Penguins' buyer very much a man in motion
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Adrian Wyld, Associated Press/CP
Born: Peterborough, Ontario
Residence: Waterloo, Ontario
Personal: Married to Heidi. Two children. An avid sports fan involved in several activities, including hockey and triathlons. Involved in several philanthropic projects, including the Center for International Governance Innovation, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the cancer center at Grand River Hospital, RIM Park, the Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images and the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum.
Education: Bachelor of commerce from University of Toronto in 1984. Earned a chartered accountant's designation. MBA from Harvard.
WATERLOO, Ontario -- When Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie signed an agreement Oct. 4 to purchase the Penguins, one issue overshadowed everything else among local fans: trust.
His background, his finances, his personality -- all are honorable, judging from how much he seems to be respected and liked by the people in Waterloo where he lives and works. But that's not what fans want most to know about him.
With the Penguins' future hung up amid fears and fights over slots licenses and arena funding plans, fans want to know if they can trust Mr. Balsillie to keep the team in town.
It turns out that he's wondering the same thing -- can he trust the promises coming from Pittsburgh?
"Rather than saying, 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen to us?' one could turn it around and say, 'Look at the trust and faith this person has put in the market,' " Mr. Balsillie said last week during a 30-minute interview in a conference room at the headquarters of Research in Motion, the high-tech company that makes the popular BlackBerry wireless devices.
"Mario [Lemieux, the Hall of Famer and part owner of the team] wants his money because it's what he lives on. The majority owner [Ron Burkle] is not interested. He lives in Beverly Hills and has other interests, which is fine. And so now you have someone who's close and capable and interested, and who is taking a heck of a risk."
It doesn't take his MBA from Harvard for Mr. Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of RIM, to understand the anxiety of Penguins fans who are concerned that once the lease runs out at Mellon Arena next June, the team will be on its way out of town.
"The best answer I can give is that this issue predates me," he said.
"I'm full of empathy, but turn the empathy around and it's like, what happens if I get shot in the foot? Now you're in a whole situation with the league and the city. How much not fun is that? It's a lot of not fun."
Mr. Balsillie dismissed some of the potential target cities that might want the Penguins if plans for a new arena here aren't realized -- and if the NHL, which still has to approve the sale, allows such a move.
"Hamilton? Yeah, the [Toronto Maple] Leafs will be really supportive of that," he said. "Kansas City? I mean, come on. Now I've taken a 40-minute flight [to Pittsburgh] and made it two hours, and to an unproven market.
"They talk about Oklahoma [City]. It's like, puh-lease. And Portland? Puh-lease. Now I'm going from the frying pan into a big fire."
A totally regular guy
It doesn't figure that frying pans, or even big fires, daunt Mr. Balsillie, 45, who seems to be revered in the Waterloo-Kitchener area for two reasons.
First, he has provided jobs, raised the stature of what is called the Silicon Valley of Canada and enhanced the community through charitable contributions that total in the high millions of dollars and have benefited, among other things, a hospital, a children's museum, the non-profit, nonpartisan Center for International Governance Innovation and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
Second, he doesn't necessarily act like someone who has done all those things.
"You hear the name, and he's larger than life. Then you see the guy on the street and he's like everybody else," said Stefan Schuster, a Waterloo resident who these days is working an Oktoberfest information tent in downtown Kitchener. "He seems like a friendly gentleman."
A broad and easy smile, eyes that twinkle when he laughs and a reverence that overtakes his face when he talks about Canada's beloved sport of hockey belie Mr. Balsillie's high place in Kitchener-Waterloo society.
He stresses that he and his family -- wife, Heidi, son, Jamie, 12, and daughter, Rachael, 14 -- relish that side of life.
"We live a very, very normal life," he said. "You'll find me doing dishes, taking out the garbage. I've got a 3-year-old truck. We live in a four-bedroom house."
It's brick and gray with white trim, has a triple garage, sits on a cul-de-sac and has a raised cobblestone driveway over a nicely landscaped yard, but it's no mansion.
"There's a lot more zeroes on everything than there used to be 15 years ago, but our friends are the same and, fundamentally, our lives are the same," said Mr. Balsillie, who plays recreational hockey and golf, competes in triathlons and coaches Jamie's travel-squad basketball team.
He has gone so far as to avoid most media contact and to foster multiple pronunciations of his name. (For the record, he says it is pronounced BALL-suh-lee.) His inexperience at being a big-shot led to a slip of an expletive when he was interviewed during a recent Penguins broadcast.
"I have more admiration for him as a person than as a business success -- and he is considered one of Canada's best business successes," said Ron Foxcroft, a Hamilton entrepreneur and basketball referee who plays golf with Mr. Balsillie.
"He's a devoted family guy. He'll leave a meeting to go coach his son's team. He'll leave after a golf game so he can coach his son's team while the rest of us have a brew."
Mr. Balsillie often takes Jamie to NHL games. Now, instead of driving some 90 minutes to downtown Toronto to watch Maple Leafs games, he will be taking a small private jet to Pittsburgh in equal or less time to watch the Penguins.
That's what Mr. Balsillie did the night of the Penguins season opener, when he spoke briefly at a between-periods news conference about his offer to buy the team for about $175 million.
He worked a regular day at RIM, then headed to the Region of Waterloo International Airport -- which is more like a small airfield about 15 minutes outside of town, surrounded by cornfields with a terminal not a whole lot bigger than Mr. Balsillie's house. It's 40 minutes in the air to Pittsburgh.
After the 4-0 win over Philadelphia, which started 20 minutes late because of a pregame ceremony, he was home in bed by midnight.
"I'm totally, totally interested in going to lots of games," Mr. Balsillie said.
A zealous competitor
He is equally interested in succeeding, whether it's with RIM or the Penguins or playing a round of golf.
Mr. Foxcroft, an outgoing sort, is likewise involved in several things. His company Fox 40 makes pea-less whistles that are used by many leagues, including the NHL. In basketball, he has refereed NCAA tournament games and world championship games and now is an evaluator of officials for the NBA. He also owns a trucking and warehousing company called Fluke whose slogan is, "If it's on time, it's a Fluke."
"Do not underestimate his sports knowledge and sports savvy," Mr. Foxcroft said of Mr. Balsillie. "I'll tell you this: I'm going to some Pittsburgh Penguins games. Pittsburgh, get ready for a winner, because Jim is the most competitive guy I've ever known."
That became evident two years ago when Mr. Foxcroft took $20 from Mr. Balsillie in a little golf bet.
"He started shaking when he pulled the $20 out of his wallet," Mr. Foxcroft recalled. "I said, 'Jim, it's only $20.' He said, 'No, it's not. It's my pride.' I'll never forget it. He was visibly shaking."
In 2000, when RIM donated millions of dollars for a Waterloo recreation complex now called RIM Park and its employees took part in a charity hockey game, Mr. Balsillie began 5:30 a.m. training sessions with Brad Sparkes, a former player with the Kitchener Rangers junior hockey team and now its director of sales and marketing.
"He wanted to get better, and he's very passionate about whatever he gets involved in," said Mr. Sparkes, who put Mr. Balsillie through grueling conditioning skates and coached him on shooting and positioning.
"It was pretty early, for sure, but it was a tremendous start to the day because he had so much energy and tenacity. It was kind of like I saw rainbows around him because he was just very intense and full of energy. You just knew he was ready to tackle this art of trying to be a better hockey player."
Mr. Balsillie downplays that aspect of his personality.
"I keep trying to say to people, 'I'm not that competitive, am I?'" he said. "They always laugh. I guess some would say I'm that way."
That doesn't mean Mr. Balsillie expects to be the George Steinbrenner of hockey.
He explains his management style as being "an expert second set of eyes." That is, he wants everyone to think and do for themselves and be at their best without him doing more than signing off on what they're doing.
He won't be micromanaging the Penguins.
"Not even macro-managing, quite frankly," Mr. Balsillie said.
"For me, it's all about fun and passion. Ken Sawyer [Penguins CEO] is one of the most experienced and respected executives in hockey. They'll have a budget. I wouldn't expect them to tell me if they're going to sign somebody. They may, just out of courtesy, tell me if they're going to spend a load of dough on somebody.
"I'll help meet people if they want me to. I'm not bad at spending time with people. We could talk hockey all day. But I would never interfere with the team. It would take the fun out of it, plus I'm just too darned busy."
Peter Diana, Post-GazetteWhen the Penguins learned that their new owner would be Jim Balsillie, CEO of Research In Motion, several joked that they hoped that meant they would each get a brand new BlackBerry, such as the one displaying the Penguins' logo in his hand above.
The BlackBerry, produced by Mr. Balsillie's company, is an immensely popular handheld wireless device -- known as a PDA, or personal digital assistant. It's so popular, in fact, and deemed so indispensable by some of its users that it's been dubbed the "CrackBerry."
It can be used as a mobile phone, to access e-mail and browse the web and as a personal organizer. It also includes a small typewriter-style keyboard.
The new BlackBerry Pearl includes a camera phone, a media player that allows users to play back audio and video, and a map application.
Mr. Balsillie's stake in the publicly-traded company is reportedly valued at about $1.4 billion in Canadian dollars.
The company recently settled a closely watched patent infringement lawsuit that users feared could have shut down the BlackBerry wireless service. RIM agreed to pay $612.5 million to a small Virginia-based firm that claimed it held the patent on a system to send e-mails between computers and wireless devices.
Mr. Balsillie said he also operates that way at RIM, where he is a partner with president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, who founded the company while he was a student at nearby University of Waterloo, one of the top engineering schools in Canada.
Mr. Lazaridis was not available to comment on Mr. Balsillie's new venture.
RIM is considered to be a good place to work, with state-of-the art labs, an atmosphere conducive to creative thinking, parties that include performances by Aerosmith or Barenaked Ladies or the Tragically Hip, and, of course, free BlackBerrys for all.
And little interference from Mr. Balsillie.
"I'm very aware and very active, but I totally pick my spots for engagement," he said. "I don't stick my nose in stuff around here. The only thing that drives me crazy besides people not really giving their all is not calling me when they think I should know something -- or, worse than that, telling me what I want to hear rather than what I should hear."
How that management style, his competitive nature and his passion for hockey intersect when his purchase of the Penguins becomes complete remains to be seen.
Waiting and trusting
It might also be interesting to see how Mr. Balsillie negotiates with state and city leaders over the issue of a new arena.
It's a topic he hit hard during his news conference at Mellon Arena, and he expanded on that last week.
"There's just no ambiguity about the imperative of an arena, and I inherited the situation, but for me, my hands are tied," Mr. Balsillie said, referring to the Penguins' exclusive contract with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which has pledged $290 million toward construction of a new arena if it gets the city's slots license in December.
Until the license is granted, Mr. Balsillie said, there are financial penalties if he or anyone with the Penguins discuss or otherwise get engaged in state and city officials' Plan B funding alternative that draws on money from the team, the state and Forest City/Harrah's or PTIG Gaming if one of those other two finalists gets the slots license.
He urges patience until the slots license is granted.
"The point is, it's been seven years" since Mr. Lemieux brought the team out of bankruptcy and got a handshake promise from politicians for a new arena. "What's two more months?
"Possibly, they might have taken Mario for granted over the last seven years. He gives them 20-odd years, two [Stanley] Cups, a major iconic citizen. Now you say something about the deadline -- well, what's the deadline difference now from a year ago and a year go and a year ago? It's just 10 percent more ridiculous every year."
Once the slots license is issued, there will be negotiations -- for a timetable and lease and cost overruns with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., or for the whole shebang if it's another slots company.
"I think I'm going to take the politicians at their word," Mr. Balsillie said. "I'm going to work with people to do what I can."
Fans, likewise, will have to trust that Mr. Balsillie will negotiate in good faith. Mr. Sparkes said that's a plunge Pittsburghers can take.
"To be successful in his own business, I think you have to respect an individual like Jim, that he is a man of his word," Mr. Sparkes said. "I think people should be assured that the success of his own company is built on trust and values and being honorable. What he says, he backs up."
For now, Mr. Balsillie waits and trusts, just like he asks the rest of us to do.
First Published October 15, 2006 12:00 am