Getting to know LPGA chief Michael Whan
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The name Michael Whan came hurtling out of left field late Oct. 27 when a memo hit the inboxes of LPGA constituents.
Members of the Tournament Owners Association, who were in the midst of their annual meeting in San Diego, had one question regarding the LPGA’s newly named commissioner: Who is this guy?
“We read the release, and everyone immediately goes to Google,” said Gail Graham, president of the LPGA’s Tournament Owners Association. Over the course of a three-month search for the tour’s eighth commissioner, Graham, like many insiders, hadn’t heard so much as a whisper of Whan’s name.
First of all, Whan isn’t Asian. LPGA.com didn’t initially post a picture of the new commish Oct. 28 with its release. But at the news conference in Madison Square Garden, where most New Yorkers were consumed with curveballs thrown in Game 1 of the World Series and not by the LPGA, a very Caucasian Whan acknowledged the confusion his surname often brings.
“My name, Whan, always throws people a little bit, but it was originally MacWhan, Scottish,” he said. “We lost the ‘Mac’ somewhere along the line.”
Whan, 44, was first contacted by Jed Hughes of Spencer Stuart, the firm hired by the LPGA to lead its search efforts. Hughes had placed Whan previously and thought he’d be a good fit for the LPGA.
Whan, a native of Naperville, Ill., spent the past year working as an independent consultant after serving as president and CEO of Mission-Itech Hockey. Whan left Misison-Itech after its acquisition. A lifelong golfer, Whan also had stints with Wilson Golf and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, fulfilling an “industry insider” requirement many thought was crucial in the aftermath of his ousted predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, whose inexperience in golf business hastened her fall.
While Whan’s new job in Daytona Beach, Fla., will require a significant amount of global travel, it might turn out to be less time away from his family. After Whan spearheaded Mission Hockey’s acquisition of Itech Sports – thus creating Mission-Itech – he spent weeks at a time in Montreal away from his wife and three children.
“This might be less stressful than it was working for us,” said Bob Naegele Jr., chairman of the board for Mission-Itech.
Naegele Jr. describes Whan as a tireless worker with a great analytical mind: “Out of 100 requests (to the board), I don’t think we turned down one.”
His management style is objective, Naegele said, with an emphasis on execution. With Whan, employees always know where they stand.
While that may sound cold and robotic, Naegele quickly points out that Whan’s personable approach is the type of leadership that “causes you to fall on your spear for the guy you work for.”
Heather Daly-Donofrio, one of the few LPGA players who have had the chance to meet Whan, said she found the new commissioner very approachable.
“He comes across as a nice, genuine family man,” said Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s player liaison.
“His personality will really resonate well with players.”
Though he doesn’t officially start until Jan. 4, Whan wasted little time getting to work. One day after being named commissioner, he was having breakfast with tournament owners in San Diego at the TOA’s annual meeting.
When he addressed the crowd, Whan conceded to knowing little about the tournament-sponsorship side of the job and made no promises, except to say that he likes to keep his inbox empty by the end of the day.
Whan also offered his cell-phone number and e-mail address to anyone interested in bending his ear. Graham said that kind of transparent connection didn’t exist with the previous regime.
Described by those who know him as a man of strong Midwestern values, Whan moved from Naperville to Cincinnati during high school and put his habit of rising early to good use. He began mowing greens at 5:30 a.m. in exchange for a small wage and free golf. Whan remains a morning person, with an assist from the occasional Diet Mountain Dew.
“I’m worthless after 8 p.m.,” Whan said. “If you really want to negotiate with me, please don’t plan a dinner.”
He learned early in his professional life that running is more reliable on the road than a fully stocked gym. Whan has been known to run through downtown Tokyo at 3 a.m. because of jet lag, iPod in tow.
His father, Dennis, worked for Procter & Gamble for 35 years. Mike followed in his footsteps after college, but ultimately decided to pursue a business in sports, leaving for Wilson.
Whan’s mother, Karen, worked at a law firm in Cincinnati with former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem. Whan spoke with Mechem several times over the phone in the week leading to his decision.
“I pursued a business in sports because I want my kids to see that dad pursued his passions,” Whan said. “Charlie said there’s no better way to do that than to lead by example; ‘Your kids follow what you do a lot more than what you say.’ ”
Whan champions his ability to build brands. When he joined Mission Hockey in 2002, he says, it was an unstable roller-hockey business that was unprofitable. During his tenure, the company’s annual sales grew from $20 million to nearly $80 million.
“What I’m most proud of in my career is that I’ve built brands; I’ve built them globally, and I’ve left them significantly larger than when I joined them,” Whan said.
David Abeles worked for Whan and alongside him during his tenure at TaylorMade-Adidas. He describes Whan’s leadership style as dynamic, motivational and highly energetic.
There’s no question that the LPGA board and its players will expect Whan to strengthen the tour financially, something they also asked of the previous commissioner. Bivens, by most accounts, was unable to make changes to the tour’s business model without simultaneously burning bridges.
Abeles watched Whan build strategic partnerships and brand alliances firsthand for TaylorMade-Adidas.
“If there’s anybody who can do that (for the LPGA), it’s Mike Whan,” Abeles said.
Whan won’t divulge his priorities for 2010, though he does have a list. He plans to spend the first month at headquarters interviewing employees to see what they think should be on the list. Whan’s philosophy is to listen first.
“The first 90 days are the most valuable,” Whan said. “If you are smart enough to have your ears open more than your mouth, you’ll be really valuable long-term.
“People like leadership, but only if they are involved in it.”
Michael Whan doesn’t pretend to be an LPGA expert, but he appreciates the women’s game. His mother took up golf at age 60 and now plays five times per week: “It’s not a sport; it’s not a pastime for my mom. It’s a way of life.”
Hometown: Naperville, Ill.
Residence: Cota de Caza, Calif.
Family: Wife Meg and sons Austin (15), Wesley (13) and Connor (12)
Education: Miami University of Ohio (1987)
Golf handicap: “Probably a 10”
Experience: 2002-08: President and chief executive officer, Mission-Itech Hockey, Irvine, Calif., and Montreal
1999-02: President and chief marketing officer, Britesmile, Walnut Creek, Calif.
1995-99: Executive vice president and general manager (North American region), TaylorMade Golf Co., Carlsbad, Calif.
1994-95: Vice president and general manager (golf ball and glove division), Wilson Sporting Goods, Chicago
1987-94: Director of marketing, Oral Care; brand manager (primarily Crest); brand assistant, Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati