If you are looking to make an online purchase from NHL.com or one of the 30 NHL team websites, then you can appreciate the work of Brian Fitzgerald. Having worked in the licensed product business for the last nine years, Fitzgerald claims he stumbled into this position with the NHL. “It’s kind of one of those, right-place, right-time great story scenarios.”
While he may try to be humble in his approach, make no mistake that Fitzgerald paid his dues on his way to the Director of Commerce and Development for the National Hockey League. A lengthy title for the position he simply states is the director of e-commerce.
With a marketing degree from St. Bonaventure in 1992, Fitzgerald immediately entered the work force as a Sales Rep for ADP. A year later, Brian took a job with a company called Cushion Craft. “My first sports job out of college was for a small sports company who had a niche product line of pillows, bean bags and banners. The owners weren’t really sports fans and they needed a sports marketing guy.”
Being a fan of sports and coming from a family with a sales background proved to be the perfect combination for the position of Sales and Marketing Licensing Manager that Cushion Craft needed to fill. Fitzgerald was ready to take the products to a new level.
“It was one of those jobs that wasn’t a big-time corporate job. They were a small company that gave me a lot of opportunity to grow and work with them hand in hand,” said Brian. “Learning how to run a business, manage a business, and the sales side, I kind of took the bull by the horns. I worked the relationship side and in the span of a couple of years, we had relationships with all the leagues.”
Those relationships were the launch pad for Fitzgerald to land where he is today, but not after helping make Cushion Craft a multi-million dollar business.
“We hit some major home runs with some retailers from Penny’s to K-mart, to Target to Kohl’s, and before we knew it, the small business became a multi million dollar business.”
Cushion Craft eventually was acquired and became Cushion Craft by Biederlack in 1998, and then merged fully into Biederlack of America in 2000. At that point, Fitzgerald became one of their National Sales Managers, directing and managing 20 plus national and regional retail sports programs throughout the US that generated over $20 million in annual sales revenue.
As is the case with many jobs in professional sports, the people you know are your best contacts, and Brian knew the right people after dealing with them for seven years.
“This NHL e-commerce opportunity just kind of happened. Friends at the league helped me get the interview. I just wanted to get some practice interviewing, because I thought I might be a little out of touch. “A few interviews into the process, the next thing I knew I was a finalist for the Director Job. One of the last interviews was with the President of the Internet Division at the time, and he had to catch a train to CT, so I went out for a drink with him on the way to the train to complete the interview. A few days later I received an offer. That was over a year and half ago, and it has been fantastic experience.”
On a given day, Brian will start out reading the newspaper to get an understanding of everything that is happening in the NHL. “To be that one step ahead, you have to understand what you want to promote and what you want to feature.” He’ll spend a lot of time on the phone with their partners, people in his division who do direct marketing, and the teams themselves.
“I try to frequently communicate with our teams because of the structure of our e-commerce model. I try to keep them in the loop and get their feedback on things we’re doing, especially the things they are not happy with, because the individual team e-stores do represent their team’s image.”
USA Electronic Commerce Solutions is the NHL’s partner for the e-commerce programs. ECS’s technology platform and merchandise team run the NHL e-commerce programs for the e-store at NHL.com , as well as the 30 team sites. In addition to the NHL, ECS also handles NASCAR, the NBA, the PGA Tour and CBS Sportsline programs. ECS uses design elements of each of the teams in the NHL’s e-stores, so they have the look and feel of the specfic team’s site. Fitzgerald’s primary function is to direct market to NHL fans and manage the partnership. “Our teams run their own web sites,” says Fitzgerald. “But my team and I work with ECS to run the commerce components for all NHL teams, as we do with our auction partner Edeal in running our league auction programs.”
Fitzgerald grew up in a family of six kids, five of which were boys and played sports throughout his entire life. A quarterback, baseball player and track player, working in sports is a natural fit. “I just always have been a sports fan, and the opportunity came to sell licensed products. Basically, you talk sports all day because you go after the hot market trends.”
Brian’s advice on working in sports is simple, “If this is what you want to do, you have to look for an opportunity, pursue it, don’t give up, stay focused and work as hard as you can to achieve what you want to achieve. The drive for a lot of people can be there, but it is such a small industry, you do it because you love it.”
At the same time, working in sports is like any other job. “You have to find something, like anything in life, that you really want to do. You have be passionate about it and also be realistic about it. You have to look at the big picture, and shoot for goals on how you want to achieve it.”