Leading Questions: Interview with Jeff Hunt, President OSEG Sports

October 2nd, 2018|Insights|
  • Leading Questions

Originally published by Tim Redpath


Leading questions is a series of interviews with successful leaders conducted by TEC Canada Chair, Tim Redpath.

Jeff Hunt is the president of OSEG Sports. He acquired the Ottawa 67’s in 1998 and quickly turned them into one of Canada’s most successful junior hockey franchises. That success was sighted by the Canadian Football League as an important factor in its decision to award an expansion franchise to Ottawa. The Ottawa REDBLACKS has since become the toast of the town, routinely selling-out games, making it to the Grey Cup in its second year of operation and winning the Grey Cup in 2016. During his career, Jeff Hunt’s accomplishments have been recognized with multiple awards, including five Profit Magazine Fast-100 and two Fast-50 awards. He has also been named OHL and Canadian Hockey League Executive of the Year and in 2015 he was named to the Yahoo Canada Sports list of the top 25 “Movers and Shakers” who have the most influence over sport in Canada. In January 2017, Jeff was named Ottawa’s Favorite Entrepreneur by Faces Magazine.

If I was joining a circus she could not have reacted any worse

My mother started crying when I told her I was starting my own business. If I was joining a circus she could not have reacted any worse.

I had moved to Ottawa in 1983 from Newfoundland where unemployment was about 20%. I was 19. I couldn’t get into Ottawa or Carleton Universities because I was too late, so I got a minimum wage job at $3/hour. I was working for a carpet cleaning company doing sales. After about six weeks I thought, this isn’t too hard. I felt like I knew it all and started my own business.

There were 140 carpet cleaners in Ottawa. I was number 141.

When I started there were 140 carpet cleaners in Ottawa. I was number 141. My goal was to be the largest carpet cleaning company in the city even though most people would think Ottawa didn’t need 141. Within three months I had 45 employees (44 of which were older than me, including my dad) and in three years I had achieved the goal.

This paved the way for a life-altering event – convincing Sears to allow me to run their Ottawa and Halifax carpet cleaning territories. In an industry of nobody’s, having a brand like Sears was huge. They were beloved and trusted at the time, although it’s amazing what’s happened to them recently. Sears took a 10% royalty on sales. Our employees wore Sears uniforms, we lettered our vans in the Sears logo, we gave out Sears invoices, we could accept the Sears card. To consumers, they were dealing with Sears. To us, it was huge.

Over the next seven or eight years I grew the business to 250 franchise locations in Canada and the US until Sears bought me out.

If you fail when you are 20, so what?

Some people say to me, “You must have been brave starting a business at 19”. I think what is brave is starting a business in your 40’s when you have a family and a mortgage and your room for error is minimal. If you fail when you are 20, so what? You live and learn and dust yourself off. You are no further behind any of your peers and you have probably learned more than those who went to college to learn about business.

My father begged me not to buy the team  

So, at 32 years old I had a decent amount of money from selling my business to Sears, and I bought the Ottawa 67’s hockey team.

The 67’s were a failing junior hockey team. I paid the most money ever paid for a junior hockey team for the worst team in the league. The Ottawa Senators had just arrived and there was no NHL market which also had a successful junior team. The market was widely believed to be doomed. My father begged me not to buy the team. In three years, we were the number one junior hockey team in the world. In those first three years we won two major junior championships. It was a huge success to the point where we were out-drawing the Tampa Bay Lightening. Attendance was 9,300 a game, up from 2,200 when I bought it.

Leadership came naturally to me

I was always very good with people. I could sense when people around me were in difficulty. When people were being picked on in the school yard, or felt bad, or were being embarrassed I tried to soften it. I didn’t like to see people around me being hurt. I always had great empathy and would generally intervene on some level.

I was the guy organizing the party. I was the guy everyone would call on Friday night to see what was going on. Without ever thinking about what it meant, leadership came naturally to me.  After 30 years I am still the one organizing an annual reunion for my high school buddies.

Everyone can talk a good game, but have they won the big game?

The best investments I ever made in employees were the ones I paid the most. I would rather pay fewer people more, which goes against the grain in a business like junior hockey. I want to hire top talent and I will pay them top dollar. One of the first things I did as the new owner was to hire a VP away from the Ottawa Senators.

In making hiring decisions, I rely on my instincts more than on an MBA or any training. People’s track records do not lie. Everyone can talk a good game, but have they won the big game? Do they have a track record of success? I am not smart enough to figure out who the future stars are, but I can see the people who have done it already, who have won the big games.

I hope I can be the dumbest guy in the room

I hope I can be the dumbest guy in the room. If I am the dumbest guy in the room, then I am the smartest guy in the room because I have all these guys working for me. Leaders who are afraid to hire people smarter than them are not leading. I want guys who are better than me on the team, at least in their area of specialism.

Courage is hiring people smarter than you and then leaving them to do their work. It is not that you do not challenge them when things are not working. I will engage if I need to, but I look to understand what is going on. If I start telling them what to do, then I am doing their job for them. Owners of sports teams are notorious for this. That is just getting in the way, which is the opposite of leadership.

I thought it showed a lack of leadership

Over time, you learn the finer points of leadership. For example, an owner of a sports team was the architect of what ended up being an embarrassing pre-game show which was widely mocked in the media. His staff took a beating over it. The owner never stepped forward and I thought it showed a lack of leadership. True leadership would be to say, “Hey, I was trying something. It did not work. Do not blame our staff. I am to blame”. May be even if it was not his idea. A leader takes the blame, like a great coach, even though it looks in the short term like you are diminishing yourself. People who work for those leader respect them more.

I am not interested in how many hours you work

I do not have any magical formula to leadership. We have 150 full-time employees and we try and create an environment, a DNA, a personality for our organization. I have always tried to have a relaxed, focused environment. I am not a clock watcher. I am not interested in how many hours you work or when you get in or leave. I am much more interested in results.

I have a phrase, “Sell, not tell”

I could tell employees what to do but I think you get a lot more buy-in when those employees are engaged and understand the reasons why you are doing something. You bring them into your confidence and show them respect by telling them something. I have a phrase, “Sell, not tell”. No-one likes to be told what to do. So, I would rather say, “Hey, here is what we want to do and here is why it is important”. It gives them the sense they are valued, doing something useful and have my trust and respect. I have always tried to have those kinds of relationships.

I do not think you ever go wrong with honesty

If folks are not delivering you start by trying to correct them. I’ll have a conversation and say “Hey, I know you are better than this. It is not like you to not get this done. Is there something wrong? Is there something I can help you with?”. There is nothing gained by making them feel bad. I will praise in public and criticize in private. If they leave my office feeling bad or threatened, then I have not done it right. You are coaching them up in that moment, and not criticizing them down. There may an escalation – next time you may have to turn up the heat a bit. And, if their job is on the line, I think they need to know. I do not think you ever go wrong with honesty.

Criticize the behaviour not the person

On my hockey team I am dealing with 16 to 20-year old men. The tolerance for anything resembling abuse must be zero. It does not mean people are not held accountable but there are ways to do it without humiliating a kid.

Screaming is common with hockey coaches – particularly old school ones – and I really don’t care if they do scream. It is what they say that is important. You can criticize the behaviour but not the person. Good coaches do not beat down the guy. If the outcome is taking a good player and making him worse, then you are not doing it right. I do not want to see people’s heads hanging down.

I do believe leaders are coaches

My father was a strict RCMP cop in Newfoundland. He didn’t try and explain things. He told you what to do and you did it. The culture of the RCMP was not to discuss things with people. They just gave orders and my father came from that environment. But times have changed.

My leadership skills have been dramatically enhanced by being around high-level sports and coaches. Coaching is different now. The new generation of millennials do not respond to yelling and screaming, which was the style of old school coaches. Rick Campbell, the coach of the Ottawa REDBLACKS, has had great success, including the Grey Cup of course, and you rarely hear him yell or swear to convey a message. He has a mild-mannered method of coaching that helps him get the most out of his players.

I do believe leaders are coaches. My job is to make you better than you are already. Even a 40-year old business person can regress in the wrong environment. They can lose confidence and self-esteem. I like to think people around me know I create a culture where employees see how I treat them when they have a challenge and apply the same technique to their staff.