Commentary

A Reinsdorf for the next generation

Jerry's son Michael forged his own path to the Chicago Bulls' front office

Updated: February 14, 2012, 9:42 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

The assumption by seemingly everyone was that Michael Reinsdorf would one day assume leadership of the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago White Sox or both.

Everyone but Michael, that is.

"I never wanted to go to my father and say, 'Please, let me get involved in the organizations,' " Michael Reinsdorf said in an interview this week, a year and a half after taking over as president and chief operating officer of the Bulls. "I prefer the way it kind of evolved."

At one time, he wasn't sure he even wanted it, once referring to the late NFL owner Carroll Rosenbloom, whose son Steve, president of the Rams at the time of his father's death, was out of a job after Rosenbloom's widow took control of the team.

That was obviously a unique case, but Michael did wonder what would happen to him if his father Jerry, the chairman of the Bulls and White Sox, were to sell his interest in the teams.

"That was always my thought when I was in my 20s," Reinsdorf said. "But now I'm 44 years old and obviously the Chicago Bulls are not in any danger of being sold."

Just as obviously, Michael Reinsdorf is quite capable of finding employment on his own.

The former owner of the Harrisburg Senators (the Washington Nationals' Double-A baseball team), two minor league hockey teams and a developmental football team, Reinsdorf is also a founding partner for International Facilities Group, a consulting company specializing in the development of sports and entertainment facilities across the country.

[+] EnlargeMichael Reinsdorf
David Banks/US PresswireChicago Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf owned several minor-league organizations before joining his father's team.

Behind the scenes, the younger Reinsdorf had also been representing his father at the NBA Board of Governors meetings the past four years and occasionally sitting in on organizational meetings for about the past 10. When Michael sold the Stockton (Calif.) Roughriders, a minor-league hockey team he started from scratch, his father approached him about the Bulls.

"I under-managed the Bulls, I really did," said Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the team for the past 27 years. "That was one of the reasons for wanting Michael in here. I found myself letting the Bulls succeed on their own. We had a successful business, we're doing well financially and I sort of let it slide.

"I just felt we needed another person there to take us into the future and not just rely on our past success. Also, young people need to run businesses because there's so much they know that I don't with digital marketing and brand building, the Internet. It was time for that to happen with the Bulls."

To Michael, a father of three who had grown tired of the frequent plane flights to California and was ready for the new challenge, the time was right as well.

"It was on my mind but not something I ever pushed for and I never wanted to push for," he said of the Bulls' stewardship. "I felt that if my dad thought there was a time for me to step into the organization, he would let me know. To me, that was a much better way to come into the Chicago Bulls' organization than me forcing my way in."

Jerry remembers one of the first things he told Michael, the second of Jerry and Martyl's four children, in September of 2010.

"I told him to follow the Rocky Wirtz model," Jerry said. "Rocky took over from his father and he's his own man. In many ways, his father wouldn't like what he's doing, but Rocky is successful.

"If Michael needs my opinion, I give it. But only on the condition that he make the decision."

Among Michael's moves with the Bulls over his first year was to seek out and hire former Boston Red Sox executive Susan Goodenow as vice president of branding and communications, a move to the future to which Jerry was referring, and one Michael admitted was overdue.

But his biggest task over his first year on the job, Michael said, was to learn every facet of the organization and that included lengthy meetings with every one of his 75 employees.

"I told every single person that it was really important they do one thing with me and that was to be honest, full disclosure," he said. "I know everyone works hard, most average 10 to 15 years here. And what that means is if I ask them a question, even if it makes them uncomfortable, that they give me an honest answer. If I come up with an idea you're in total disagreement with, you have to tell me."

John Paxson, executive vice president of basketball operations, called it "one of the smartest things Michael did."

"He got the lay of the environment and culture and really took the time, at least from my perspective, to understand everything and not make a rush to judgment on anything or put his stamp on anything," Paxson said. "Any changes he made came from very thoughtful discussions with people and he made decisions in the best interest of the Bulls. He's been really good for the organization."

The new boss said for the first couple of months he did a lot of observing. "Probably the biggest thing I learned is that there are a lot of people in different departments with a lot of opinions and thoughts that relate to other parts of the business," he said. "And what I decided was that I needed to break down the silos. Over the years, they had all talked to each other but there was not a lot of collaboration. I wanted everyone to feel they had a voice in the organization."

The "silo mentality," an attitude in companies that occurs when departments or groups don't want to share information with others in the company, did not exist in the minor leagues, Reinsdorf had discovered.

"The one thing I really loved and learned about it was how much collaboration there is," Reinsdorf said. "If someone who is selling sponsorships sees an opportunity where he can sell tickets, he's going to get that deal done for the good of the organization. I really admired that."

More than anything, it is what Reinsdorf is trying to instill in the Bulls with a new executive committee and, during the work stoppage, an inter-departmental group formed to come up with ways to keep the franchise, without any players to lean on at the time, in the public eye.

"It ended up energizing the whole organization," he said.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman recently addressed the Bulls' entire staff, infusing it with information that helped everyone from public relations to phone representatives better carry out their work.

"There's a separation a little bit between the basketball side and business side," Forman said. "Because we're 40 miles apart [the Berto Center, where basketball operations has its offices, and the United Center], it's both geographically and vocationally [separate]. And what I think Michael has done is brought the two together, and it's a real positive. He has really opened the lines of communication and given us all a sense of ownership."

Michael laughs that there are times when he tries to elicit his father to second-guess him.

"But he won't bite on that," he said. "He really doesn't want to micromanage me. There's certainly things he's going to weigh in on, but at the end of the day he's looking to me to get the recommendation. He's not looking to disagree with me. He wants to make sure I've planned it out and done my due diligence because that's what we do here."

Other times, he remembers the Rocky Wirtz comment.

"One thing I do have to deal with in this organization is that a lot of times it's said to me, 'Well, that's not the way your father has approached it before,' " Michael said. "I'm very respectful because obviously my father has been very successful, but there are times when I don't agree with some of the decisions he's made in the past or maybe the philosophy. So I have to gently push back and remind people, 'My dad didn't make me wear a seatbelt when I was driving in the car with him. So not every decision that he made was the right decision.' "

Jerry Reinsdorf laughed at his son's analogy. His children are all successful. Oldest son David and son Jonathan are both involved in real estate development among other ventures. Jonathan, who received a law degree from Northwestern and a MBA from the University of Chicago, is in the loop on Bulls matters but not in any official capacity.

"I never believed in pushing my kids," Jerry said. "My dad was very unhappy I wasn't going to be a doctor, but I couldn't stand to see the sight of blood. And I wanted to be a lawyer since I was in seventh or eighth grade. When I gave up law to go into real estate, my mother said, 'How can you give up the law?' But she lived long enough to see the Bulls win all six championships. She would wear all six pendants at the same time. She could barely stand up.

"I think every parent takes more pleasure in seeing their child succeed than seeing themselves succeed."

[+] EnlargeJerry Reinsdorf
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJerry Reinsdorf has remained active in the Chicago White Sox organization while letting his son Michael to handle the Chicago Bulls.

Michael easily ticks off the best business advice his father ever gave him:

  • "You don't always have to make every last dollar in a deal. It's OK to leave some money on the table. The best deal is when everyone wins."

  • "Never fall in love with a deal. It's OK to walk away."

  • "Always be respectful, which means treat everyone the same whether they're on the way up or they're on their way down."

  • "Surround yourself with people smarter than you. That's a big one."

  • "Don't micro-manage."

  • "And I think the most important one he's imparted on me is, 'Your word is your bond. And when you shake hands with someone on a deal, that's a deal. It's as good as a written agreement.' That's something my father has always lived by and something he expects of me and my siblings. And I feel the same way with my children."

    All Bulls basketball decisions still go through Jerry Reinsdorf. But while he attends most White Sox games and is involved with the team on a day-to-day basis, he has spent winters over the past decade or so at his home in Arizona, watching the Bulls on television.

    Michael said his father is actually more connected with the Bulls now because of their daily conversations. And lest anyone wonder if the senior Reinsdorf, at 75, is having any senior moments, his son shakes his head in admiration.

    "He's shown no signs of slowing down," Michael said. "He's as sharp as he's always been. The difference is now, if he wants to sleep 'til 10 o'clock, he'll sleep 'til 10 o'clock. … But he works out all the time and he's sharp. Knock on wood, everything's great."

    As for mellowing, Michael said it wasn't required of a man whose greatest joy is his eight grandchildren.

    "I don't see him any different than he was 30 years ago," Michael said of his father. "I think he's exactly the same. I think he was always very even-keeled, never too emotional, which I think has helped him tremendously."

    "I'm a pussycat," Jerry quipped.

    John McHale Jr., executive vice president of administration for Major League Baseball, has worked with both Reinsdorfs and once called Michael "softer-edged" than his father.

    "My father is very forthcoming," Michael agreed. "He'll say exactly what's on his mind and sometimes it might be better to be a little softer, I guess is what I think John was trying to say. I think it's an age issue sometimes -- what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. But I think a lot of it, for my dad, is he doesn't want to waste people's time, so if someone is presenting an opportunity to him, instead of saying, 'Let me think about it, I'll get back to you,' knowing that you're really not going to do the deal, he'll just say right away, 'Hey, this isn't for me.'

    "I don't think he's setting out to be difficult, he just wants to be honest."

    In comparing the two, Jerry, well-known for not taking losses well, joked that Michael could learn to accept the Bulls' defeats a little better. But he admires Michael for his agreeable personality.

    "He gets along with people, which is a really critical skill for a CEO," Jerry said. "He just has a way with people. They like him and trust him and he has a good sense for other people's competencies."

    He is particularly proud, he said, that Michael has managed to balance work and family life.

    "I didn't balance it properly," Jerry said. "When I look back, I did what I had to do for business and then fit family life into it. Michael is doing a better job."

    Michael said he and his siblings "never felt in the least bit neglected," but acknowledged that there's a generational difference. Last year, on the night of a Bulls-Heat regular-season game, he attended a performance his son was in at school.

    "Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy," he recalled. "But I wouldn't miss it and it was important to me that he saw that while the Bulls and wins and losses are important to me, at the end of the day my wife and children play a much bigger role.

    "And," he added with a grin, "I was still able to make it down for the second half."

    For Michael, who attended his first organizational meetings with the White Sox at age 14 as part of a school project, it has all evolved just the way he hoped.

    "It's so much fun coming to work," he said. "But it's also fun going home, so I can't lose."

    Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

    Melissa Isaacson

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.
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