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Susan Schreter Interviews Dawn Trudeau

Susan Schreter Interviews Dawn Trudeau, co-owner WNBA Seattle Storm

"Voices that Matter" Originally published at MSN: Business on Main.

Potential business buyers can learn a lot from competitive sports in terms of the importance of great timing and focused execution. Business on Main recently spoke with Dawn Trudeau, a new part-owner of the WNBA's Seattle Storm, about what it takes to acquire and assume management of a high-profile business against the clock.

Susan Schreter: Was buying the Storm a dream come true for any of the owners?

Dawn Trudeau: I can assure you that none of us said, "Someday I'm going to own a WNBA franchise!" The situation for us was entirely opportunistic and purpose-driven. Seattle was going to lose its WNBA team. Our collective mission was to keep the Storm in Seattle, rather than have it move with the men's team to Oklahoma. That was our mission at the time.

How did the ownership group form?

There are four owners: Anne Levinson, Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and myself. We've known each other in various business and nonprofit capacities over the years and all were season-ticket holders of the Storm.

When it became clear that the Sonics and the Storm were going to Oklahoma, our initial thinking was not an outright purchase but more of a civic movement to keep the Storm in our city. Together we were persistent with the new owners of the Sonics and presented a strong business case of why Seattle was the best home for the Storm. Eventually we were given just 45 days to negotiate a purchase, organize financing, get approval from the WNBA league and sign a contract. We were dealing with a lot of challenges within a very short period of time.

Did you have good advisors?

We didn't really have advisors. We did our due diligence ourselves, which proved to be extremely helpful in setting priorities for our organization. We spoke with other WNBA team owners and looked closely at other sports franchises to see how we could apply elements of their business models to our own strategic planning. We're never afraid of asking questions and exploring how we can improve any important aspect of our operations. It's a good mindset for anyone considering buying a business.

Are there other women-owned WNBA teams in the league?

We are the only solely women-owned WNBA team right now.

As business owners, what are your metrics of success?

First and foremost, our priority is to put a great team on the floor year after year. Our second priority is to be good caretakers for what we believe is an important community asset. This means we have to get the team to a profitable position over a prudent period of time. It's true we are privately funded, but any good business owner has to have the thought process that the organization must be financially sustainable. We view our job is to build up and preserve the Storm for future generations to enjoy.

Most business buyers acquire a fully functioning organization. You didn't. You acquired a team, a brand and a lot of obligations and community expectations. How did the owners face these unusual challenges?

Before our purchase, the Storm's operations were financed and managed under a shared-services agreement with the Seattle Sonics. When the Sonics moved to Oklahoma, we had no infrastructure, no office and team practice space, no administrative systems, and no extensive staff to manage operations. It was an abrupt transition. At first we had some ideas of what we needed to do; now we know for sure.

So you really bought a startup?

We bought a startup with some great assets. We have a world-class team and a loyal fan base. That's the visible, front-end part of the business. The back end of the business we had to start from scratch.

Most business buyers have some first-year regrets. What are yours?

That's a hard question. It cost us more to build the back end of the business than we expected. Fortunately, there have been so many more positive surprises than negative surprises. When we were negotiating the purchase, we were so focused on keeping the team in Seattle that we didn't think about how buying the team would impact us personally. At every game, strangers come up to us and say, "Thank you." It never occurred to us that the fans would embrace us as the owners. It's been an amazing personal experience as well as a business experience.

You worked in a Fortune 500 company. What do you say to corporate managers who want to work in smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations? Are their skills and experiences a good fit?

Certainly you don't have the same amount of resources in a small company as you do in a big company, but the benchmarks of success are the same. You have to fine-tune your product and make it the best it can be. You have to appeal to your customers and inspire them to come back over and over again. And your organization has to be financially viable.

Timing matters to good business buying. What is the unrealized asset growth potential of a WNBA team?

When you look at women's tennis, years ago it wasn't as popular as it is today. Now at Wimbledon, women and men have the same prize money. Women's basketball is just as exciting as men's basketball. As more people experience it, the franchise will enjoy greater respect and success. The WNBA is a very young franchise only about 13 years old. In the 1950s, football was a young franchise; now look at it today. We've got a lot of growth ahead of us. Our popularity is already showing up in terms of game attendance, TV ratings, sponsorships and other performance metrics. I believe our timing was right.

What are your managerial challenges today?

We have so many ideas but have limited capacity. We have to be careful and prioritize what initiatives and investments will really move the needle and put off other things that are more "nice-to-haves."

Really, though, our job is simple. Get people to attend one game. We know that they have such a good time that they come to another game. Next they buy a package of games and then eventually they become season-ticket holders. The atmosphere in the arena is really contagious and fun. People say they didn't expect to have such a good time. It's why we're a hot ticket in town. As owners we have to consistently make the experience great and always listen to what the community is telling us.

In your speaking engagements you talk about how the WNBA serves as an important role model for girls. How?"

Studies show that girls who are involved in sports do better in school, have higher self-esteem and have fewer teen pregnancies. It's not so much that every girl should aspire to be a WNBA player, but to look at strong, highly accomplished players doing what they love and doing it well. I want girls to be inspired and say, "I want to be like that."

Even one day aspire to become successful entrepreneurs and business owners like the Storm ownership?

Absolutely. It's all about setting a goal and going after it with confidence and determination.

What would you like to represent to other women who are considering buying businesses?

Norms should not be the guide for women business owners. Just because there aren't a lot of women buying sports franchises doesn't mean that women shouldn't or can't be highly successful at it. We are just as good as men are in terms of operating businesses in a profitable and purposeful way.


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