Blues' new CEO of business operations eager to drive business so franchise
"can invest to get the best players and to compete with much bigger markets"
ST. LOUIS -- Chris Zimmerman has been directly involved in the pinnacle of the hockey world for the past four seasons, witnessing firsthand the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup in two of the past three seasons.
And while it may be tough to uproot a family from one of the top markets in North America and one that has the hockey globe in the palm of its hands, the opportunity presented to Zimmerman from Blues owner and close friend Tom Stillman was too good to pass up.
On Monday, the 54-year-old Zimmerman was named as the Blues' President and CEO of Business Operations after spending the past four years as President of Easton Sports and member of the Kings' business advisory group and operated his own strategic consulting business.
Zimmerman replaces Bruce Affleck, who decided to move to a new role in which he will focus on developing enhanced relationships with key St. Louis companies. Affleck becomes an executive vice president, and he will work closely with Zimmerman.
In addition to overseeing all aspects of the Blues' business operations, Zimmerman will be responsible for the Scottrade Center and for the Blues' role and interest in the Peabody Opera House.
"What stood out to me most was the opportunity for the Blues right now," Zimmerman said, noting the franchise's ascension in t. "With the new ownership group and what they've done to stabilize the business and at the same time, investing in the team, a young team, great product ... this town is hungry to just keep getting better and ultimately win the (Stanley) Cup. To be a part in doing that, that was the number one thing that brought me here."
It doesn't hurt that Zimmerman's relationship with Stillman spans over 30 years. The two go back to their days in New York City when after college, both played on the oldest running amateur hockey team, the St. Nick's Hockey Club, which has been in existence since 1896.
"We've known each other for about 30 years," Stillman said. "It was a really fun team to play for."
"Tom and I both played college hockey on the East Coast," Zimmerman said. "Tom was a lawyer in New York and I started my career in New York.
"(St. Nick's) was a team that many former college players starting their careers would play for. Tom and I met playing on that team. Never could I have dreamt that I'd be sitting here today."
Zimmerman comes to the Blues with more than 30 years of experience in sports, marketing, and business management. He was President, CEO, and Alternate Governor of the Vancouver Canucks from 2006-09. During his tenure, Zimmerman led a number of key initiatives to create new revenue streams, expanded the club's digital presence, enhanced community involvement, and developed innovative programs with the team's corporate partners. He was also chosen to be a member of the NHL's Business Advisory Council.
Prior to joining the Canucks, Zimmerman was with Nike for 11 years. He joined Nike in 1995 as North America advertising director. In 2000, Zimmerman was named general manager of Nike Golf; he played a key role in re-positioning the business by entering new product categories and leveraging relationships with Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour. In 2003, Zimmerman took charge of Nike's hockey business as president and CEO of Nike Bauer Hockey, leading a dramatic turnaround that returned Bauer to the top spot in the hockey equipment industry.
It was an easy hire for Stillman, who along with his ownership group continue their drive to make the Blues a viable-running franchise while making the Blues competitive, and hiring Zimmerman was a no-brainer.
"He's got ideal experience for the position," Stillman said of Zimmerman. "Everything from having done this same job for another franchise. Admittedly, that franchise is in a very different market and in some ways in a different financial situation but still, there's a lot of important experience there. He's got the top-level marketing experience.
"We started talking several months ago after Bruce started thinking that maybe he'd like to make a switch to focusing on some of our top customers and driving revenue there. Chris and I started talking about this. Originally, it was very tentative. I didn't know which way we were going to go, what we were going to be doing, but things like this tend to last over quite a period. In Chris's case, he's uprooting from Los Angeles where he and his family have been for, what, five years? They've moved a few times over his career and it's not always easy. It was a big decision for him."
The talks between Stillman and Zimmerman actually began to develop when Zimmerman was with the Canucks and Stillman began his tenure as minority owner of the Blues under the previous ownership group, led by Dave Checketts.
"We would share thoughts on what we were working on so we had, what I would call it, a professional affiliation to add to our earlier friendship," Zimmerman said. "Over time, things have developed. Tom thought there were opportunities and some of my skill-sets could help in this next stage of moving the team forward."
The Blues held an open house Thursday night for fans to come to Scottrade Center and purchase season tickets or to gain an experience should they plan on purchasing season tickets. Zimmerman, Stillman, Affleck, Brett Hull, Bob Plager and broadcast personalities John Kelly, Kelly Chase and Chris Kerber were on hand for a meet-and-greet for what was deemed a strong turnout. It was Zimmerman's third day on the job and he said he can feel Blues fans' passion.
"I have no doubt and I've seen it already that the Blues fans are core fans that really love the game," Zimmerman said. "They're no different than the fans in Vancouver, who are also waiting for their first Cup and fighting for it.
"I can feel the hunger to win. I've been in another good hockey market that has that same feeling. We all start when that first puck drops. ... We have to be good at everything we do, on the ice and off the ice. You work as a team towards driving a performance mentality and a winning mentality. That's the way I think about the business opportunity and challenge."
Connecting with fans is a primary focus Zimmerman will immediately focus on, and meeting and greeting them Thursday night was the first step.
"You focus on two things: people who (were) here (Thursday) at our season ticket event, meeting Brett Hull and getting into our locker room, we always need to reward them and deepen that relationship, and the other thing that I need to do for the rest of our team is continue to bring more people to the game and to the Blues," Zimmerman said. "I don't have many of those answers yet, but hey, this is a sports town. They love the game and as you know, when you get people into the building, it's a special experience. I love being able to sell that in a town like this."
Stillman added: "We've had a really good turnout. I think that people seem really pleased. It's nice to be able to come in here when it's sort of quiet and you can walk around and really try out seats to see what the view is from different parts of the arena. It's a nice event.
"You find ways to connect with fans. They engage with us and us with them. That means events like this and it also means the various social media options. That's an area you'll see us ramping up, especially to the younger people and even old people like me."
Zimmerman began his career with Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the world's top advertising agencies. During his 12-year tenure, he worked on marketing brands and growing revenues for such companies as Procter & Gamble, Nabisco, Tyson Foods, and Wendy's. He was also a member of the agency's Operating Board.
Getting the Blues' franchise to work hand in hand with the on-ice and off-ice product is vital to keeping a franchise stable. Zimmerman is diligent in helping in all aspects.
"Doug (Armstrong) and myself will have a strong partnership," Zimmerman said. "Many days, I like to think in the simple sense that my job is to help drive the business and drive the revenue so we can invest to get the best players and to compete with much bigger markets. Maybe we have to work at it a little bit harder, a little bit more smarter, a little bit more creativity. All of those things, I've put on my agenda."