Kim Pegula is fond of saying that when you buy a professional sports team (or two), it doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. There are no instructions for when to be hands-on, and when to keep a distance; when to make executive decisions, and when to get out of the way.
“People don’t tell you, ‘Hey, you should do this, this and this,' ” she said in an interview this week with The Buffalo News.
But then Pegula, who with her husband, Terry, owns the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, reconsidered.
“Well,” she added lightly, “sometimes you get too many people telling you what you should do.”
That’s true for any sports team owners, but even more so for Pegula, who doubles as president of both the Bills and the Sabres, a role that positions her at the receiving end of frequent and often intense feedback.
Lately, the reviews have been good: Both teams are off to fast starts. But over the long term of the Pegulas’ ownership, winning has been elusive. The only time the Sabres have appeared in the playoffs is 2011, just months after the Pegulas bought the team. The Bills, which the Pegulas purchased in 2014, have been to the playoffs just once. At the same time, the Pegulas’ business efforts have been largely successful, with solid ticket sales and sponsorship deals in one of pro sports’ smallest markets. The communitywide “One Buffalo” marketing campaign, which Kim Pegula launched after the Bills purchase, has become synonymous with the revitalization of the region.
Now, Pegula is taking that same unite-as-one approach to her own companies. She spoke about it this week to The News after an invitation-only business forum, and the top athletes and coaches who work for her are noticing the strategy — and playing it out, too.
“We both support each other and want to see the other team do well,” Sabres captain Jack Eichel said of the Bills and Sabres. “I think the Pegulas do a really good job, and that’s what they wanted. They want the two teams to have a relationship.”
If Kim Pegula were to one day write that so-called owner’s manual, those achievements would make for positive chapters.
But there have been tough lessons, too. Chief among them: You can’t get too distant.
“This is our family’s legacy,” Pegula said. “This is our family’s responsibility. This is our role. That means not just letting others do it.”
That was a reference to Pegula’s decision in the spring of 2018 to take on the team president role for both the Bills and Sabres. That happened after the Pegulas parted ways with longtime executive Russ Brandon, who left the organization amid allegations of personal misconduct. Brandon is the most prominent and highly placed of at least six executives with whom the Pegulas have parted ways over the last year-and-a-half. For the most part, their positions have gone unfilled.
“I call it not just being owners, but taking ownership of our organizations,” said Pegula. “How do we want to build them going forward? I think I’ve grown in accepting that as the role I’m meant to play. You’ve probably seen that because I haven’t really hired anybody as replacements and that’s because I just felt like, ‘You know what? I’ve never taken the time to really understand our organization, our people, because I was doing it from too high up in the clouds.’ ”
Pegula indicated she is open to filling the vacated C-suite offices at PSE headquarters, but not urgently. “Eventually that process will happen,” she said, “but not this year.”
PSE-related entities employ more than 500 people full-time across sports, hospitality and entertainment holdings in Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Florida. Pegula’s internal strategy actually mirrors the One Buffalo approach: She has made efforts to unite the business units into an organization that shares a singular culture. She described those efforts both during her interview with The News and during the breakfast program, which was hosted by Independent Health and called “The New Golden Rule: What’s Good for Your Employees and Community is Good for Your Business.”
They include straightforward strategies such as monthly breakfasts, small-group lunches with executives and employees, business-themed book clubs, and an annual kickoff picnic. There are large and splashy investments, including the Bills’ $18 million training facility in Orchard Park, which impressed Independent Health’s CEO, Dr. Michael Cropp, when he visited a few weeks ago.
Cropp, who is a medical doctor, spoke on the panel with Pegula and another physician, Dr. Jason Langheier, a Hamburg native and founder of the San Francisco-based nutrition-app company Zipongo.
“One really subtle little thing, but it’s a huge thing, is professional athletes historically didn’t like to be seen in the training room, because that meant they were vulnerable and might signal something about the next player up is going to be better than them,” Cropp said to Sabres broadcaster Brian Duff, who hosted the panel. “That was turned completely upside-down in that the training room is a place now that the athletes love to be in because they understand this is an investment in their health and well-being.”
While it’s difficult at best to quantify the culture of a company, the Pegulas’ highest-profile employees offer clues that suggest the effort may be working. To start, some of them use almost identical language in talking about each other. After Pegula pointed out that Bills quarterback Josh Allen would be attending the Sabres’ Wednesday night game against the Montreal Canadiens, we reached out to him to ask about the link between the two teams. Allen, who is 23, brought up Sabres’ captain Jack Eichel, who is 22 and, like him, in the position of leading the hoped-for rebirth of a long-struggling franchise. “He’s a fantastic dude,” Allen said of Eichel, noting the two text each other. “Super down to earth.”
Speaking separately the next day, Eichel told The News of Allen, “He’s just a good dude and I like talking to him.”
That’s because, as Pegula colleagues who are essentially working in different business units, they can relate. “We’re in similar situations, whatever you want to call it: pressure, expectation, different things like that,” Eichel said. “We’re both young guys trying to make a difference in our organizations and the city, and trying to help the organizations find their way back to where they want to be.”
The same is true for Allen and Eichel’s bosses. Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who is in his third season, and new Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger have met a few times and developed an ongoing dialogue.
“We’re texting each other on a regular basis, and we’ve seen each other multiple times now already,” said Krueger, noting that he and McDermott share a similar philosophy about building culture on a team based around communicating “to the point that everybody has the same level of understanding.”
“We feel totally on the same page as far as what we want to do here in Buffalo,” Krueger said, “which is a lot of fun.”