After a year of upheaval and transition within the front office, the Blackhawks will enter 2021 with a formalized leadership structure after all.
The team announced Wednesday that its presidency has been split into two positions.
Jaime Faulkner has been hired as the Hawks’ new president of business operations and officially will begin Jan. 4.
General manager Stan Bowman becomes the Hawks’ president of hockey operations, giving him full power over that branch while maintaining his GM duties.
And Danny Wirtz — chairman Rocky Wirtz’s son — becomes the Hawks’ CEO, ending his tenure as the team’s interim president following John McDonough’s abrupt April firing.
Faulkner and Danny Wirtz explained at length the new structure and their goals for the Hawks moving forward in an exclusive interview this week with the Chicago Sun-Times.
The presidency-splitting process began this fall after Wirtz determined the level of long-term involvement with which he’d be comfortable then quickly realized that the vast list of remaining responsibilities would be overwhelming for one person.
“On the hockey side, we have the process we’re undergoing to rebuild and refortify our [team],” Wirtz said. “And then on the business side, we have these high aspirations to reimagine the potential of hockey. It was almost an impossible task to find a unicorn that had the domain expertise to figure both those things at the same time.”
At that point, the Hawks began a lengthy and exhaustive search — utilizing a third-party firm for assistance — for their next business leader.
“We cast a pretty wide net, and a net that included a lot of nontraditional sports candidates, to see how other businesses and industries are looking at the future of entertainment, content, data and analytics,” Wirtz said.
They eventually discovered that the perfect candidate was working in their backyard.
In 2013, Faulkner founded E15, which became the analytics arm of the Chicago-based hospitality company Levy Restaurants — a subsidiary of England’s Compass Group, the global leader in contract food service.
Through her connection with Levy — which coordinates food and beverage sales at 16 NBA arenas, 10 NHL arenas, eight NFL stadiums and seven MLB ballparks — Faulkner worked tightly with countless professional sports franchises.
“Having a perspective across the country in different geographic markets, across the leagues, across entertainment venues, not just within sports but live entertainment, bringing all of that is going to help us create the best experience we can for our fans,” she said.
Coincidentally, one of the venues in which Faulkner and E15 spent the most time was the United Center. For example, E15 was behind the Chicago’s Plate and Chicago Pours campaigns, which have brought more local flair to the UC’s food and beverage options since 2015.
Faulkner and E15 also operated at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, and Faulkner’s husband, Colin, serves as the Cubs’ vice president of marketing and sales. It’s with the Bulls, however, that Faulkner anticipates the Hawks increasing collaboration.
“[I’ve learned] a lot about how to program the fan experience in a dual-tenant building,” she said. “What we do for the Blackhawks needs to also work for its partner at the United Center. Learning how to build an experience that meets the needs of all fan bases is important.”
As far as her duties regarding the UC fan experience, Faulkner expects the transition to be relatively seamless. Another story coming soon will further detail her plans for that.
But Wirtz sees a far more diverse array of abilities in Faulkner than her previous job displayed.
“She also brings a tremendous set of leadership credentials as a real servant leader to the organization,” he said. “To really care and create that culture we need to be successful is just as important as any business strategy.”
In her new presidency role, Faulkner — a 2016 member of Sports Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list — will oversee the Hawks’ fan-base growth, ticketing, sales, marketing, corporate partnerships and brand management.
She’ll also be tasked with rejuvenating the Hawks’ revenue generation, which has slowed to a trickle this year due to COVID-19.
The Baylor alumna will rely on her fervent belief in analytics-based planning to conquer those duties.
“We have to ground everything in data, insights and research,” Faulkner said. “If we don’t understand what our current fans want, if we can’t predict what their needs will be even before they know it, we’re not going to be able to push the experience forward.
“We need to know about our corporate partners and what they care about. We need to understand what our communities need.”
Following Wednesday’s shuffle, executive vice president Jay Blunk now will report to Faulkner, while hockey operations VP Al MacIsaac will report to Bowman.
For Bowman, the team’s GM since 2009, this title promotion represents a massive vote of confidence from Hawks ownership in spite of his widespread unpopularity among fans.
“It’s really important that Stan sees through the plan he’s set in motion,” Wirtz said. “He has that complete line of sight to all aspects of hockey operations, which of course is putting the team on the ice but [also] the development, the coaching, the training, the administration and salary cap. ... I wanted to make sure he could run that piece with our full support and empowerment.”
“This is a special day for the Blackhawks organization and shows the bright future ahead for the team,” Bowman said in a team statement. “I would like to thank Rocky and Danny Wirtz for their continued support and the opportunity to serve in this new role.”
Danny Wirtz remains connected to the franchise as CEO but will take a few steps back from his intense 2020 involvement. He remains vice chairman of Breakthru Beverage, his family’s primary business empire.
“The last seven months or so, I probably dug more into the weeds than I’m good at or is right for me, but I was able to learn so much,” Wirtz said. “I probably will [remain involved], now that I’ve been hands-on and helping to build this … but I’ll be able to still attend to my other responsibilities across our businesses, as well.”