A USAT History Project Essay - Events and Races
By Ted Kennedy
While working for Quaker Oats Co, I raced on the Gatorade Triathlon Team. Gatorade was a sponsor of the Subaru Triathlon Series in Ontario, and I became friendly with the Series’ owner Graham Fraser. Fraser, about ten other Toronto area triathletes and I traveled each spring to Pinehurst, North Carolina to bike, run, swim, and golf. It was on these trips that Fraser and I would talk about our businesses, and the challenges in sales and marketing.
In 1997 Fraser bought Ironman Canada from a Toronto businessman to keep it out of bankruptcy. He was able to turn the business around from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, to making thousands in profit. When Fraser bought Ironman Canada he built a clause into his contract with the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) that he had the rights to all new Ironman races in the USA and Canada. The President of WTC at the time told Fraser, “go ahead and keep that clause, because the only Ironman in the USA ever will be the Hawaii Ironman World Championship.”
In 1998 I became the Vice President of Best Foods Canada, and found out first-hand the challenges of juggling a high pressure career with family time and triathlon training. After twenty years of corporate life, I really became envious of people like Fraser who was able to combine his passion with his work. I mentioned to him more than a few times how lucky he was, and how I would love to have a career that incorporated my passion. It wasn’t long before I was put to the test to see if I really had what it took to make the jump.
Late in 1998 Lew Freidland became President of WTC and oversaw all aspects of the Ironman World Championship. Friedland was an incredible ‘breath of fresh air’ for Ironman, and very forward thinking about how to solidify and expand the brand. One of his first objectives was to launch an Ironman race in the USA (note, the original objective was one USA race). However, it was brought up that Fraser, through his Ironman Canada contract, owned the rights to all new races in the USA. So Freidland phoned Fraser and told him to find a location in the north east region of the country.
Fraser loaded up the family into his Subaru and started a journey that was planned to take him to upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and into the Boston area to find a location for the Ironman. However, he was so struck with his first stop on the tour, Lake Placid, that he signed a deal with the town on the spot, and never even visited any of the other locations.
Isuzu Ironman USA Lake Placid was launched in the spring of 1999, with a race date in mid-August. Much to everyone’s surprise, as soon as the race web site went live entries began pouring in! It was going to be an obvious success, so Freidland told Fraser to find a race in the south east region of the USA. Fraser assumed Freidland meant a race for 2000, but he told him, no, not 2000 – this Fall.
Through his Subaru Triathlon Series Fraser had two extremely competent operations people, Lyle Harris and Chris Gdanski. They took on the responsibility of running the Ontario series, Ironman Canada and these two new races. However, Fraser realized he needed someone to help run the business side of things. One day I got a call from Fraser that basically said, “put your money where your mouth is”, and we began talking about the business of Ironman. After weeks of discussion, I decided to leave a high paying job with stock options, benefits, and car and join Ironman North America as VP of Sales & Marketing with no salary, no ownership, and no benefits. My job was to sell sponsorship to the three North American Ironman races, and earn anywhere from 10% to 20% commission, depending if they were simply renewals of current deals, or sponsorship money from new companies.
Virtually any entrepreneur can relate to the moment when you realize you have given up incredible security for no security; a terrifying realization when there is a mortgage to pay, and three kids to feed. However, due to some contacts I had from business in Canada, some new ones found in the US, a bit of luck, and selling skills honed over twenty years in business, I quickly brought forward deals with Kellogg’s Smart Start cereal, Janus Mutual Funds, and HSBC Bank.
Ironman Lake Placid was a huge success (even though the team was honestly terrified that no one would watch on race day!), and Ironman Florida was selling well, so Freidland got the crew to find a race in California, a hot-bed for triathlon.
Ironman California was launched in 2000 on US Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton (it was moved off the Base after 9/11), and the expansion continued to Ironman Utah (since cancelled after freak storms wiped out the swim two years in a row), Ironman Wisconsin, Ironman Coeur d’Alene, and Ironman Arizona. To say that Ironman in the USA was an enormous success would be a huge understatement.
As mentioned, my job with Ironman North America was to introduce new companies to the sport of triathlon, and ultimately, sponsorship of Ironman races. A survey of athletes registered for Ironman Lake Placid revealed that almost 10% of the entrants listed their jobs as President or CEO. I thought that a great way to get to know these people would be to organize a “race” within the race for CEOs, and in 2001 the CEO Ironman Challenge program was launched.
The CEO Ironman Challenge in 2001attracted fifteen CEOs, and was a huge success. ESPN covered it as part of their race coverage, and the first event was won by Cid Cardoso of Inside Out Sports.
The CEO Ironman Challenge grew every year, and was eventually capped at twenty-five entrants to retain intimacy. In 2003 WTC and I worked out a deal where the top finishers from the CEO Challenge would earn a slot to the Hawaii Ironman World Championship, and the winner of the CEO Challenge in Hawaii earned the title of World’s Fittest CEO® (a title I quickly trademarked).
Things could not have gone better in the early years – I relocated to Lake Placid to join the rest of the Ironman North America team, and they had a blast putting on world class events while enjoying a fantastic lifestyle, and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. I continued to train and compete in triathlons (my first triathlon was in 1986), and in Ironman Canada in 2001.
However, with almost twenty flights a year for the team, travel in and out of Lake Placid was getting incredibly difficult and time consuming. Therefore, in 2003 the office was moved to Claremont, Florida to take advantage of the good weather and the Orlando airport. Unfortunately, Fraser and his family did not like Florida, so the team began the process of finding a new location for the Ironman North America office. Eventually, they decided on Boulder, Colorado due to the incredible triathlon lifestyle and proximity to the Denver airport. But, not all good times can last forever. Along the way the team lost Lyle Harris and Chris Gdanski, both pillars of the company’s race operations.
On the business side, after a bit of a ‘drought’, I made fantastic headway in discussions with Ford for potential title sponsorship of all Ironman USA events. I had been to Detroit a number of times to meet the marketing team, had given their marketing manager a personal tour of Ironman Lake Placid (including a trip down Main Street where 80% of the vehicles parked were SUV’s), and race-day helicopter tour of the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. Fraser and I were in Detroit to finalize the deal when we received a call from Ben Fertic informing us he had taken over as President of WTC from Lew Friedland, and we were not to sign any contract without his involvement.
Over the next few weeks Fertic became involved in the discussions, and persuaded Ford to include WTC in the deal, including title sponsorship of the Ironman World Championship. The big day arrived, and Fraser, Fertic and I travelled to Detroit to sign the deal with Ford in late 2004. Ironman was finally in the big leagues, with a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with a huge global company. This was the dream Fraser and I talked about for years. But dreams don’t always come true. Shortly after the deal was signed with Ford, I was ‘let go’ from Ironman North America.
Fortunately, the CEO Ironman Challenge program continued to capture the imagination of CEOs and the media worldwide. I was inundated with calls from reporters wanting to know more about these crazy people who were able to combine running a company with travel, family, social commitments, and training up to twenty hours a week for an Ironman. In fact the program was going so well that I had contemplated expanding it beyond just Lake Placid, but decided that I didn’t want to take on the extra responsibility alongside my job of finding new sponsors for Ironman North America.
But as they say, when one door closes, often another door opens. Shortly after I left Ironman North America, I launched CEO Challenge LLC in May 2005 with the plan to take the CEO Challenge concept to many other sports worldwide. I negotiated a few more “Kona” slots from WTC, and expanded the CEO Challenge to Ironman races around the world, including Austria, France, Korea, and the Singapore Half Ironman. The ‘best of the best’ from each of these races met in Hawaii for the Ford Ironman World Championship each year, and to race for the title of World’s Fittest CEO®. I was also able to expand the concept to other sports including golf at The Masters, driving at the Rolex Grand Am Series event, fly fishing, tennis, and running at the Chicago Marathon. However, the CEO Ironman Challenge was what the company was known for and responsible for the bulk of revenue and profits for the company.
The original contract for Hawaii Ironman slots with WTC expired after five years in 2007 but I was able to obtain a year extension for 2007, and one additional year for 2008. However, I noticed that WTC seemed to be paying more attention than usual to the program. The reason why became obvious when I met with Ben Fertic at Ironman France in June, 2008. Fertic told me that my contract with WTC would not be renewed due to ‘not enough room for your CEOs on the pier in Hawaii’.
However, even without ‘Kona’ slots, the CEO Challenge program at Ironman Arizona was a huge success, with almost twenty CEOs taking part, and a photographer and reporter onsite for a front page story for Fortune Small Business magazine. I figured that the business would be okay since CEOs still signed up for Ironman Arizona despite no Hawaii Ironman slots. And this may have been true, except for two outside forces. One, as we all know, businesses suffered terribly during the market crash and bailouts of Wall Street firms. And, due to comments about companies frivolously wasting money, CEOs ‘went into hiding’, and did not want to be acknowledged or recognized doing anything other than working. Secondly, WTC launched their own version of the CEO Challenge calling it the XC Challenge, or Executive Challenge. The program was identical to the CEO Challenge, except it focused on all executives, not just those in the C-Level suite.
Needless to say, 2009 and 2010 were tough years for CEO Challenges, but due to a long-term title sponsorship deal with Chartis Insurance the company survived the tough economic times. CEO Challenges still hosts one Ironman event each year at Ironman Canada, which is still owned by Graham Fraser who sold his USA Ironman races to WTC in 2009.