2005: The First Lady
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
She’s on the road again. Carolyn Vesper Bivens, the incoming LPGA commissioner, doesn’t officially take the helm until after next week’s Solheim Cup. But she has been on the payroll and working hard since July 13, and her travel schedule is evidence. Already she has had meetings with the LPGA staff in Daytona Beach, Fla., and attended the Evian Masters in France and the Weetabix Women’s British Open in England.
Before arriving here to attend her first full-field LPGA event, the Safeway Classic, Bivens managed to call all of the surviving original founders of the LPGA, plus nearly 100 other golf industry people with connections to the tour. She’s also chatted with Michelle Wie and her parents. During her down time, she has moved home and husband across the country, though boxes remain unpacked. The coastal shift from the urbane Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood to Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona, will require some cultural adjusting.
“The first night there, we went out for dinner in Daytona at 9 p.m., and all the restaurants were closed,” Bivens says. “We had to do take out.”
She’ll manage. She always has.
Born to sell
For more than half of her life, Bivens, 52, has been on the road selling – spending as many as 200 days per year in hotels, at conferences, pitching in front of clients.
First she marketed office equipment for Xerox. Then, she focused her energies to build USA Today, when it was still more of a media experiment than a national newspaper. After an 18-year tenure during which she rose to the rank of associate publisher, Bivens headed west to join multibillion-dollar consulting firm Initiative Media in Los Angeles. For the past five years, she has made strategic buys on radio, television and the Web to put her clients in the spotlight.
Now, she’ll try to do the same for the LPGA.
The golf industry might not have known about Bivens when the LPGA selected her for its top post in mid-June. But as an 11-member LPGA search committee began working to find a successor to commissioner Ty Votaw, Bivens’ resume quickly emerged as the best among a towering stack. Heather Daly-Donofrio, president of the LPGA and co-chair of the search committee, describes Bivens as “impressive in her presence, professional, yet warm, engaging and intelligent. She asked a lot of questions of us and showed she was fully engaged with the LPGA.”
While some observers speculated on the need for the LPGA to hire its first female chief in its 55-year history, the search committee focused on other criteria.
“It wasn’t a priority to pick a woman,” says Hall of Famer Beth Daniel, who also served on the search committee. “We were looking for someone with a marketing background. It was more important to get the right candidate, someone who knew business.”
The fact that Bivens – recognized by Electronic Media in 2002 as one of the mostpowerful women in television – had experience in the sports arena was a bonus. When the NBA held its annual All-Star Technology Summit in February, for example, there was Bivens sharing time on a panel with Magic Johnson, Reebok CEO Paul Fireman and Wolf Blitzer of CNN.
She was born Carolyn Shuck on Dec. 29, 1952, in Oklahoma City. Her father, Bob, worked at Tinker Air Force Base in town. He and his wife, Fern, and their three children moved around to keep up with his military postings: Tulsa, Okla., Arlington, Va., Columbus, Ind., and then Annandale, Va., where Carolyn graduated from W.T. Woodson High.
To this day, she’s wistful for idyllic images of a settled childhood. But she has found a way to compensate, to a degree, by networking in the business world and making that her second home. She adapts to her surroundings with Zelig-like efficiency and focuses totally on the moment. At a recent meeting, for instance, she turned off her cell phone and, for an hour, concentrated on the task at hand without a blink of an eye. When follow-ups are needed, she’s quick to respond, diligently taking late-night calls to meet deadlines.
“She’s an extremely buttoned-down executive,” says Alec Gerster, CEO of Initiative Media, and Bivens’ boss for the past three years. “She leaves nothing to chance, crosses her T’s and dots her I’s.”
When traveling, she still manages every day to call her parents, or her younger sister, Judy, who teaches special education in Annandale.
“She’s the useful one,” Bivens says with characteristic self-deprecation.
After high school, Bivens attended Radford (Va.) College, which in those days was an all-women’s school. She majored in political science and economics – for two years.
Then she left school.
“It was 1973,” she says, “and I was anxious to go into the business world.”
Without any shame or embarrassment, she acknowledges one of her inspirations at the time: Marlo Thomas, who played the role of an aspiring actress and model in the pioneering TV sitcom “That Girl.”
“That was going to be me,” Bivens says.
She landed a job with Xerox, in the Dallas-based Office Products Division, where the firm was taking on IBM. For eight years, she traveled middle America, wherever potential military contracts were being issued. Her job wasn’t to get the main contract. Hers was to uncover secondary opportunities in surrounding communities that would make the initial deal even more attractive to Xerox.
She learned how to analyze a local market. She also spent 4-6 weeks per year at Xerox’s corporate training campus in Leesburg, Va., soaking up seminars, lectures and tips from colleagues. She got everything but a formal MBA in the process.
“I owe my career to Xerox,” Bivens says.
In April 1982, Bivens moved to Washington, D.C., to join USA Today – six months before its debut. At first, she worked in circulation, boosting amenity sales to hotels, airlines and rental cars.
An incident on the day of the newspaper’s launch reveals much about Bivens’ commitment to her clients. The inaugural cover included a photo and story of a plane crash. Worried that the article would offend the passengers of her new clients, Eastern and Delta Airlines, Bivens ran to Washington’s National Airport to intercept the offending copy. Only after receiving the airlines’ approval did she hand out the papers – in the process, ruining the white linen suit she was wearing.
Her responsibilities grew to include research, educational and sports marketing, and by 1991, advertising worldwide, not just for USA Today, but for its sister products Baseball Weekly and USA Today Online. It took 12 years for the paper to become profitable, a development partly attributable to Bivens’ work.
In those days, Tom Curley was president and publisher of USA Today. He paints a portrait of Bivens as “an exceptionally strong leader “capable of digging in and discovering what the marketplace needs.”
“She really helped develop a basic strategy to reposition the newspaper, make it more upscale, with deeper, more substantive content,” says Curley, now president of The Associated Press.
The business of golf
Back in her Xerox days, she had discovered something about golf – namely that it was part of the way the guys conduct business. Unfortunately, she wasn’t one of the guys, and she didn’t play golf. Not wanting to be left out, she decided to take up the game.
“I suppose I took it up for the wrong reason,” Bivens says.
The aesthetic appreciation for golf would come later, after she became more proficient.
That opportunity came early in the 1980s. While at USA Today, she was married Gerry Vespers, a tax and estate-planning attorney He was an avid golfer, knowledgeable about the swing, and a member of Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Before their divorce in 1998, they spent many hours, whole weekends even, on the practice range. She also read widely on swing mechanics. But she didn’t learn to relax on the course until reading Bob Rotella’s book, “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.” It taught her, she says, to fret less about drills and focus more on playing within her abilities.
Eventually, she gained enough confidence to play on the Washington, D.C., pro-am circuit. Her handicap has been as low as 10, but usually hovers around 14. Once, when paired with Ayako Okamoto at Bethesda Country Club prior to the LPGA Championship, Bivens’ caddie, something of a novice, gave her the yardage on a par 3 as 110 yards. Okamoto, who overheard their conversation,told Bivens it was actually 113.
“It didn’t make any difference to me,” Bivens says. “But that’s when I realized the game these women play is different than what the rest of us play.”
Business demands the past few years have kept her from playing regularily. But that, however, may change.
Her favorites courses are Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hills, Congressional, the Greenbrier and the Country Club of North Carolina. She also enjoys more modern venues, such as TPC at Sawgrass’ Stadium Course and Trump National Golf in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., home of the LPGA’s Office Depot Championship.
Her affinity with Pebble Beach includes two memorable personal moments. It was there that she met Bill Bivens, a car dealership executive, whom she would marry in Sept. 1999. It also was on the Monterey Peninsula five years ago that Bivens experienced what she calls her “perfect day.”
In the company of three colleagues, she shot an 82 at Pebble Beach, then followed it immediately with another fine round at Del Monte Golf Course. After the 36 holes, Bivens showered, then joined friends at the hotel pub to munch on hamburgers and sip beer while watching the Yankees defeat the Mets in Game 5 of the World Series.
Turns out Bivens is a sports fan, at least from the couch.
“NCAA basketball, the baseball playoffs, NFL. I love what you see in single elimination tournaments,” she says. Which means she’s a supporter of Votaw’s initiative to turn the season-ending ADT Championship into a match-play extravaganza with a $1 million first prize.
More important, she follows sports from the administrative side, and is fascinated by how leagues and commissioners deal with athletes and fans.
The steroid scandal in baseball saddens Bivens and is a reminder to her of what happens when a sport and its leadership lose touch.
“Whether athletes like it or not, they are role models,” she says. “I’m very glad I’m involved in a sport where the DNA of the sport is recognition of the fans . . . Once you become detached, you lose perspective on right and wrong.”
Golf is unlike other sports, she adds, because it’s “very much rooted in etiquette, morals, fairness, and accepting tough luck. At the LPGA, we have an advantage over other sports in that we don’t have to clean up the act.”
While there’s much focus on a new wave of teenage talent in women’s golf, Bivens prefers to talk about an extended 30-year window of competitive talent that has helped define the LPGA.
“The real story is the pipeline,” she says, “one that runs from Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr to Juli Inkster and Beth Daniels.”
For that, Bivens gives widespread credit, to the American Junior Golf Association, the Futures Tour, and to federally mandated Title IX programs that have spawned the growth of women’s college sports.
Among her major tasks as the LPGA’s seventh commissioner will be to manage the recent influx of talent. She knows there are many young players lined up to join the LPGA ranks, some who will challenge the tour’s 18-year-old minimum age policy. And she’s certainly keeping tabs on some dynamic players, including Wie, who might simply bypass the whole process and play as independent professionals wherever pro tournaments will allow them entry.
For now, Bivens remains quiet about how she’ll deal with the Wie factor and other challenges, preferring instead to ask questions, listen and learn.
But when the time comes for her to set forth her agenda, Bivens plans to be ready. That’s why under her aegis, the LPGA will be sponsoring a daylong conference in January on the subject of teen professional athletes. The agenda has yet to be finalized, but Bivens’ intent is “to look at the impressive body of evidence that’s already available, whether from the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and NASCAR to the NBA and NHL.” Her goal is to showcase the research and see what other leagues and commissioners are doing “so we can make informed decisions.”
At USA Today, Bivens occasionally would beat her boss at golf. This time around, she faces tougher competition. The folks she serves at the LPGA are world-class players and she’s just a mid-handicapper.
But she is a scratch businessperson. At that game, she hopes to match anybody in the field.