The sport world lost a good friend last month, and few of you had the opportunity to know him. His name was Tom Mullaney, and he was president of Wilson Sporting Goods.
Tom engineered the purchase of Wilson by PepsiCo in 1970, and he then was its president for almost eight years. He left Wilson in 1978 to manage what was then the largest financial business merger on record, Dart Industries. In those eight years, he energized a sleeping industry.
Prior to Tom and PepsiCo, the “hard goods” sold in the sporting-goods world, such as tennis rackets, balls, baseball gloves, golf clubs, etc., were typically sold by smaller family-owned businesses. They were sleepy little operations, generally making products on the borderline of adequate.
Wilson was already the giant, with sales near $70 million — back when that was a lot of money. Tom Mullaney replaced upper management and then drove the sales to more than $200 million with innovation and marketing excitement, and he made every second of it great fun. Tennis was just becoming popular among the masses and helped fuel Wilson. Wilson was not stingy, by any means, and in turn helped to fuel the growth of not only tennis, but all racket sports in that period.
He also attacked the sport of golf, as well as team sports (footballs, basketballs, softball, etc.), with innovation. Tom bolstered the research and development capabilities and, on Day 1, they started with some of the first-ever studies behind the performance of sporting goods.
I remember the day when a bright new engineer hired specifically for tennis asked me why tennis rackets were the length they were. My response was that I didn’t know, but I thought I was going to like our new relationship. With research information in hand, new high-tech materials were soon introduced. They were not used for the sake of being new, but for enhancing function.
After Tom’s departure, Wilson went through eight presidents in the next decade, proving that something more than a big bank account was needed to be successful in the sporting-goods business. Tom recognized that the consumer’s tennis racket, or golf club, was not just another widget to be manufactured and sold. The consumer is very much attached to their tennis racket or golf club. Consumers identify themselves and their lifestyles closely with their sport equipment.
Tom taught all of us how to be leaders in our businesses. He certainly wasn’t the stiff suit that everyone had to satisfy at a weekly meeting. He might drop by and sit on the edge of your desk, and ask you a specific question about this or that. But fear? You could do nothing but like the guy.
He normally left everyone to their own knitting, but I needed his help with a unique problem.
I was negotiating a renewal contract with Billie Jean King when she was at the apex of her career. The contract I offered was fairly low in committed dollars, but she had the opportunity to enjoy a percentage of sales of all of the rackets sold with her endorsement. Everyone in America knew her, and she was a household word.
She wanted more upfront dollars, and as a result we continued to negotiate for the good part of a year. When I recently read a book about her life, I learned that by delaying me, she hoped Wilson would get nervous and pay more.
But my real problem was that I was also negotiating a contract with Chris Evert as we developed the Chris Evert Autograph tennis racket. Obviously, two different type tennis rackets for women players was going to reduce the potential sales of each... and the subsequent pay out to the players. But Evert was almost as popular at the age of 16 as Billie.
Billie wanted to meet our president, and I could honestly use Tom’s great personality and brain to help me work my way through this. I arranged a brunch in Chicago. Billie and Tom hit it off. They didn’t get into the price of yarn — Tom left that to me — but the questions and answers were memorable. Billie was always good with the meaning-of-life questions. And I learned, for example, how Tom viewed himself and others in his organization.
Are you ready for this personal insight from one of the great captains of industry?
Tom believed everyone could greatly contribute to an organization, but their strengths and weaknesses had to be understood. He mentally put his entire team in a football stadium. He labeled one end zone Creative, and the other end zone Engineering. He would then put his managers at one of the field markers.
If, for example, someone was very creative but could never find their wallet, he might put them at the Creative goal line. If another person was very organized but only slightly creative, he might put them on the 10-yard line at the other end of the field.
Tom’s undergraduate degree was in civil engineering, followed by a Harvard MBA, so I asked him where he sat on the field, and he told me that his gift was that he was 50/50 and sat on the 50-yard line. I asked him how many were sitting with him, and he responded, “Very few.”
It was Tom Mullaney who moved me up several pegs on the organization chart and sent me to Europe to introduce Wilson racket sports. You might think he would have given me very precise instructions. But he said, “Wander around and figure out how Wilson should go to market in Europe. It may be, or not be, what the other companies are doing. Work toward what makes the most sense to you, knowing Wilson’s operations.”
The reason I say each reader lost a friend is that Tom’s injection of innovation into a sleepy industry forced all sporting-goods companies to either up their game or get out of the business. Ultimately, the consumer was the winner, with sports equipment that allowed them to play better, hit farther and enjoy themselves more.
At this point in my life, beginning with Vietnam, I have lost a great many friends, and this last decade I have become accustomed to getting that message every three or four months about a recently departed friend. But the email about Tom’s death hit me hard. Although it isn’t rational, I somehow had Tom pegged as being immune to death. But I should have known better, because it was Tom who would say, “You only go through life once; but if you play it right, once is enough. Have fun!”