ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Research for this project, which examines the Green Bay Packers’ changing front office structure and the team’s relationship with the community, began in November. More than three dozen sources were interviewed by Green Bay Press-Gazette reporters Pete Dougherty and Rob Demovsky, who have a combined 34 years of experience covering the Packers. The sources include current and former Packers employees, high-ranking current and former NFL executives and prominent members of the community. Many of the sources would only speak on the condition of anonymity.
Dougherty has been a Packers beat reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette since 1994. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/PeteDougherty. Demovsky has been reporting on the Packers for the Press-Gazette since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com or at www.twitter.com/RobDemovsky.
The Green Bay Packers hired their first 10 presidents on their own.
But when it came time to find No. 11 in late 2007, the team’s executive committee broke precedent and in a nod to more modern business practices hired a corporate search firm.
If the move reflected the business backgrounds of several members of the Packers’ committee, it also revealed the committee’s struggles to cope with an increasingly complex and revenue-obsessed NFL.
Until Mark Murphy was hired, the executive committee had chosen presidents who were from Green Bay or at least team insiders. But in ’07, the committee’s hiring of a search firm signaled the degree to which NFL ties were competing with parochial concerns for the lone community-owned team in major professional sports.
The search firm, Chicago-based Spencer Stuart, recommended Murphy, who had no history with the Packers but was a former NFL player who worked for the NFL players union and had a personal relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
“When Mark came in, one of the expectations people (on the executive committee) had for him was he was going to develop a very strong relationship with the commissioner and NFL office,” said one Packers source.
Since Murphy’s arrival, the Packers have been strongly represented in NFL matters. He was a member of the league’s negotiating team during last offseason’s collective bargaining agreement talks, which gave the Packers a voice in crucial labor discussions. And just last week he was named to the competition committee, which is the league’s rules-making group.
But the decision to go through a search firm also carried risk. It in effect put the executive committee’s most important duty in the hands of outsiders who might not have fully appreciated the unique position they were filling — that is, the day-to-day leader of an iconic small-town franchise that has no real owner. The committee didn’t have to hire the search firm’s recommended candidate, but it did.
The committee might have had additional reasons for using the search firm, sources said. Several factions on the team’s board of directors were pushing for their favored local candidates — two Packers vice presidents at the time, Jason Wied and Andrew Brandt, wanted the job, as did local attorney Tom Olejniczak. A search firm provided the executive committee cover for going outside the organization instead.
“Anybody who’s running a major corporation — the Packers would be considered a major corporation — I think it behooves you in today’s world to seek out the best talent you possibly can,” said Larry Weyers, the executive committee’s vice president and lead director. “That’s usually accomplished most efficiently and effectively by using a national search agent that knows a lot more people than we might.”
The Packers’ first eight presidents, who served from the team’s incorporation until 1989, were prominent local businessmen. Even when the committee named Bob Harlan president in ’89, which broke the precedent of a Green Bay lifer and executive committee member in that job, it was far from hiring an outsider: Harlan had worked in the organization for 18 years.
Harlan’s hand-picked successor, former NFL executive John Jones, was more of an outsider but was groomed for the job for eight years, though heart problems forced him to take a leave of absence just days before he was officially to take over the team in May 2007. Jones resigned in July 2007.
• April 2007: Vicki Vanniewuenhoven promoted to newly created vice president of finance.
• May 2007: John Jones, the team’s president and chief operating officer, takes a leave of absence because of heart-related health issues just days before he’s to succeed Bob Harlan as the Packers’ CEO.
• July 2007: Jones resigns after never returning from his leave. Bob Harlan, who was to retire as chairman and CEO, named interim chairman.
• December 2007: Executive committee names Mark Murphy as the Packers’ 13th president and CEO.
• January 2008: Murphy officially takes over as president and CEO.
• February 2008: Russ Ball hired as vice president of football administration/player finance.
• July 2008: Betsy Mitchell promoted to newly created vice president of organization/staff development.
• July 2008: Laura Sankey hired to newly created senior vice president of sales and marketing.
• July 2008: Jason Wied promoted from corporate counsel to vice president of administration/corporate counsel.
• April 2009: Vannieuwenhoven resigns as vice president of finance.
• July 2009: Paul Baniel replaces Vannieuwenhoven as vice president of sales and marketing.
• October 2009: Sankey resigns as senior vice president of sales and marketing.
• May 2010: Tim Connolly replaces Sankey, hired as vice president of sales and marketing.
• November 2011: Jason Wied takes leave of absence to treat addiction to anti-anxiety supplement.
• January 2012: Mitchell resigns as vice president of organizational/staff development.
• January 2012: Wied resigns as vice president of administration/corporate counsel.
A source said the search firm targeted highly respected Tod Leiweke as the top candidate — at the time he was the Seattle Seahawks’ CEO — but he pulled out of the running without giving a reason. When the search firm finally narrowed the field, the three finalists were Murphy, athletic director at Northwestern and a former NFL safety; George Pyne, a former NASCAR CEO and high-ranking executive in the sports agency and marketing behemoth IMG; and Jason Wied, then the team’s vice president of administration.
Going into the search, the executive committee told the board of directors it would not consider candidates from college athletics, though it ultimately chose one.
Wied was attractive because he was local — he’d graduated from the former Green Bay Premontre High School, the University of Wisconsin, and Marquette University Law School — and well versed in league matters after accompanying Harlan to NFL meetings for several years. But he also was unusually young (35 at the time) for the position. Sources said that even though Wied was a finalist, his candidacy was a nonstarter because several committee members thought him too green for the job.
Pyne, a curious choice as finalist, was doomed because he had no local or NFL ties.
Murphy had no connection to the Packers and never had worked as an executive in the NFL or for a team. But he was a former vice president of the NFL players union and was recommended by Goodell and Tagliabue.
A source said Murphy initially signed a three-year contract with the Packers, which has been extended. In interviews this week, neither Murphy nor Weyers would comment on the length of Murphy’s latest contract or his salary, though he’s believed to make about $1 million a year.
Weyers wouldn’t comment on the executive committee’s succession plan for Murphy or who would take over if Murphy unexpectedly were unable to do the job.
“The executive committee understands that’s their responsibility along with the entire board of directors to have a succession plan in place,” Weyers said.
With Wied’s resignation in January, there’s no obvious in–house successor. The most influential vice president, Tim Connolly, is 63, which might make him an unlikely candidate. Russ Ball, the vice president of administration/finance, has been with the Packers for four years and is a possibility, though he also might see his future running the football side of an NFL team.
If it has no obvious successor in place, the executive committee then will have to determine how to find the team’s 12th president. Will it again hire a search firm? Will it choose one of its own, or a dark horse from the Packers’ 44-person board of directors? Or will it conduct a nationwide search without an outside consultant?