For more than half of her life, and all of her career, Mary Owen’s path was shaped by her uncle.
Her uncle was Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the Detroit businessman and founder of the Buffalo Bills. Her uncle was the man who, when Owen was a teenager, told her she should go into marketing. Her uncle was the man who invited her into the family business – the Bills, but also lesser-known enterprises, including his venture capital fund and his highway construction business. Her uncle was the man who, when Owen was 25, invited her to sit in a chair across from him in his spacious living room and asked her to become a trustee of his estate.
“Ralph was my compass,” said Owen, who is now 39. “He was, like, due north. I feel great about that, right?”
“He was a person I could follow without having to worry,” added Owen, who was sipping a vodka and soda at a small table in the bar area of the private Buffalo Club, an establishment she frequented when she was a Bills executive. “He believed in my ability. It was great.”
It was great until March 25, 2014, when her uncle died at home in Detroit. Wilson was 95 and ailing; his death was no surprise. Bills watchers had speculated for years about what would happen to the team once he was gone. Wilson, not surprisingly, had been thinking about it, too, and left Owen and the other trustees of his estate a “playbook” for what to do next.
Owen won’t divulge the specifics of what Wilson put into that game plan, although selling the team was part of it. The Wilson trustees accomplished that within months: NFL owners approved the sale of the Bills to Terry and Kim Pegula in October 2014. The money from the sale – more than $1 billion – was used to fund the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which Owen ran for the first year, until an experienced nonprofit executive was hired.
That was January 2016, and it was a pivotal point for Owen. Instead of her career being guided by leadership or legacy of her uncle, it was guided by two words.
Two very open-ended words, which Owen shares softly during this happy hour at the Buffalo Club, as jazz music pumps through speakers and buttoned-up executives chat loudly at the bar: “Now what?”
The answer to that question is layered, and for Owen, who lives near Detroit, still involves Buffalo.
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Owen remains a life trustee of the Wilson Foundation, which focuses its philanthropy in the Detroit area and Western New York. That brings her periodically to Buffalo for board meetings and other foundation-related events.
She has also joined a Buffalo-based consulting firm, Next Gen Advisors LLC, which works with family businesses and other private companies across the United States. Owen, whose title is principal and senior adviser, will work with Next Gen clients on needs including organizational structure, culture-building and succession planning.
“Every family business has its own issues, which makes it really interesting to me,” said Owen, who points out that every NFL team is a family business.
That point wasn’t lost on Next Gen founder Scott Friedman when he recruited Owen. Friedman originally met with Owen to talk about the possibility of her investing in a start-up company where he sits on the board. But Friedman, an attorney who is also the CEO and chairman of the Buffalo law firm Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP, gave Owen a copy of an article he co-authored on advising family businesses.
The article is titled “Advising Family Businesses in the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction to Stage 4 Planning Strategies.” When it was published this spring in the Buffalo Law Review, it ran 70 pages long.
Owen, a self-proclaimed “doer” who is not likely to be found with a book on the beach, read all of it. The article describes an approach to family-business planning that includes key elements such as ownership structure, tax strategies and succession planning, and one that is less obvious but, to Friedman – and it turns out, Owen – is vital: positive psychology and social neuroscience, which taps into the work of researchers and authors such as Shawn Achor (“The Happiness Advantage”) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”) and applies game theory to often-competitive family business dynamics.
Owen recalled: “I read this Law Review story and said, ‘Scott, that’s what I care about. Forget the start-up thing. That’s interesting, but that’s not where I want to be.’ ”
Instead, in late June, Friedman brought Owen onto the Next Gen team, which includes four other attorneys from his law firm and a few consultants.
“I immediately knew it was a good match,” said Owen, laughing as she noted that their emails have bitmojis. (In her Leadership Detroit program last year, Owen was given the “Bitmoji Award” for loading her messages with the animated messages. Her favorites are “Team Awesome!” and “Aww Yeaa!”)
Friedman, who himself peppers emails and texts with smiley faces, calls his meeting with Owen, “one of those serendipitous moments where we connected around a new approach to working with clients.”
“The intersection between business and emotion is what defines almost every family business out there,” Friedman said.
Owen knows that well. She has lived it.
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Owen’s aunt is the former Mary McLean, who married the Buffalo Bills owner in 1999. Owen met Ralph Wilson when she was around 12 or 13, and he took a quick liking to her. He told Owen that she would be good in marketing, and encouraged her to intern for the Bills while studying business at the University of Virginia. After college, she joined the team full time in 2000. Her first big project was launching buffalobills.com. At the time, full-scale team websites were new in the NFL, and Owen “became one of the industry leaders,” said Russ Brandon, the Bills’ president and managing partner.
Over the decade that followed, Owen ascended into executive-level jobs. She ran the team’s Southern Ontario initiative, which included playing a game a year in Toronto, and began representing the Bills on league-level committees.
“Every time she stepped into a different level of programming, she excelled at it,” Brandon said. “She’s highly intellectual, highly passionate. We were a better organization because of her day-to-day contributions, unquestioned.”
Behind the scenes, Owen was also getting involved in her uncle’s non-football businesses. She went to a venture capital camp in Atlanta to prep for her potential involvement in the Ralph Wilson Equity Fund. She attended meetings twice yearly for her uncle’s concrete paving company, Interstate Highway Construction. She became heavily involved in his philanthropic efforts.
When Owen was 25, Wilson summoned her to a meeting in his living room and asked her to become a trustee. That meant she would be one of the people responsible for carrying out his estate wishes, which included keeping the Buffalo Bills viable for future ownership.
“It was an easy yes,” Owen said. “He was kind of a father figure to me. I think in life when you find a person that really knows you, and believes in you… you hang onto that.”
You hang onto the trust — and when the time arrives, you reciprocate it. For Owen and the three other trustees – her aunt and Ralph’s widow, Mary Wilson; longtime Wilson treasurer Jeffrey Littmann; and Wilson’s attorney Eugene Driker – that time came in March 2014, when the Bills owner died.
The four trustees’ work was guided by the so-called “playbook” that Wilson left in the form of a trust, which is not a public document. The trustees made a pact to not discuss the contents of the trust, other than what is obvious: that the Bills were to be sold, and the money used to start a foundation.
Owen won’t discuss the details of the Bills sale, other than to heap praise on the Pegulas. “They put every single resource toward this transaction,” she said, and later added, “They’re awesome, right?”
She makes clear that she won’t discuss the other contenders, which included Donald J. Trump. The then-New York billionaire and not-quite-yet presidential candidate was among three bidders. (The other was a Toronto-based group that included rock musician Jon Bon Jovi.) Trump has since said that if he won the Bills, he would not have run for president, which of course would mean the world would be a very different place.
Owen stops that conversation fast.
“I cannot speak about that,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “I know it’s very interesting.”
What she will speak about is the raw, emotional experience of carrying out her uncle’s wishes in the wake of his death. Members of any family business in transition can relate to this (minus the intense public attention paid to the future of an NFL franchise).
“It was a scary time, I’m not going to lie,” Owen said. “There wasn’t a lot of sleeping, and we were all still grieving in the middle of it. But we wanted to get it done.”
During the five-month sale process, and afterward too, as they set up the foundation, the trustees operated on a mantra: “Do it for Ralph.” For Owen, that mission carried through 2015, as she ran the foundation day-to-day, overseeing $60 million in grants. But early on during her time at the foundation, Owen and the other trustees decided that she wouldn’t be the long-term executive in charge.
“We all wanted to make sure that we had a person leading it that is a seasoned (nonprofit) veteran and knew how to do this work in a real way and had the real connections,” Owen said.
In January 2016, the trustees hired David O. Enger, a longtime nonprofit executive in Detroit, to lead the foundation. With Enger’s hiring, Owen stepped out of what she calls “the Ralph Wilson umbrella” and started exploring that key question: “Now what?”
She took some time off, and headed to California with her aunt, Mary Wilson. Last summer they traveled the Pacific Coast, from Pebble Beach to Big Sur to Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. In the fall she went to Australia and New Zealand, where she did a biking tour of the South Island with a friend from college. Owen did some advising work during that time for the Handel Group, a New York City-based coaching firm, for which she is developing a specialty working with athletes.
But mostly, she cleared her mind and found herself. Since her uncle’s death, so many people around her gave advice.
“Once I let go of others’ expectations, I got really clear about where I wanted to go,” Owen said. “At this point in my life, everything I do is very authentic. It’s about gut. How do I make a positive impact on people’s lives based on what I care about?”
She is still a trustee of the foundation, which means her uncle’s legacy remains a part of her work, and she believes “he would be proud.” Proud of how she and her fellow trustees carried out his wishes, and proud that she is “jumping out of the nest, authentically to me, outside of the Ralph Wilson umbrella.”
Today, Owen is finally on her own, finding due north with a compass that is hers.
Currently: Principal and senior adviser, Next Gen Advisors LLC; also a life trustee of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, and senior adviser with The Handel Group’s sports division.
Residence: Birmingham, Mich.
Career: Owen’s uncle, Buffalo Bills founder Ralph Wilson Jr., encouraged her to go into business, which she did as a member of the Bills’ front office from 2000 to 2014. She also worked on Wilson’s construction, venture capital and philanthropic interests, and after his death in March 2014 was one of four trustees who oversaw the sale of the team to Terry and Kim Pegula. Owen ran the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation for a year before taking time off in 2016 to plan her next career move.
Education: Owen has a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Walsh College. She is currently pursuing a master’s certificate in “designing for organizational effectiveness” at Northwestern University.
Bills President Russ Brandon, talking about Wilson making Owen an estate trustee when she was 25: “Ralph was not one that handed out praise lightly at all. For her to obtain that at that age was really a feat in itself, but also a credit to her and what she stands for. It didn’t matter that there was a family connection. It had to be the right person.”
Owen, on figuring out her next career move: “It was a lot of self-work. I realized what I really care about is helping organizations drive economic performance through organizational structure and organizational behavior, and making sure people are in positions that fit their talents.”