It is frequently noted by the national media that the ownership structure and the governance structure of the Green Bay Packers football team is rather unusual. The Packers are owned by more than 360,000 shareholders. Most major professional sports teams are owned by billionaires, but the Packers are owned by their fans.
That said, the owner structure of the Packers’ rivals, the Chicago Bears, also is unusual. The Bears are a family business, family-owned and family-run.
The matriarch – Virginia Halas-McCaskey – is the eldest living owner of an NFL team. She and her late husband have raised 11 children, and when the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are factored into the mix, the Bears will be owned by 70+ family members someday. Imagine your family business with 70 voices, all with different opinions.
George McCaskey, son of Virginia, now is the chairman of the board, while the team has hired Ted Phillips as president and head of operations.
In a rare glimpse into the family of a family-run football team in the NFL, I conducted an interview with Brian McCaskey, number 10 of Virginia Halas-McCaskey’s 11 children. The team is worth, according to Forbes Magazine, $1.19 billion.
While brothers Michael and George McCaskey have played more active roles with the team, Brian says he is content with his role behind the scenes. I also heard loud and clear the bond the family has and the protection, in particular, the children have for their mother.
Most family businesses are not scrutinized like an NFL franchise, with every win or loss, every play, every trade nit-picked by fans and sports pundits everywhere. McCaskey receives daily “clips,” every article written about the Bears that day. While he admits his role is “behind the scenes and I am okay with that,” he still eschews talk radio, given the opinion-based comments that are accepted as fact.
But make no mistake, Brian guards the den ferociously. From my needing to get permission to speak about the team and family from Scott Hagel, the senior vice president of marketing and communications, to my quoting an online source that raised some hackles. When I quoted an online source as saying Virginia McCaskey was “pissed” at how the Bears had played, Brian contacted me to set the record straight. A fairly innocuous word, and yet the strength of conviction was there to deny it was ever said! I walked away from the interview with a renewed appreciation for the professionalism and gentility that is this man in the Den of Bears, and an even stronger sense that the family ferociously protects its own.
I asked Brian if he was ever envious of his brothers playing a larger role in the family business. He reiterated that he is very competitive and comfortable in his role behind the scenes.
Full disclosure – I have known Brian for many years after meeting him through a mutual friend. This was my third interview, albeit the first with a family business bent, and each time, he is most congenial. Our conversation covered a wide swath of topics, from the outlook for the Bears, to his thoughts on current owners and finally, a look back at history.
A particularly interesting story Brian shared was about his grandfather, George Halas, going personally before the Green Bay Common Council to advocate on behalf of the Packers when they were seeking a new stadium. If you own a family business, think about your own family business and the likelihood of coming out to support the competition for anything that would help it. Not very likely, but then again, the NFL is an oligopoly which is dependent on all franchises to be successful. After all, your industry doesn’t revenue share, strongest with the weakest. To state the obvious, the NFL is a unique industry.
Further queries included talking about Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, whom Brian referred to as a “shrewd businessman.” Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys was mentioned as an “innovator” for his work on the stadium and the development which sprang from it.
It was clear the owners stick together, and McCaskey was defending the corporate structure. However, when the conversation turned to the Bears franchise and his mother, the Bears’ defense took on a new sense of urgency and devotion.
“Faith, family and football,” in that order, was his view of Virginia Halas-McCaskey. Virginia has shared this mantra before, during her interview earlier this year with her alma mater, Drexel University. But Brian reminded me that she was never supposed to be the owner of the Bears, as she was “put into a situation” with the passing of her brother in 1979.
Virginia, at 93, is the den mother of the Bears, effectively speaking for 80 percent of the ownership stake while holding the title of corporate secretary.
Packer fans will be disappointed to hear that there is a “great vibe” around Halas Hall these days. While I attempted to dismiss this as early season vitriol, Brian dismissed that notion. He stated several times during the interview that he and the family are very competitive. They beamed with pride when the Bears went up to Lambeau Field last year and turned away Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at the goal line to win 17-13 after the earlier loss, 31-23, on opening day.
Brian was very emphatic that the family is aware the Packers have more world titles, and “we are not happy about it.” This competitive spirit is what you would expect from the owner of such a legendary team and a family proudly defending its legacy. Yet, unlike most businesses, I was surprised to hear that “owners in the NFL are not in it for financial gain.” Brian reminded me that to be an NFL owner, you must be successful and wealthy from other business ventures outside of football. For a competitive family, there probably can’t be any better business than sports if winning is more important than money.
In closing my discussion with Brian McCaskey, I asked about his advice for the owners of family businesses. His words were clear: “Strive to be open to learning.”
One thing that hampers family businesses universally is the owner’s reluctance to listen to anyone other than himself or herself. In this light, Brian’s words were well-received. At the risk of losing my “green card,” I walked away from the interview with admiration for the man and the franchise. After all, my team could not be nearly as great as it is if it weren’t for playing a team and a family as distinguished as the Bears and the Halas-McCaskey clan.
While time and dignity prevented me from asking for the truth to the rumor that Virginia withheld dessert on Sundays after Bears on-field losses, it was clear that myth or truth mattered less than the competitive thought of it. This is a den that protects its own, fights hard to win, and is fiercely loyal to the den and the clan.
Any family business can respect that.
-David Borst, Ed.D., is executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute, a regional resource hub for family business. He can be reached at email@example.com.