers, directors. I developed a lot of good, interpersonal relationships and a skillset. I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to be in a TV truck my whole career.”
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NBC Sports sales czar Jim Burnette hired McLoughlin to be a sales planner at 27. “I wasn’t selling, but I learned the metrics of media.” he says. “I learned what a rating point was, and how to calculate gross impressions, and what a CPM was, and the transactional business of buying media around live sports. Jimmy taught me a lot about selling and relationships and media math. It was very energizing.”
Eighteen months later, McLoughlin looked to broaden his experience, and went to St. Louis to interview for an opening at Anheuser-Busch, where he met with the late Chuck Fruit and Tony Ponturo. He was hired to manage local team sponsorships, buying local television, radio and signage from most of the pro teams in the country.
He instantly joined the competitive beer wars, where big checks to teams, leagues and networks were common, and expected.
“We were driven to dominate,” he says. “I learned to be the first act. We made the first call, got on the first plane to start a relationship and demonstrate how important that partnership would be to us. There were a lot of great accomplishments and it was through a lot of hard work.”
He and his boss Ponturo were road warriors who negotiated thousands of sports deals together over the years.
“We anticipated what each other was going to say.” McLoughlin said. “Sometimes I would play the tough guy and he would soften it up. Sometimes he would play the tough role, and I would soften it up. We made a lot of really good partnerships for the company and a lot of good friends in the business.”
But more than the transactional aspects of business, he learned how to comport oneself in the corporate world.
“Chuck Fruit said something to me that I remember well: ‘How you present yourself, and how you represent yourself will define who you are.’ It was about being prepared, being professional, and knowing that you’re representing the company in everything you do. It was an emphasis on professionalism. He helped me mature and develop.”
McLoughlin’s appreciation for Fruit and Ponturo is evident when he adds, “I learned from some really hardworking, very strong, professional people.”
He also learned the difficulties of leading and managing a staff in his early 30s. “I was too intense, too demanding and was feeling the pressure of the responsibility I had. I learned you get a lot more out of people if you treat them with respect and with a degree of patience than you do if you’re just constantly pounding the table.”
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McLoughlin’s run at A-B lasted 21 years, but in his late 40s, he sensed it was time to move on.
“I had plateaued,” he said. “Tony wasn’t going anywhere. I had accomplished everything I thought I could accomplish. It was becoming somewhat repetitious — the annual cycle of planning, buying and renewing sponsorships. Anheuser-Busch was a very good company. But I was young, and I took a leap.”
A Dave Checketts-led group bought the St. Louis Blues, and offered McLoughlin the role of CEO. The hockey lover saw an opportunity in which he and his wife, Kelly, could remain in St. Louis, and his kids could finish high school, as just too good to pass up.
As CEO, McLoughlin found himself exposed to far broader areas of the business.
“There were a lot of things that I’d never done before,” he said. “The biggest was the overall financial responsibility of a P&L and being accountable to owners and investors where you’ve got to deliver a profitable situation. It was managing more people with different kinds of discipline, from the general counsel, to public relations, community relations, in addition to sales. There was a lot of heavy lifting, but it was great.”
When McLoughlin joined the Blues in 2006, the team was one of the worst on the ice, finishing with an NHL-low 21 wins in 2005-06, and it had only 5,000 season-ticket holders and a flagging fan base. He led a turnaround on the business side, including negotiating the 15-year Scottrade Center naming-rights deal in time for the 2006-07 season. There were only two sellouts that season, but that number grew to 35 in 2009-10, a season in which season-ticket sales were up 70 percent over 2006. Despite those positives, it didn’t come easy for an executive known for years for writing the big check.
“It was the first time in a long time where people didn’t return my calls, because I didn’t really have anything that they had to have. When we were at Anheuser-Busch, you’d get the call back quickly. That was eye-opening, but that’s OK. It was a real challenge and I never regretted it.”
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In 2010, McLoughlin got a call about the CEO opening in Seattle after Tod Leiweke left the Seahawks and Sounders to work for Jeff Vinik at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The timing was perfect for him and Kelly, as the youngest of their five children went off to college in August and they moved to Seattle the next month.
“We were empty-nesters, and it was a big move to a new city where we didn’t know anybody,” McLoughlin said. “I was 54, and I felt like everything I’d done in my career, everything I’d learned, all the hard work, was to prepare me for that opportunity.”
He was immediately struck by professionalism in Seattle. “The biggest eye-opener was how good a group of people were at the Seahawks. My approach was to respect and appreciate all the good work Tod had done, but to raise the expectations even higher and to work to generate higher revenue.”
To do that, he brought the lessons he learned at A-B.
“I really value a team’s marks, and want to associate our marks with great companies. I learned at A-B that when you go into a store and see a 12-pack of Budweiser with the Seahawks logo on it, that it is a very strong value proposition for the Seahawks fan and the Budweiser consumer. So, we set out to expand the Seahawks brand, and to do that by partnering with major national companies.”
Peter McLoughlin’s word associations on people he’s worked with:
• Pete Carroll: Passion
• Tony Ponturo: Partnership
• Paul Allen: Genius
• Chuck Fruit: Professional
• Jim Burnette: Salt of the earth
Since 2012, the team has more than tripled the number of $1 million partners — from four in 2012 to 13 in 2017, and it has signed high-profile deals with the likes of AmEx, Boeing, Delta, Starbucks and CenturyLink.
McLoughlin, who in working for Paul Allen also oversaw the Sounders and Trail Blazers, constantly drives home his belief that teams must fully appreciate their brand value.
“Elevate your brand to the level it deserves. There are only 146 professional sports teams in this country, so cherish it. Cherish your brand.”
Now focused purely on the Seahawks, he’s been a part of a successful front office that has seen the team make two Super Bowl appearances and win one title. With general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll, they’ve found a balance that McLoughlin believes in and can help the Seahawks be successful.
“The challenge is that whoever is running the business and whoever is running the team need to get along well and be open-minded to one another; stay in our lanes, yet collaborate together. We’ve got a good situation that way in Seattle. If you get the right people involved where they really, truly work to get along and cooperate and collaborate, it can work beautifully.”
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With nearly 40 years in the business behind him, McLoughlin is a secure, confident leader who has learned from his shortcomings.
“I listen better. I respect other people’s input more. I’m more patient,” he said.
Now 61 and still a lean 5-foot-11, McLoughlin looks happy and healthy. He oversees one of the most respected business operations in the NFL, in a market rabid about its team. He was recently honored with a Seattle Business Magazine “Executive Excellence” award, and clearly benefited from making the right career moves at the right time.
“I’ve never had a master plan. I’ve been focused on being in the moment of what I’m doing and trying to enjoy it, but being open-minded to, and mindful of, opportunities as they come along. There were opportunities that came along that I turned down, and that’s as important a decision as the ones you decide to take.”
The fast pace of the sports business suits him well.
“I’m not very good at just shutting it down. I take great peace of mind in having no emails in my inbox and no texts to answer. Probably the furthest I’ll get away is on a river fishing for trout in Montana.”
He and Kelly enjoy Seattle and travel to see their children: two daughters, Lizzie and Sarah, are in New York City; Rachel is in St. Louis, and Margot and son Chris are in Los Angeles. Lizzie is starting her career in sports like her father did: as a sales planner at NBC Sports.
His advice to young people looking to get into sports mirrors his own path.
“Start at the bottom, get your foot in the door and work really, really hard. Be respectful, be honest, get along with other people.”
And be patient.
“Patience is a really important trait. As you’re developing yourself and managing your career, be patient, because this notion that things should come quickly, and you should be rewarded right away, and advance through a company in a meteoric way, it’s not the best approach. The more time you take to really learn your business, learn your craft, the better off you’re going to be.”
When I ask what qualities he looks for in a new hire, it strikes me that McLoughlin looks for the qualities that have served him so well over his career — socially present and passionate.
“I want to see someone who’s going to look me in the eye and have confidence and passion for what they do. I want to see a smile on their face. I want someone who wants to come to work, enjoy it and get along with others. Someone who’s confident, someone who’s present, someone who’s engaging.”
In other words, a people person.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.