Managing the people we hire requires a great deal of patience and understanding, and a key goal is to always be at your best performance to inspire your people and make them happy. These also applies to our clients, providing satisfaction. In this episode, host Jesse Cole guests his mentor Ken Silver and they talk about handling business, Ken’s accounting career, getting into baseball, and handling clients.
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Successfully Servicing Clients With Ken Silver
Our guest is Ken Silver. He was the Owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies. He hired me right out of college. We later became partners and years later, you married me and Emily, on our field here in Gastonia. I’m excited to have one of my biggest mentors to share our story, how we work together and had a lot of fun along the journey. Ken, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.
This is going to be fun because you had a lot of experience. You didn’t start as a baseball guy. You got into the baseball business. How do you go about buying a baseball team? The answer now takes out a lot of debt and that’s how it started for me. What about for you? How did you get into the baseball business? Share your story from a business standpoint and understand how we came together.
I got into the baseball business in a different way. I was watching my son play hockey. I was sitting talking to one of the parents at 5:00 AM in the arena and he was telling me about an investment that he had that he was looking for a fourth partner. It was to purchase the Modesto A’s in California. I had played baseball in college and I wasn’t good but I played and I figured this would be the only way I could get into baseball. Long story short, my wife and I decided to invest in this baseball team and we were 1 of 4 partners and we purchased the Modesto A’s and that goes back to 1989.
What happened? What did you do? You’ve never owned a baseball team. You’ve never been a part of this. How did you learn what to do? I remember you’re telling a little bit about going on trips and trying to see other teams and taking the kids.
I looked at it from a business standpoint first. After I met with this individual, he brought over tax returns and financial statements and all kinds of things that I was familiar with being a CPA. I was able to analyze it to the best of my ability and I’d given him the go-ahead. When my wife who had been away for the weekend came home and I mentioned to her that I thought we ought to buy a baseball team. That was the closest I ever came to being divorced. It worked out well.
At that time, Minor League teams weren’t making a lot of money. This was where a lot of Minor League teams were, “Can we try to break-even?” Where was Modesto? Where was the state of Minor League Baseball then?
Modesto was, “I hope we can break even.” Hopefully gain some equity as a team appreciated value. We did okay and we did as well as any of the teams were doing because Minor League Baseball was not typically a great investment. You would hope that you’d get in, keep it for a while and be able to sell it and make some money.
You had Modesto for how many years?
We had Modesto from 1989 to 1994.
Did you sell that to go where?
We sold the Modesto team and we wound up in the interim. Since we purchased the Modesto team in ’89, I enjoyed it and I thought we could make a go of it in different markets. We look for a club and we wound up buying a club in 1990 in Savannah, Georgia. I also bought into a club in Welland, Ontario, it was a baseball town. It’d be the biggest lie I could make. It was all hockey. They were totally uncaring about the baseball team, but we wound up buying the three teams.
You have three teams at once. Most of those teams, they weren’t drawn in that. What were typical attendances for these teams?
In Savannah, we had a joke that it was a 300, $2,000, which meant that we would put about 300 fans into the seat, which is nowhere near enough and maybe bring in revenue of $2,000. The Welland franchise was even worse than that but Modesto did okay. Over time, we learned a little bit. We didn’t know much about baseball when we first got into it, but we learned a little bit and it improved to the point where we sold. We moved Welland to Erie, Pennsylvania who offered to build us a stadium. That was a gift from heaven. We kept that club in Erie until 1998.
Put a context that you share a little bit with the Erie team. Every night was sold out. What was different because those other teams that will draw a 305. You got the new stadium but what made it special?
Erie had lost their baseball team and the City of Erie doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. We used to call it Dreary Erie or the Mistake by the Lake. It’s cold. In April, when the baseball season starts, the weather is awful. There wasn’t a lot for the fans to do. Erie offered to build us this magnificent stadium which was state of the art at that time and had luxury boxes, great seating, great access. They rerouted bus routes so they’d be able to take the fans from anywhere in the city to the game. The city went overboard to try to make this work and it did. Every night was a sell-out in Erie.
The city was all in. That was special.
That’s critical for the city to be all in and you need that.
You have these teams. You had Savannah, which is full circle now with the Bananas. You had the Savannah and marginal success. John Smoltz night did okay.
John Smoltz night was a special night. We did nothing to promote it. John Smoltz was rehabbing with the Atlanta Braves. We got a call from the Braves saying that they were going to send John, who was playing for the Macon team who was going to play Savannah for about 2 or 3 nights. All we did was made three phone calls to TV stations and newspapers and the place was sold out.
That brought 6,000 or 7,000 people?
I can’t even picture that in Savannah. You have these different teams, you had success selling the teams as you shared before and then you decided to go into college summer baseball.[bctt tweet=”When you are in a position of management and you have people below you, the only way to make them better is to challenge them.” via=”no”]
That was a gift from my son, Michael, who had moved down into the Gastonia area. He was a practicing chiropractor then. He saw this college summer league baseball team. He said, “We knew it was for sale. Dad, you have to take a look at this.” We did. We wound up buying the Gastonia franchise which was not a good franchise, but it was in the second year when we bought it. Our fortunes changed a little later.
You bought Gastonia during the second season. It was 2003 and the numbers were abysmal, a couple of hundred people.
We’d get maybe 300 or 400 on an average night. It wasn’t a popular pastime in Gastonia.
What was the challenge for you in Gastonia? Why was it not working?
Personally, I’ve never had the mindset of being able to create demand. Marketing has never been my thing. Mine was always the financial end and that was my strength. It’s not being able to hire the right people and not being able to put my own creative ideas in there which I didn’t have. That hurt us.
The success of the teams often is dependent on who you had running and coming up with ideas. For several years going to Gastonia, some years were successful, some weren’t but it wasn’t as the only community, it was the people. That’s where you gave me the opportunity. That’s where I want to get into because you became such a huge mentor because of your leadership style.
I appreciate the compliment. It was one of those things that by 2007 and 2008, I was at my wit’s end trying to figure out how to make this work. We would go and we were losing money, we weren’t making anything and no one was coming to the game.
How bad was it?
You could take up to six figures in some of the years and it was not abnormal to lose $50,000, $75,000 a year. That was typical and even worse than that until I hired this young, enthusiastic sales guy who had worked for us in Spartanburg. Every week when I would get the sales results from our Spartanburg franchise, under the sales I would see these initials JC. I didn’t know how he was able to do it, but I wound up meeting with Jesse and talking a little more seriously about possibly him taking over the general manager’s job in Gastonia because nothing else seemed to work.
This is where our relationship started because I was out of college. In college, I was working for that Spartanburg team. That team was a challenge, to say the least. I remember, at that point, I was an intern but it was commissioned only. You only get paid if you sell things. The biggest thing that you could sell was about $250 or $400. I remember going door to door and selling program ads for $250 or a game sponsorship for $500 and trying to get people excited. The revenues were low. It was small trying to get people convinced on this team. At that point, my career ended from playing baseball and I didn’t know I was going to do. I was potentially going to coaching. You and Jack Thompson at that time who was overseeing both teams said, “We’re going to give this intern a shot at being a general manager.” In all your years of Minor League Baseball, did you ever give someone young that many opportunities?
No, I hadn’t. It was something that I was at my wit’s end. I needed to do something radically different. Jack suggests he’s the only guy selling anything and he said, “You need to sit down with him and see what he brings to the table.” In truth, we did. We went out to lunch and I remember the lunch that we went out to. I remember coming home and shaking my head and thinking, “I don’t know about this guy. He’s a kid.”
You said that. I remember on my first days in the office in September and this is right after I found out all the numbers, how many people were coming to the games and how people had no idea who we were. It was a tough situation. You walked in and we had an assistant GM who you had worked with before. She was an intern and you said, “I know about you.” You look to me and said, “I’m not too sure about you.” I remember sitting there and I was like, “Wow.” I went home and I called my dad and I was like, “Dad, he’s not too sure about me.” He goes, “Jesse, a lot of people aren’t sure of a lot of things. You can prove them right or prove them wrong. It’s up to you.” That motivated me. At that point, I was like, “I’m going to try to make you proud.” When you said that, it was you being honest.
I wasn’t sure. We made the move and I’m sitting here thinking, “I’ve entrusted this franchise which is worth a fair amount of money to a 23-year-old guy that I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s got it, if he doesn’t have it. He’s young.”
There’s a huge level of empowerment but the lesson that I’m trying to think from a business standpoint to empower someone like that. Was it more for you because it was a necessity? You weren’t sure what else to do. What gave you that?
I knew I needed something radically different. I had brought in baseball guys that theoretically had sold and done this and done that in the baseball world and nothing worked. We had gone through a number of GMs and nothing was successful in it. I knew what I had to do with something completely different. Completely off the wall and you were off the wall.
I want to try to get this idea from a leadership standpoint, how do they empower someone and then start giving them full reign and saying, “I believe in this, I’m going to support it.” What started to change? What were some of the things like, “Is he doing this?” What was the process for you?
The process for me was watching you on a day-to-day basis where you put all your enthusiasm into the job. You worked as hard as you could possibly work. You brought in some sales. What turned the corner for me was when I sat down with you one afternoon and you said to me, “Ken, I want to do something different.” I said, “Okay.” The lights are going off in my head, “Watch out.” You started talking about this Midnight Madness game and it was going to be on a Friday night. We were going to start it at midnight which in baseball, by midnight, everybody’s asleep.
Friday nights are your biggest games.
Friday nights is a great game. It’s taking a game and almost throwing it away in the sense that I can’t imagine people coming to the game at midnight. I’m listening to Jesse tell me about all these things he’s going to do and it’s going to be the biggest night we’ve ever had. That was a turning point for me. When I went home and I talked to my wife Bette, I said, “I made the biggest mistake in my life. I’m turning this game over to Jesse for a midnight game. I don’t think anybody’s going to show up.” When it happened and that Friday night I got there, I couldn’t even find a parking spot. It was absolutely insane how many people were there. It was the biggest night we ever had. Jesse was walking around with this grin all night and I said, “I may have something here.” The rest was history.
It’s funny because I think about having something to prove. I’ve started taking this a little bit with the young people that we hire and say, “I’m not too sure about you too. You’re an underdog.” You’re not on paper. I had nothing. I played baseball, a mediocre career. That was it. I sold some things for a team. I sold $250 ads but giving that mindset of I had something to prove. When you didn’t say I’m in that mindset as you said, “Jesse, I’m not sure about this but if you think that it’ll do well.” I remember, “Game on.” It became this mission, “Can I get people to show up?” We had 3,000 people show up for a midnight game because we had activities and events. You took this mindset which is the best.
I tell everyone the best leadership advice I’ve ever received. It says, “What do you think the form of leadership?” How did that come about? I remember the first few days, our players are going to do choreographed dances. We’re going to do donut burgers and donut dogs because they’re heart-stoppingly delicious. We started coming up with colon cleansings and dig to China nights. We tried it all. I would come to you, Ken, thinking about doing this and you’d say, “I don’t know, Jesse. What do you think?” Where did that come from? How did that leadership style develop?
When I got my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan, I had a professor, it was a case study class. I had a professor that constantly berated us. When you are in a position of management and you have people below you, the only way to make them better, the only way to do that is to challenge them. If they come up with an idea, you’ve got to support it. If it works, you’ve made somebody hungry. You’ve made somebody enthusiastic. You’ve given somebody a lease on life to be able to go out and say, “I can do this and I can do better things.” If they fail, they fail. We all fail at something once in a while. That advice was stuck in my head. When you started asking me for all these crazy things, I said, “Professor Brophy would be very proud of me. Go do it.”
How did he do it for you as you were coming up in business and it started your own tax firm and stuff? How did people give you the opportunity to make your decisions and own your ideas?
What happened is I had a CPA practice and I was hiring accountants and people to run the office. With every accountant that I had, I would indoctrinate them in what we needed to do. I would always be mindful of the fact that they needed to do it in their way. If I hired them, I hired them because I thought I saw something creative or something intelligent in them. If I went gave them a client and said, “I want you to take care of this client.” I didn’t sit there and look over their shoulder and say, “Did you do this? Did you do that?” I turned it loose with them and the finished product was financial statements and the tax returns. It didn’t always work out. I had accountants that didn’t get it. They didn’t want to do a community give-back nights.
Playing the odds and obviously numbers is a big part of your life. You knew that the more times you give people this ownership and empower them, the chances of failure are smaller than being a micromanager. Is that something that you put in your mind? I don’t think many leaders are scared to say, “You do this.” Even though I have the experience, I know that maybe the best way to handle a client. I’ve been in the baseball industry for several years. This kid who’s 23 years old, he doesn’t know it. How did that happen? That’s key for people to figure out.
You’ve got to give them the lead. You’ve got to let them do their own thing. You hired them because you saw something in them. Unless you let them be creative and create what they want to, they’re never going to grow. If they’re never going to grow, your practice isn’t going to grow.
You took it to an extreme after the first year. When you came to me and said, “What do you think your salary should be?” If you’re in Minor League Baseball, the salaries are an abysmal start for everybody. Emily, my wife, and working for a high profile, my only team started $19,000 and after you, they’re like, “You did a great job. Here’s a $500 raise.” That’s where everyone was in the $20,000. After the first year, we’re fortunate. Why did these crazy ideas work? We doubled the revenue, we tripled the fans. We had a big year. You came down and said, “Jesse, what do you think your salary should be?” Where did that come from? As the readers know, we did that with our staff in Savannah a couple of years ago.
It’s not something that was drummed into my head. To me, it was an offshoot of the whole idea of, what do you think? If you let somebody set their own salary, you know they’re going to work to earn it if you’ve got the right person. If you don’t then you bought ways. With you, in particular, you had shown me much in the prior year. You came up with ideas that I couldn’t fathom. It’s not something that works. My brain doesn’t work creatively as yours does. When you came up with these ideas and everything seemed to work, I said, “Why not let him set his own salary? He’ll work to make it work.”
At that point, I was 24, my first year, my salary was $27,000 but I got a bonus because I hit all these uber numbers. I got to $30,000 in my first year. I came back and said, “At 24, I’d like to make $40,000.” I remember saying, “I can increase revenues and the team and fans by increase revenue by $100,000.” You said, “Yes.” My question to you is what if I said somebody even higher? Did you have an idea? I get asked this question. When you let them run, what if they said they want six-figure salaries?
I would have said at that point, if you said you wanted to go from $30,000 to $100,000, I would’ve said, “Show me how you can justify it.” I can’t imagine myself saying, “Okay.” I don’t see that. I would have said to you, “You were a reasonable guy and I felt comfortable knowing that you would come back to me with something that we could all live with.” You knew the numbers well that we couldn’t afford $100,000.
No one’s ever called me reasonable before. I appreciate that. At 24 years old, I felt like I was the owner of the team. A couple of years later, you came to me and said, “Here’s top opportunity for some shares to be a managing partner to feel like you’re a part of it.” Probably strategic but also you thought that was a great decision. How did that process? You and Bette talking, how did that come about?
You want to keep giving your key people incentives. Whatever incentive you can come up with that catches the attention of your people, you want to do it. Given your shares of stock to me was the natural progression of what you were doing. You take that to the next level where you have shares, you’re running the club, it’s your club. I’m sitting in the background and you’re running the whole thing. At some point in time, I know we had this conversation on many of our drives back and forth. The mark due was, “Jesse, you should own this team. You should buy it. You should take it over.” You did.
It happened and we had a lot of success with that. What’s an interesting candidate? Thinking about this progression, you were able to have a more successful team by literally letting go more. You were letting go in the sense if you weren’t in there every day making decisions. You’ve had that management style before. Other than Midnight Madness, were there any other things that you got scared of what we’re doing because most leaders feel like, “I can’t do this?”
The Midnight Madness, you did it. I didn’t think it would work, but we did. It worked. You came to me with what I thought was the most harebrained scheme of all was this community give back where you were going to charge nothing and give away free tickets and free food. On a Sunday, when we don’t get anybody there, we get wobble. That was the key. I’m looking at this thing thinking, “What are we going to do for revenue? We’re going to have a free game.” I’ll tell you when I got to the ballpark on Sunday and the game was a 5:00 game, if I’m not mistaken. I got there around 2:00 and the line was around the stadium. As I’m walking from my car to you, you had that same grin on your face. I got approached by many fans that wanted to kiss my feet for doing this. I’m sitting here thinking, “This is crazy.” You started telling me that you had sold these sponsorships. It turned out to be a win-win for everybody. The fans loved it. They got to eat for nothing. They saw a baseball game. You and the community sponsored the game. It wound up being revenue-positive.
We couldn’t fit people in the stadium. That was huge. We had a few years together. We talked from time to time but what were some of the funniest, favorite moments that you had? You’ve owned teams for many years and then we started doing things ridiculous. Were there moments that stand out or you were laughing because you can’t believe you own a team that’s doing this stuff?
After we got through those first couples of promotions, I realized that I had something special in you. I could be able to say, “I’m going to back off and let this guy run.” You did some crazy stuff but I never felt not confident again. I always felt positive that you’re going to make it work. I think of some of the things that you and I have been through, we purchased the club in Martinsville, Virginia and the trips you and I would take for 2.5 hours each way to go to a ballgame. It’s too numerous to mention. It was such a fun experience. We got close and we had some great times. I’ll tell you the highlight of my baseball career was marrying you and Emily. It was such a kick.
You got ordained for that.
I remember when you asked us, you came to our house and asked Bette to sing. You asked me to marry you. I said, “I can’t do that.” Being around you long enough, I should never have said can’t or no because as you said you, “Hey, Ken.” I like to say that I spent a few years in the Himalayas studying. I got ordained but that wasn’t true. I did get ordained and marrying you and Emily was the highlight.
If Emily and I met for the first time in that field, you gave me an opportunity where most owners would think you were crazy for doing even people in the league. The other owners said, “Why is this 23-year-old running a team?” You gave me that chance. We hired Emily. You let me have that opportunity to hire Emily and be a part of it. We got close. We met in that field. Who else was going to marry us? It all came together because of that and with ten inches of rain pouring on us at that wedding, Bette is singing, it was special. With our ten plus years together as partners and working together, what were some of the lessons that you learned that maybe people can take in not just sports but other businesses? What did you see from a management style, ideas, creativity, anything?
The management style was to encourage your people to succeed by letting them do what they believe in. If you can sit back and say, “I may not agree with what they’re attempting to do, but I’m not got to do anything to stop them. I’m going to let them do their thing.” To me, that’s always been the biggest lesson is that you hire people, you believe they’re good people. Let them do their own thing.
I wanted to make you proud, that was something important for me. You gave me that opportunity. I was constantly saying, “Ken, we’re doing this.” I was excited to call you. That’s something interesting from a leader. Can they find people that you can tell they want to make you proud? I’ve noticed this now with our young staff, it’s like, “Jesse, we’re doing this. What do you think about this?” When you see that passion and excitement, that goes a long way. Do you remember those calls and how excited I’d be?
I do. I get those calls and it reinforces the idea that I made the right hire and I’m handling it with what I think is the best way possible. You’ve got a guy, you believe in him. He’s proven that he knows what he’s doing, let him do it. Give them as much freedom as he wants. If he deserves, the last thing you want is to have somebody unhappy. That’s in such a responsible position. You can’t be unhappy. You can’t let that happen.
I always thought every week, could I call you with good news? Remember when I started, the team was in tough. You were getting calls for 6 or 7 years, we need money. We’re struggling or it’s going to rain. It was a lot of negative calls. I remember you saying, “I hate getting these calls.” I can only imagine getting those calls and saying, “I’ve put more money in because the team I own is failing.” I took that mindset of how can I call you every week with good news. Can I call you and share, “You wouldn’t believe we sold a huge sponsorship. You wouldn’t believe we’re going to sell out this game.” All these different ideas, that was my mindset. I’m hoping as an owner, you were thinking, “I like getting calls from Jesse.” I think about that with our team. It’s like, “Don’t be afraid to always call.” As an owner, you’re wondering how my team is doing? How’s my baby doing?
That’s a great style from your standpoint to be able to do that to somebody that you’re reporting to. To be able to give them the good news is wonderful.
I learned much from you and the way you gave me that opportunity that I always try to be that for our team and our people. I think about how did you learn that? What other mentors did you have in your life, the people that you learned from?
I had a friend of mine who we worked in the same accounting firm. He had his own tax practice. He taught me some things about how to handle clients and how to make the client feel that he’s your only client. You had to make the client feel important. It was an extremely good lesson because it taught me that no matter how many clients I had, and I have a pretty sizable tax practice, each one of those clients need to feel that they’re my only client, that I’m giving them 100% attention. To me, that was a huge lesson in the accounting field. With you, the biggest lesson I ever had was I got that from Professor Brophy, but I lived it. I bought into that theory, “Hook, line and sinker.” I said, “I am going to let make this guy feel that this is his team.”[bctt tweet=”Unless you let them be creative and unless you let them create what they want to, the people you hired are never going to grow.” via=”no”]
When you’re talking about making people feel they matter. That’s how Fans First Entertainment was built and what we’re doing is from how you make everyone feel like this is their team, that we care, we’re putting them first. I remember our lunches, you were never distracted. We grabbed lunches all the time when I first started, “Ken, let’s grab lunch.” We talk about ideas and you were always focused. You learned that idea from the tax mentor. Did you use to talk positively about John Henry Moss?
John was the Commissioner of the South Atlantic League and he lived for that league. That’s all he cared about. He did everything in his power to make that league the most successful of all the minor leagues, to make it the best run league. John taught us some great lessons as well in the sense that he let the owners of the thirteen clubs in the league at that time dictate what was going to be done. John would have ideas and say, “Let’s talk about what the new franchise fees are going to be.” As people buy into the league, we kept raising the franchise fee. It was John’s opinion that came out best when he let the owner’s ownership decide. When I first got in, the franchise fee was $1.3 million and over the years it went up to $6 million.
You were a part of it. When he died, you were on his side and you spoke at his funeral.
It’s a sad funny story. John and I got close because he was looking to start his college summer league. He took me, he said, “Ken, I want you to help me with this.” I would’ve done anything for John. He was that kind of guy.
Why would you do anything for him? How did he make you feel to say I will do anything for this guy?
John had my best interest at heart from the time. I interviewed for the South Atlantic League when I purchased the Savannah franchise back in 1990. I interviewed with the board of directors and John. The board of directors was comprised at that time of six of the most selfish, greediest people I’ve ever met in my life, to the point where they were talking about expanding the league and they wanted me to agree to give up my share if I came into the league. They didn’t have the ownership interest at heart and John wouldn’t hear of it.
We were in a meeting and I stormed out in the meeting. I was upset because the ownership said, “Ken, we can approve you but only if you’re willing to give up your share of the new franchise fee that the new teams are going to pay.” I said, “Why would I do that?” He said, “You’re not an owner yet.” I said, “I will be. I’ll be stepping in the league as a full-fledged owner.” John Moss stood up and said, “You people are disgraceful.” I left but I gained a real healthy respect for John. Every interaction I had with him after that, he always had my best interest at heart.
He always had your back. It’s fascinating to me. Go back to the story about the funeral.
When John died, I was asked to speak at his funeral as well as Pat O’Connor who was the Minor League president. Pat flew in from Los Angeles. We were sitting in the church and the service. The two of us were ready to speak. Somebody dropped the ball at Pat who had flown in specifically for that thing. He never got asked to speak, neither did I. Neither one of us spoke. We looked at each other like, “What?” To me, it was easy. I was there, he lived close. Pat flew in from California to be here and neither one of us spoke. It was an honor to be asked and we were asked by John’s family to speak. Somebody messed up somewhere.
John had your back and you having my back. Did you have to defend me in what we’re doing? Probably to Bette a little bit why we are doing this? Do you have the moments like whether the old commissioner or the league was saying, “It’s okay, we’re doing this?” Did you have to defend me at all to fans?
Here’s an example. We get together after a few months of no meetings or whatever. You’d walk in and you’d meet one of the owners and you said, “Ken, I’m still not getting over the fact that you thought a guy threw 3, 2 curveballs to me and they didn’t call it a strike.” It’s like, “I’m not sure that’s why we’re in this league.” That’s where the mindset was and everything was geared around baseball. The commissioner of that league, Pete Bock, was also geared to baseball. There was nothing to step out of the box. Everything had to be in the box. You’re playing baseball, that’s what we’re here for.
When we’re started doing some of these wild things and we did the Midnight Madness, I took such ridicule for that Midnight Madness game until it came off. No one would play us. I went to every owner and I said, “Would you guys consider playing for it and I would be willing to do this for you and take some of the expenses off your back and we’ll take them.” They all laughed at me. No one wanted to do it. They said, “That’s stupid. That’s a bad idea.” I was able to convince the ownership of our other team. I had a good talk with myself. That’s why I was always far sitting.
It was at point two, he’s like, “A GM should not be in a dunk tank every game.” It was from that building management, “A GM should not be doing this.” I remember calling you those first days. I go, “Ken, these numbers are tough. The only way we can be successful is if we’re no longer a baseball team or we’re in the entertainment business.” They were saying, “What do you have in mind?” I was like, “Our players got to be doing choreographed dances, grandma beauty pageants and it’s going to be a circus.”
I took heat for that in the league because they felt we were making this a mockery baseball. To me, it was never about baseball. It’s about entertainment. You bring fans in. You got to show them something more than baseball.
We ended up winning a championship. We started winning more games. Russell Wilson’s on the field dancing with us and playing.
We became known as a clown show and yet we won. Was it in 2009 or 2010 that we won?
We won in 2011, 2009 and 2010, we had won the better records in the league.
For our city, we won in 2009 and 2010.
Three trips to the row for your teams.
This was all about baseball. We solved the baseball thing and we’re having fun doing it. You taught me more about that, the idea that this can be more fun. I always felt we had to do something, but I didn’t have the creative juices that you did.
We had nothing to lose. It was a point where I don’t think you and Bette could have owned the team much longer if they kept failing. You shared this later. It’s like, “We kept losing money, we couldn’t have done it that much longer.” I was like, “We’re at this low point, let’s try it.” We started testing everything and you’re giving away a colon cleansing right now. You’re doing this. We would sit laughing. It was fun. I’m got to switch it up and finish some rapid-fire. You get to be the host now in Business Done Differently. You’ve got to ask one question to me. We’re mixing it up. It’s called Flip the Script. You can ask me one question.
I know you ended your baseball career, but what made you decide when you got into baseball that it had to be more than baseball? It had to be entertainment.
When I was the intern for Spartanburg, you gave me the opportunity, you and Jack, to either be an Assistant GM in Forest City or be a GM in Gastonia. I viewed it as like, “This is the opportunity to make an impact.” At 23, I don’t care if I’m being paid $10,000 to make an impact. For us, we knew that going into the first few days, I had a goal to meet with every single person in the community in Gastonia. There was an article I found the other day. It said, “My goal for the months of October, November, December is to meet every single business owner, nonprofit, and person in this community and tell them about the Grizzlies.” An ambitious goal, unattainable, but I remember as I started doing that. Everyone I talked to, they said, “We don’t like baseball. We’re not interested in baseball.” Someone would say, “I like baseball.” I’d say, “How many games did you go to?” “We didn’t get a chance to go to any,” I asked that over and over again. I started saying, “There’s a fundamental problem here.”
How can you convince someone to come to something that they don’t like? That’s when we sat, I was like, “We’ve got to no longer position ourselves as a baseball team.” You’re like, “That’s what you do.” I’m like, “You position it as a circus, we just happened to play baseball.” We started testing it and it was like, “People are excited to come to whether it was Hannah Montana night or the grandma beauty pageant. All the senior homes wanted to be a part of it.” That’s proof. Having senior homes. They want to come to a baseball game and be a part of that. Having tons of kids that would never come out to a game coming for Hannah Montana night, it was different. That’s what we learned. Other mentors like Mike Veeck. I remember, “Ken, I’d like to go to this conference.” I was scared to ask because it was $500. I was like, “We don’t have $500.” As I share, I went a time without paying myself to keep money in the team. You were like, “Let’s do this.” Every single trip you supported because it’s part of what gives me the ownership mentality.
We hired you and we made the commitment to say, “Let’s make this work. Let him do what he thinks is right.” If we make a mistake, we’ll make a mistake. We hadn’t done anything right in the few years prior to you being there.
Go-to question time, I believe if you want better answers in business, you need to ask better questions whether throughout your many years now with your tax. For 15, 20 years, whatever it was in baseball teams, even in working with other people, what are some of the best questions you are asking? For instance, whether you’re working with clients, what are questions that help? I believe you want to get answers from people. What are some good questions you may be asking?
One of the most basic is you turn it around and it goes through the whole concept of what do you expect? What do you want from me? What can I do to make your life better? What can I do to give you more information? What do you want me to do to lower your taxes and basic that stereotype? I want you to lower my taxes. The important part is to flip it around to have the client or the employee be able to determine what they want.
They make the decision. It’s up to them. You’re the guide.
I’m a means to an end.
I love it. A fail and tell. Give me one thing that you have failed within any of your businesses and share something you learned from it.
With some of my larger clients, I tried to do more than I was capable of doing on the concept that every one of my clients, they were my only client. I had some sizable clients that I didn’t serve as well as I could because I didn’t have the time. Instead of walking away and saying, “Let me get you somebody who could.” I attempted to do it. I attempted to be more than I could be.
The different strokes. What’s one view of business that you’ve had that may be a little different than most? It is something that you think differently than other people like, “This is how you can be successful or this is how I do things.”
As an accountant, I’m not your typical accountant. People don’t look at me as a strict numbers guy. They look at me as more consultant and they always have. It was never popular for an accountant to be more than a numbers guy or an accountant, especially in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, it’s a little different. More clients want you to diversify. Even so, you stick to what you do best and that you feel comfortable with and that the client respects you for and you’re better off. It works out much better.
We’re here in Puerto Vallarta. This is our second trip. Me and Emily, we’ve had an amazing experience both times. This is a good segue into now that’s what I call service. What are some of your best service experiences? Is there a service story whether it’s a business, a restaurant, anyone that did something you were wowed at? You and Bette wouldn’t believe what happened now.
I find it here. It hit us mostly here that you wouldn’t believe what this resort offers. Everything is done with a smile. What can I do to make these people more comfortable? It fits in with the whole concept of what I believe in is that you turn it around to what does the client, what does the guest expect or you want to exceed what they expect. In this location, you look at the room and you don’t get a room like this anywhere. It’s insane. The service bends over backward to make your life better. They constantly think of ways to make it better for you.
You’ve been here for many years. Is there a certain story or thing that they surprised you with? I’m walking around here and the way to see a move, that’s moved you. They put their hand in their chest and always say, “Buenos Dias,” and greet you. Anything they surprise you and Bette, a waiter or waitress or someone in your concierge.
I would think of a waiter that we’ve gotten close to. He’s done things that defy description. We had Valentine’s Day dinner here one night. We had a reservation at our favorite restaurant on-premises and there are fifteen restaurants here. The waiter that we liked was at this one restaurant, Azur. As we got to our table, he had laid out rose petals from the time we walked into the restaurant to our table. He had it laid out totally. I can give you another story in the same way that is one night we went to that restaurant. It’s a fancy restaurant. It’s not the restaurant you’re going to in bathing suits.
We had played around golf and it was 90 degrees and it was hot. We got into the restaurant to take a look at the view. We had no intention of staying because we had a dinner reservation for a couple of hours later where we go home clean up. There were four of us, we walked in and we looked like we had been on a golf course for four hours. We sat and we decided to have a cocktail. One cocktail turned into many cocktails. To the point where the same waiter came up to my wife and said, “Ms. Bette, it’s time for you to have some dinner.” He took us right to the table. It’s a nice experience.
They took care of you. I remember back in the day I was asking you, “What is it about taxes? If you are a numbers machine, numbers are more than anyone I know.” We were walking out to the Port City Club and you go, “It’s like a game to me.” That was fascinating because no matter what you do, some may seem like its stressful or cumbersome or busywork, but you made it a game. Can you explain briefly how you made it a game?
It’s a game to me in the sense that I’m challenging myself to save as much money of the client as possible. Legally, I’m aggressive and I always will be but it’s always legal. If a client comes to me with tax issues, he wants me to save him money. To me, learning as much about the tax code as possible gives me the tools so that I can do things that some other clients and other accountants don’t think. To me, it’s a challenge. If I do a return one year and a client pays $20,000 in taxes, I want to make sure that next year if he comes to me with the same circumstances, he pays less.
The whole mindset is 100% on the client. That’s what’s interesting. It’s not about how you make more money.
Otherwise, Jesse, if you’re sitting here chasing money, you reach a point where it’s boring. It’s not what you want. If you can do as much good as possible for other people, that’s worth everything.
We think about it every day at the ballpark and you saw it working together. How can we make it a better experience every year? How can we have more surprises and more unexpected? That’s the whole mindset from all-you-can tickets to free shipping to everything. It’s a game for us.
I think back to some of those things. I remember you and me worrying about whether a guy who had a wristband for all-you-can-eat was going to take it back to four of his friends and keep feeding them food.
Back in that day, I was worried about that. At that point it’s like, “I’m okay if some people take advantage of you.” If you’re having an intention to be good for many people, I’m sure some clients take a lot more time than others and take advantage of your time.
You’re absolutely right because it’s so much. You’re here and you’re doing your thing, you’re helping them. It’s all good.[bctt tweet=”You encourage your people to succeed by letting them do what they believe in.” via=”no”]
A magic moment, what is one moment in your life you’ve had a lot of it? You have grandkids and you’ve got an amazing wife. What’s one moment that stands out that you’ll never forget?
It’s the day we got engaged. That moment will stand in my life forever. At that time, we had dated and split for a little while. We had split apart for a while. We stayed friends, but we wound up going to a wedding of a fraternity brother of mine in college and Bette’s roommate. It was in Massachusetts. We were both in New York. We weren’t together as a couple. She and I got invited. We had talked and we said, “Why don’t we go together? We might as well go together.” We went together and on the way home, we wound up in the car and all of a sudden we were engaged.
How did that happen?
We went to the wedding. The wedding was terrific. It’s one of those things that you felt things were coming together but you didn’t expect it. We went back to the bride’s house afterward and for an after-party. When we left the party, we got in the car and I was driving.
You didn’t have a ring?
No. I was driving and we were getting into the car and Bette turned to me and she said, “Of course, I’ll marry you.” That’s exactly what happened.
You didn’t ask?
I didn’t ask. We looked at each other and she said, “Of course, I’ll marry you.”
At that point, you knew.
We got engaged. I remember coming home and talking to our parents like, “What?” We said, “We got engaged.”
You had to get a ring. How much later did you get married?
That was in August of 1967 and we got married in June of ‘68.
Emily and I have learned so much from you guys and seeing how happy you are and dancing and always having fun. What role has Bette played in your success from a business standpoint and in life?
She’s my rock. She’s always at my side and she supports me in every crazy thing we’ve ever done. You talk about buying baseball teams, that’s a crazy thing to spend a lot of money to get into a business that you know nothing about. She was away that weekend that I looked at this baseball team. When she came home and said, “We should do that.” For her to look at me and say, “Okay,” it’s the same feeling you got when we supported everything we did. She’s done that for me. She’s been my rock. She supports me in everything.
Same thing when Emily said, “We have to sell our house to go down to Savannah. We have to save money, put everything we have into the team.” You said belief. This whole thing goes into believing in people. She believed in you. She knows what you can do. You believe in her. That played a role in everything. We believe in each other.
We’re always 100% together. Even if we don’t agree on certain things, that’s normal but we’re always together. Once the decision is made or we don’t sit here and say, “We don’t blame the other one if something didn’t work because we did it.”
What’s one thing you would tell someone to stand out in business or in life? It’s the one thing you’ve done to stand out in business or life.
I’ve subjugated my desires for the desires of my clients. I make sure that I’m satisfying the client. That has enabled me to be successful and happy. It’s putting their requirements first whether it’s an employee or it’s a client.
You shared some of the advice you received earlier from a professor, the person in the tax industry. Overall, if you were to say the best advice you’ve ever received, what would it be?
The best advice that I’ve ever received, I would have to say it was from Bette. It’s, “Always being true to yourself.” If you think it, feel it, do it. You always want to make the person you’re servicing whether it’s a client or an employee, you want to make them happy. You want to make them want to come to work. Her statement of always be true to yourself means if that’s what you feel then do it. Make sure they’re happy and make sure you’re doing the right thing by them.
How do you want to be remembered?
I don’t want to be remembered. Simply, I want to be remembered as a good man who loved his wife and family, was honest, and had integrity.
I’m glad we were able to do this. Ken, we’ve had more conversations over the years ever but we’ve never recorded one and shared some of this.
This was interesting. I had fun.
We’ve done a lot of more interesting things before. What Emily and I learned from you and Bette, that’s why we want to be around you. We try to mirror that and be like that in a different way. We’re maybe a little bit crazier but we do things that are a little off and a little wild. I’ve learned much from you and a lot of the people that we get to lead, hopefully, that’s embodied from what you’ve taught me as well. I can’t thank you enough for being on the show and learning a little bit and having the readers learn a little bit that from you.
It’s my pleasure. I learned that from a great man.
About Ken Silver
Former Owner of the Modesto A’s, Erie Seawolves, Savannah Sand Gnats, and Forest City Owls Gastonia Grizzlies.