"Sorry, Russ Brandon is not available."
If you called New Era Cap's main phone line at 4:39 p.m. Tuesday, you could enter Russ Brandon's name in the phone directory. You could select his extension and get sent to his voicemail, where the computerized voice tells you, "Sorry, Russ Brandon is not available."
Apparently, that is literal.
Reports surfaced Monday night that the former Bills and Sabres president was joining the Buffalo-based headwear company. By Tuesday morning, those reports had triggered a series of discussion and chatter within New Era’s headquarters and, since the company has offices from North America to Asia, likely beyond.
Employees could access Brandon’s email address in their Outlook software. Anyone could call and use a name directory to find his extension. Sources with ties to New Era confirmed that, like most workplaces, an incoming employee’s information is only entered into the company’s system – and you only receive a company email address – when you are indeed coming to work for the company.
But then just after 4 p.m. Tuesday, New Era released a statement that said Brandon, who resigned May 1 from his Bills, Sabres and Pegula Sports and Entertainment post amid workplace and personal misconduct allegations, “has not been officially hired by the company.” Discussions, the statement said, “did not fully materialize.”
But why did those discussions even start? And, since they clearly progressed far enough to get Brandon an email address (Russ.Brandon@neweracap.com), a phone extension (ext. 1737) and – according to sources – office space, what happened?
New Era’s statement offers little insight and a company spokesperson said there would be no additional comment Tuesday night. In full, the statement read: “Good afternoon. New Era Cap would like to clarify that Russ Brandon has not been officially hired by the company. While dialogue did occur between the parties, such discussions did not fully materialize. New Era Cap’s leadership team has worked with Russ Brandon for many years and these conversations were simply an outcome of that ongoing professional relationship. Thank you.”
Brandon could not be reached for comment.
A troubling departure
In some ways, New Era seemed like a natural landing place for Brandon. It’s a large organization that reaches far into sports, including pacts with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. New Era has revenues in excess of a half-billion dollars and management ranks full of executives with big-brand experience.
As president of PSE, Brandon oversaw the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Beauts and Rochester Americans. For a company such as New Era, his experience and connections are clearly valuable.
But then there was the other side. Brandon’s departure from the Pegula sports organization was far from friendly. Officially, Brandon, who had been with the Bills for 20 years, said in a statement at the time that he had been “contemplating transitioning out of my role for some time.”
But his resignation came after Bills and Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula confronted Brandon about the workplace and personal misconduct allegations, The News reported. Brandon resigned after an internal investigation.
Kim Pegula, who took over as president of both teams, has never publicly disclosed the details of what led to Brandon’s departure. Later in May, however, she addressed the situation in an interview with The News.
“I was very disheartened because, obviously, we had put him in a high position of president of both teams and PSE,” Pegula said. “So when you put that amount of confidence in somebody and you are expecting them to do a job worthy of that title, and that’s not what you're getting back, it’s always disheartening.
“And, also, every relationship we have is personal. There were many trips that we took, there were many not official business things that we would do just from a personal (standpoint), so it was very disheartening that it had to happen.”
Neither Kim Pegula nor her husband, Terry, offered any public reaction this week to the idea of New Era – a close partner of Pegula Sports – hiring an executive whom they believe had betrayed their trust. A PSE spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Fans on social media, however, had plenty to say. New Era’s Twitter account on Tuesday was filled with threats to boycott the company if Brandon were hired, and people questioning whether New Era values proper workplace conduct.
Was the volume of social media feedback overwhelming? Likely not, but the comments were cutting. It’s difficult to say how much impact that had at New Era. But when you’re running a company that is marketing a sports and fashion product to fans, there’s no value in angering your audience. Or, potentially, NFL owners.
Then again, when you’re selling sports and nostalgia and a fan experience, Brandon is a proven success.
Recruiting someone with Brandon’s pedigree fits the strategy New Era has followed in recent years. New Era chief executive officer Chris Koch highly values importing experienced executives from big-name brands.
In early 2015, Koch parted ways with his longtime friend and company president, Pete Augustine, and took over day-to-day operations of New Era. That set off a series of changes that ultimately resulted in the departure of at least a dozen executives, from directors to vice presidents, most of whom had been at New Era for decades.
That was only in 2015 and 2016. Since then, even more high-level shuffling has happened, and the trend of who comes in is consistent: New Era’s management and executive ranks are populated by people with big-brand experience: Adidas, Converse, Burberry, Vans, Ben Sherman, Quiksilver, AllSaints and more.
In an interview with The News last spring, one of those executives discussed the changes New Era has made over the last couple of years. “We wanted the organization to be talking about how we promote our brand, how we deliver great product, how we deliver great marketing stories," said Paul McAdam, New Era’s executive vice president, North America. “And what talent do we need to allow us to do that?”
Though McAdam's comments were not made in the context of Brandon, they do fit the former team executive's core skills. Brandon, by trade, is a marketer. He joined the Bills in 1997 as marketing chief and, as he ascended in the organization, kept the season ticket base strong and regionalized the team both Upstate and in Southern Ontario even as the Bills entered a long playoff drought.
Brandon's successes coupled with his chummy, golf-and-dinner relationship that dates back to the early '90s with Koch might explain why the discussions even started. Brandon had been an executive with the minor-league Rochester Red Wings and then with the big-league Miami Marlins at a time when New Era was an MLB partner.
No deal this time
Brandon is a deal-maker, too. Koch knows that intimately because they made a $30-million-plus deal together.
In August 2016, the Bills and New Era announced a naming-rights deal at the newly christened New Era Field. That seven-year pact cost New Era a reported $5 million to $7 million annually. Brandon first floated the idea past Koch in 2011, when the Bills’ brain trust was working on their stadium lease agreement with Erie County. As they did so, the Bills were putting details into place that would make it viable for new ownership to keep the team in Western New York beyond the lifetime of Wilson, who was in his 90s.
Wilson died in 2014, and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Bills later that year. Brandon, who was put in charge of both teams, teamed with Terry Pegula in 2016 to fully pitch Koch on the idea of New Era buying the stadium name. They brought Koch into the empty stadium in June of that year and showed him a three-minute video that wove the history of the Bills with the legacy of New Era, which Koch’s great-grandfather founded in 1920.
Koch, who choked up, agreed quickly. The deal was made official in August 2016 with a news conference that included Bills officials and the Koch family.
After the news conference, Brandon stood on the turf and talked to The News about the company he now appears to be joining. He lauded Chris Koch and Chris' wife, Lindsey Koch, who is a driving creative force at New Era, for building the company into a brand that’s widely known in popular culture. New Era Cap is regularly visible in movies, television shows and on stage, and the company frequently collaborates with fashion designers and tastemaker brands. While New Era is best known in North America as a sports-related entity, in global markets – particularly Asia – the company has established itself as a fashion brand and has a strong business selling apparel and accessories. Today, just over one-third of New Era's revenue comes from outside North America.
“To see that from where they've been to where they are now, it's a credit to that man, Chris Koch,” Brandon said, nodding to his longtime friend, and the man who, two years later, seemingly wanted to give him a chance to make a comeback.
But it didn’t happen. By just after 5 p.m., Brandon’s phone extension was deleted. By 5:15 p.m., a New Era source told The News, company workers were taking apart the office that had been set up for him. By an hour later, his email account had been disabled.
No, it seems, Russ Brandon is not available. Or New Era was no longer available to him.